The warrior who gave his life to climate change

Steve Schneider juggled with the dilemma of conveying the urgency of climate change, while conveying how we can be confident about that when the evidence is sometimes uncertain Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News.

Steve Schneider juggled with the dilemma of conveying the urgency of climate change, while conveying how we can be confident about that when the evidence is sometimes uncertain Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News.

  • This is part three of this profile. You can also read part one and two.

“Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” Those are words – seemingly advising his colleagues to lie to shape public opinion – credited to climate scientist Stephen Schneider in a 1989 Discover magazine article. Because of that quote, Steve was told, a number of US congressional hearings chose not to invite him as an expert witness.

With extreme irony, it came from an interview where Steve was expressing frustration after having been misrepresented in the media. He later argued that he was trying to explain how to succeed faced with the “double ethical bind” of being effective and honest in conveying both uncertainty and urgency. Even in the original article he adds, “I hope that means being both” – something often overlooked in scandalised reactions to his words. But perhaps the trouble this caused Steve in fact reflects the strangeness of the idea he dedicated much of his career to getting across. How can scientific projections with an element of uncertainty lead to the conclusion that we must act on climate change urgently?

We’re instinctively uncomfortable with uncertainty, and so Steve wanted clearer ways to get it across in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s second climate change assessment report. At a meeting in 1994 he pushed for their estimates to come as probability distributions showing the odds for each in a range of different values. This could be done, he argued, for everything from damage likely to be caused by global warming to values for numbers central to natural processes, like climate sensitivity.

With no-one backing Steve, ambiguity crept into the report. Did everyone think that saying they had “high confidence” in a statement meant the same thing? After the second report, returning to his recently-appointed post at Stanford University in California, he was determined to hammer out any doubt. Together with the IPCC’s Richard Moss, Steve found 100 examples of inconsistent use of such terms. Armed with that shocking finding they persuaded the IPCC’s working group I, which discusses the physics of climate change, to define clear scales.

The result would be a double strategy, with verbal scales both for the probability of a forecast and for the reliability of the underlying science. For probabilities, low confidence meant a less than 1-in-3 chance, medium between 1-in-3 and 2-in-3 and high 2-in-3 and above. Very high confidence meant a 19-in-20 chance, and very low confidence 1-in-20. There were four grades for the quality of science, ranging from ‘speculative’ to ‘well established’. Reading through thousands of draft pages ensuring consistency in the run-up to the IPCC’s third report, published in 2001, Richard and Steve became known as the ‘uncertainty police’.

Overcoming the ultimate uncertainty

"When assessing climate science, impacts and now policy issues, we are rarely talking about certainties, but rather about risks," Steve Schneider wrote.  "Sociologists Funtowicz and Ravetz have called such problems examples of 'post-normal science'." Image credit: NUSAP.net

“When assessing climate science, impacts and now policy issues, we are rarely talking about certainties, but rather about risks,” Steve Schneider wrote. “Sociologists Funtowicz and Ravetz have called such problems examples of ‘post-normal science’.” Image credit: NUSAP.net

Some scientists felt this process was uncomfortably speculative, echoing past disputes Steve had faced. “Assigning confidence by group discussions, even if informed by the available evidence, was like doing seat-of-your-pants statistics over a beer,” one critic involved in the IPCC process argued. “Would you and your colleagues think you’d do that subjective estimation less credibly than your Minister of the Treasury, or the president of the US Chamber of Commerce?” Steve shot back. And though they weren’t popular or even adopted universally across the IPCC, and though the definitions have changed since, the scales are still helping get its message across.

Having tested his mettle through these two reports, Steve and his IPCC-coauthor wife Terry Root went on to use these risk assessment skills in a much more personal battle. In 2001 he was diagnosed with rare and deadly mantle cell lymphoma, for which there was no well-developed treatment protocol. He turned his knowledge of working with uncertain data to the few studies and stories about the cancer available, devising his own therapeutic regimen. Through harrowing years of fighting with all the tenacity he employed in the name of climate science and more, Steve, Terry and their family beat the illness.

    Nobel Peace Prize 2007, Announcement Press Conference October 12: Al Gore, Tipper Gore and to her left, 4 IPCC Lead Authors from Stanford, Steve Schneider, Tom Heller, Terry Root, & Chris Field. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

Nobel Peace Prize 2007, Announcement Press Conference October 12: Al Gore, Tipper Gore and to her left, 4 IPCC Lead Authors from Stanford, Steve Schneider, Tom Heller, Terry Root, & Chris Field. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

So on the morning of October 12, 2007, both Terry and Steve were at home in California when a reporter rang, asking to interview Terry at ‘the press conference’. “But what press conference?” Terry asked. Shocked that they hadn’t known, the reporter spilled the news – the IPCC had won the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Al Gore. The couple quickly gathered as many other local IPCC authors as they could find and rushed over to the hastily set-up press conference. There they found Al Gore himself, and an army of cameras, most of which disappeared when he handed over to the scientists. Rather than the prize, they were more interested in which presidential candidate he’d back – Barack Obama, as it turned out.

Steve let himself relish the moment a little, partly from a sense of shared achievement, and partly because his brushes with politics were usually more heated. He recalled James Inhofe, Republican senator for Oklahoma, calling him the ‘father of the greatest environmental hoax’. And he also recalled sending his office an email thanking him for the honour, but declining on the grounds of a thousand equally deserving colleagues.

The struggle is not over

But the personal attacks on Steve and others would continue, and escalate. They reached a new level with the release of hacked emails from the University of East Anglia, UK, ahead of the 2009 climate change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. Including messages from Steve, critics used the archive to argue the evidence for global warming was the result of a conspiracy. Steve’s response was characteristically feisty. “I am hopeful that we can dispense with this smokescreen – a diversionary tactic to mask the well-established climate science that has been building via assessments of thousands of climate scientists over three decades – soon and get on with the tough business of fashioning an environmentally sound, cost-effective and equitable set of rules to protect the planetary life support system before it is too late to avoid many irreversible damages.”

Steve Schneider at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, where the world signed up to a non-binding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C from pre-industial temperatures. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

Steve Schneider at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, where the world signed up to a non-binding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C from pre-industial temperatures. Image copyright: Stephen H. Schneider

After the non-binding agreement to keep global warming below 2°C that emerged from Copenhagen, controversy surrounding the emails continued. As Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli filed legal demands for an investigation into Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann, Steve joