Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Farewell to a Friend, Stephen Schneider

Ernest Partridge

September 8, 2010

Last month I revisited Peter Sinclair’s excellent website, “Climate Denial Crock of the Week.”

The piece opened with a video clip of “the late Stephen Schneider...”

“The late. . .!!!” Omigod, say not so!

I immediately turned to Google, which confirmed my worst fears: Stephen Schneider, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and my friend, died on July 19th of a pulmonary embolism while enroute from Stockholm to London. He was 65. (See the Washington Post obituary here).

The tribute of fellow climate scientist, Ben Santer, describes Steve perfectly:

Stephen Schneider did more than any other individual on the planet to help us realize that human actions have led to global-scale changes in Earth’s climate. Steve was instrumental in focusing scientific, political, and public attention on one of the major challenges facing humanity – the problem of human-caused climate change.

Some climate scientists have exceptional talents in pure research. They love to figure out the inner workings of the climate system. Others have strengths in communicating complex scientific issues to non-specialists. It is rare to find scientists who combine these talents.

Steve Schneider was just such a man.

Steve had the rare gift of being able to explain the complexities of climate science in plain English. He could always find the right story, the right metaphor, the right way of distilling difficult ideas and concepts down to their essence. Through his books, his extensive public speaking, and his many interactions with the media, Steve did for climate science what Carl Sagan did for astronomy. (Follow this link for the full eulogy.  The reader responses that follow are also noteworthy.)

I first met Steve Schneider in Boulder, Colorado, some twenty seven years ago. He was at the time the Research Director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. I was at the University of Colorado conducting research in ethical aspects of applied seismology, under a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The early eighties was a time of great geo-political anxiety. Early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire” which he claimed was “the focus of all evil in the world." And in 1983, Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), which most informed scientists agreed was an impossible fantasy.

At the University of Colorado, several scientists and scholars actively responded to these political developments, perceiving them to be grave threats to peace and based upon unfounded dogma and economic interests, and lacking sound scientific foundation. These individuals responded, not as political partisans but as professionals, and based their criticisms of public policies on their areas of scientific expertise. And so we met in informal fora, and wrote articles for both scholarly publications and public media. (For my output see “Notes from the Brink,” at this site). Noteworthy among these critics:

John Birks, an atmospheric chemist who, along with Paul Crutzen (the Netherlands), studied the effects of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer. (Crutzen, along with Mario Molina of MIT, was later awakened the Nobel Prize for this research).

Charles Archambeau, a seismologist, who participated with several Soviet scientists in establishing, to the consternation of the Reagan administration, seismic verification stations in the Soviet Union and in Nevada. (More about this remarkable accomplishment here ).

Kenneth Boulding, the world-renowned economist, who skillfully explored the economic implications of the arms race.

And finally, of course, Steve Schneider who, despite his employment by a government agency, freely and effectively criticized Reagan administration policy positions regarding climate change the atmospheric effects of nuclear warfare.

After my departure from Boulder in 1986, I remained in contact with Steve and followed the course of his career at Stanford University with great interest and admiration. In 1991, I invited him to present the keynote address at a symposium that I organized at California State University, Fullerton.

Steve Schneider was justly renowned as a man who did not suffer fools gladly. In addition, unlike many scientists, he did not hesitate to enter a public arena to express his concerns about the grave implications of his scientific work.. The title of his final book, “Science as a Contact Sport,” suggests both his engagement in public debates over climate change, and his impatience with the way such debates are routinely conducted in the media. For this he paid a price. In a touching tribute, posted at the New York Times blog, “Dot Earth”, Scott Mandia wrote:

The mark of a true pioneer is the number of arrows in his back. Stephen kept taking those arrows and never missed [a] step. When the world finally wakes up to the grim realities of man-made climate change, he will be one of those [about whom] people will say, 'Why didn't we listen to him when we had the chance?"

Last December I sent Steve a note with a link to my essay “A Convenient Delusion”. In his reply, he told me about these “arrows:” “You wouldn’t believe,” he wrote,” how ugly e-mails – some threatening violence – have me worried about governing a democracy in the face of complexity... These guys are scary, ignorant and as angry as they are out of touch with reality to boot.”

Steve was justifiably contemptuous of the corporate media, which he described to me as “a bankrupt mega-institution putting a business model of ratings-driven behavior over the due diligence of checking the relative credibility of various claimants of ‘truth’.”  Yet he fully realized that he would have to deal with that media if he were to get the message out to the public that our world is in great danger of becoming what James Hansen describes as a planet unlike that in which our species evolved and flourished.

Steve steadfastly resisted being drawn into the usual media/legalistic “two sides” debates – what Paul Krugman lampooned as “The Shape of the Earth: Two Views.” Steve took great pains to analyze and then criticize prevailing mass-media practice. His website contains an insightful essay, wittily titled “Mediarology,” which opens with this contrast between journalistic and scientific approaches to controversial issues:

In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is both natural and appropriate for honest journalists to report "both sides" of an issue. Got the Democrat? Better get the Republican!

In science, it's different. There are rarely just two polar opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, oftentimes accompanied by a considerable history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of these many possibilities. A climate scientist faced with a reporter locked into the "get both sides" mind set risks getting his or her views stuffed into one of two boxed storylines: “we’re worried” or “it will all be OK.” And sometimes, these two "boxes" are misrepresentative; a mainstream, well-established consensus may be "balanced" against the opposing views of a few extremists, and to the uninformed, each position seems equally credible. Any scientist wandering into the political arena and naively thinking "balanced" assessment is what all sides seek (or hear) had better learn fast how the advocacy system really functions.

Being stereotyped as the "pro" advocate versus the "con" advocate as far as action on climate change is concerned is not a quick ticket to a healthy scientific reputation as an objective interpreter of the science — particularly for a controversial science like global warming. In actuality, it encourages personal attacks and distortions. (See also Chapter 7, “Mediarology,” in his 1989 book, Global Warming.)

I could go on with my tribute to this remarkable man, and hopefully I will soon do just that. Still on my agenda is a review of his final book, Science as a Contact Sport, which I have postponed pending my completion of James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren, and possibly a couple of additional books concerning climate change, and the denialists.

But for now, I will let Steve have the final words. Addressing two of his students, he writes:

You have maximum credibility in telling my generation how ou feel about their legacy to your generation.   I'd tell them – were I somehow able to be 20 again while knowing what I know now – that you know your elders love you and want to leave you in a better world than they inherited. But the older generations’ traditional model of “what was best for us is what is best for you” may not apply. You could say to them, “You were brought up to believe that the older generation has an obligation to leave us a legacy of wealth and infrastructure. We don’t altogether reject that, but we are willing to trade off some of that consumptive orientation to get a legacy of clean air, a full complement of the diversity of nature and culture, and not just material wealth on a damaged planet.

And most important of all, learn now to separate what part of the discussion is over scientific disputes and what part is over worldviews. Armed with that kind of literacy about sustainable development and communications, there really is a good chance you will have had a hand in getting the kind of world you’d rather have from those who can only change course if you tell them what you believe and what you value. Youth can be a powerful force for change through your honesty ... Always know some of us will be there right with you as you go through a life-long apprenticeship in planetary sustainability management. (Science as a Contact Sport, pp. 231-2).

(This is a work in progress. More to come)

A hour-long lecture at Stanford University by Stephen Schneider.

Stephen Schneider: “An Overview of the Climate Change Problem”

Stephen Schneider’s Publications.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .