When the climate change fight got ugly

  • Steve Schneider talks about climate and energy with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1977, early on in his efforts to bring human-caused climate change to the public's notice.

    Steve Schneider talks about climate and energy with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in 1977, early on in his efforts to bring human-caused climate change to the public’s notice.

    This is part two of this profile. Read part one here.

“How many of you think the world is cooling?” That’s what Steve Schneider asked the studio audience of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in September 1977. And when the majority put their hands up, he explained that the recent cooling trend had only been short-term. Though the unscripted poll meant Steve wasn’t invited back to the programme, through the summer of that year he had brought climate science to US national TV. The appearances typified Steve’s efforts to bring climate change to the world’s notice – efforts that would later draw attention of a less desirable sort.

Building on his earlier high profile research, Steve had just published ‘The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival’, predicting ‘demonstrable climate change’ by the end of the century. Whether human pollution would cause warming or cooling, he argued governments should copy the biblical story where Joseph told Pharoah to prepare for lean years ahead. In a decade already torn by rocketing food and oil prices, the advice resonated with many who wanted to head off any further crises.

Some scientists criticised Steve and those like him for speaking straight to the public. In particular, climate science uncertainties were so great that they feared confusion – like that over whether temperatures were rising or falling – was inevitable. That dispute grew from a basic question about science’s place in society. Should researchers concentrate on questions they can comfortably answer using their existing methods? Or should they tackle questions the world needs answered, even if the results that follow are less definite?

At a meeting to discuss climate and modelling research within the Global Atmospheric Research Programme (GARP) in 1974 near Stockholm, Sweden, Steve pushed for the second approach. Given the food problems the world was struggling with at the time, it seemed obvious that climate change impacts like droughts, floods and extreme temperatures would bring famines. “I stood alone in arguing that we had to consider the implications of what we were researching,” Steve later wrote. While some attacked him angrily, saying they weren’t ready to address these problems, conference organiser Bert Bolin agreed that socially important questions must be answered.

The suggestion was also controversial because it meant blurring the lines between climate science and other subjects, such as agriculture, ecology and even economics. The director at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, where Steve worked, warned that crossing subject boundaries might cost him promotion. But he responded with characteristic wilfulness, founding a journal doing exactly what he was warned not to.

Attacked on all sides

The short-term cooling in the middle of the 20th century contributed to public confusion over what the world's climate was doing, but then warming accelerated at the end of the century. Image credit: UK Met Office.

The short-term cooling in the middle of the 20th century contributed to public confusion over what the world’s climate was doing, but then warming accelerated at the end of the century. Image credit: UK Met Office.

“I was so annoyed that I set up Climatic Change as an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal to show the world it could be done with scientific quality, regardless of their preconceptions,” Steve wrote. That approach let Steve work with scientists like Columbia University’s Wally Broecker, studying past climate to better understand processes included in models, improving them while also proving their effectiveness.

Others were slow to adopt outlooks like Steve’s. At the First World Climate Conference in Geneva, Switzerland in 1979 familiar conflicts flared over whether governments should meet to discuss climate policy. Steve clashed with John Mason, then director of the UK’s Met Office. John and others insisted that any political meeting “was at best premature and at worst irresponsible”, and criticised economists trying to work out the costs of climate change.

In the same year, Steve addressed his first US government hearing on energy policy and climate change. That would have little impact on policy, in part due to the election of Ronald Reagan, who opposed efforts to reign in polluters. Then in 1981 Democrat congressman Al Gore organised a second round of hearings to seek guidance on climate policy. He also asked the US Department of Energy (DOE) whether it was going to cut funding for Dave Keeling’s work tracking CO2 levels at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

At a congressional hearing Steve Schneider attended in 1981 Douglas Pewitt attacked the record of increasing CO2 levels in the air for being too short. I wonder if he'd do the same now? Image source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

At a congressional hearing Steve Schneider attended in 1981 Douglas Pewitt attacked the record of increasing CO2 levels in the air for being too short. I wonder if he’d do the same now? Image source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

This time bringing the battle to the political arena brought ‘ugly’ arguments Steve had not heard before, but are still used today. DOE executive Douglas Pewitt cast doubt on available climate science. He targeted and denounced minor elements of climate research. He called the 23 years of CO2 data then collected skimpy, and derided the graphs they had produced as deceptive ‘chartology’. Then he pointed to previous warnings over aerosol pollution-linked cooling, and ozone damage from supersonic aeroplanes. “I absolutely refuse as an official in a responsible position to engage in the type of alarmism for the American public that I have seen in these areas time and again,” he said.

Though Steve felt that lower-confidence evidence could guide policy decisions with a proper understanding of the risks, he realised he needed a less technical argument to fight back with. So instead he pointed out that whether you were alarmist or considered the CO2 problem urgent wasn’t a scientific question. Instead, it depends on your personal view of risk, the cost of avoiding it, and whether people are responsible for their actions, he argued. “If we have done something, and if we can know who did it, there is the question of equity as to who should be responsible or how we can minimize the damages so that it is not a catastrophe.” But the hearing’s efforts would be futile. Though CO2 tracking found a way to continue, Ronald Reagan proposed a budget that reduced DOE funds by $1 billion, but increased defence research by $3.8 billion.

The war of the acronyms

In 1988, a heat wave and drought decimated crops in the American Midwest, causing $40 billion in damage and 5,000 to 10,000 deaths. This 1993 model reanalysis shows that it arose from a strong high-pressure system stalled over the central United States. Winds circled the high pressure ridge, pushing air south over the Midwest. This pattern essentially cut off moist air that would otherwise have flowed north from the Gulf of Mexico. Steve Schneider pointed out that this was due to an especially strong  La Niña climate pattern rather than global warming, but that it was a taste of what was to come. Image credit: NASA

In 1988, a heat wave and drought decimated crops in the American Midwest, causing $40 billion in damage and 5,000 to 10,000 deaths. This 1993 model reanalysis shows that it arose from a strong high-pressure system stalled over the central United States. Winds circled the high pressure ridge, pushing air south over the Midwest. This pattern essentially cut off moist air that would otherwise have flowed north from the Gulf of Mexico. Steve Schneider pointed out that this was due to an especially strong La Niña climate pattern rather than global warming, but that it was a taste of what was to come. Image credit: NASA

It would take until 1988 for credible proposals of laws to regulate CO2 emissions to appear. A dangerously hot summer that year in the US and Canada triggered a new round of hearings to push this idea, which called on Steve for evidence. But this time he found himself in an unfamiliarly conservative position, pointing out that the most important reason for the intense heat was a giant La Niña climate pattern. “No, ladies and gentlemen, this is not global warming,” he wrote. “However, if you don’t like this, stick around, because this is the kind of event we are going to have increasingly in future.”

And when Bert Bolin told him about his work to organise an international climate change assessment in the same year, Steve again responded surprisingly. “Bert, I think it’s a terrible idea,” he later recalled replying, seeing it as just another excuse for governments to delay action. But Bert pointed out that developing countries didn’t trust the science used in assessments done in developed countries. “What happens if we don’t have an international consensus?” he asked. With a hostile US government nominating its lead authors for what would become the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Steve played little part in its set-up. But Bert had convinced him of its importance, and the IPCC’s later reports would consume much of his time.

Threatened by this growing momentum, oil companies, car makers, banks and others formed the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), which attacked scientists like Steve. The GCC also funded other scientists to put forward arguments like Douglas Pewitt had used in 1981 in the media and in government hearings. Before the campaign, Steve and five other leading climate scientists testified to congress four times more often than less expert witnesses. Afterwards, they were the witnesses only half the time, with non-experts whose politics agreed with the GCC making up the other half. In the face of the doubt they spread, hopes for US climate policy had faded by the early 1990s.

IPCC findings and the withdrawal of its backers would ultimately force the GCC to cease its work. Yet similar tactics are still used today, largely backed by individual billionaires rather than companies. And in the time between, even as the evidence has grown stronger, the debate over climate change has become angrier. Never one to back down from a fight, Steve would throw himself into the fray with characteristic tenacity at the expense of his health – and perhaps even his life.

  • This is the second part of a profile of Steve Schneider. Now read part three.

Further reading:

Over the past year I’ve already written about the following pivotal climate scientists who came before Steve Schneider, or were around at the same time: Svante Arrhenius, Milutin Milanković, Guy Callendar part I, Guy Callendar part II, Hans Suess, Willi Dansgaard, Dave Keeling part I, Dave Keeling part II, Wally Broecker part I, Wally Broecker part II, Bert Bolin part I, Bert Bolin part II, Suki Manabe part I, Suki Manabe part II, Steve Schneider part I

Most of the material for this blog entry came from Steve’s book, ‘Science as a Contact Sport’.

Stephen H. Schneider (1986). Can modeling of the ancient past verify prediction of future climates? An editorial Climatic Change DOI: 10.1007/BF00139749
Aaron M. McCright, Riley E. Dunlap (2003). Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy Social Problems DOI: 10.1525/sp.2003.50.3.348

Spencer Weart’s book, ‘The Discovery of Global Warming’ has been the starting point for this series of blog posts on scientists who played leading roles in climate science.

8 Responses to “When the climate change fight got ugly”

  1. Jim in IA Says:

    Excellent bio of his involvement. Thanks.

  2. How lessons from space put the greenhouse effect on the front page | Simple Climate Says:

    […] Bolin part I, Bert Bolin part II, Suki Manabe part I, Suki Manabe part II, Steve Schneider part I, Steve Schneider part II, Steve Schneider part […]

  3. The witness who collided with government on climate | Simple Climate Says:

    […] Bolin part I, Bert Bolin part II, Suki Manabe part I, Suki Manabe part II, Steve Schneider part I, Steve Schneider part II, Steve Schneider part III, Jim Hansen part […]

  4. The urgent voice who refused to be silenced on climate danger | Simple Climate Says:

    […] Bolin part I, Bert Bolin part II, Suki Manabe part I, Suki Manabe part II, Steve Schneider part I, Steve Schneider part II, Steve Schneider part III, Jim Hansen part I, Jim Hansen part […]


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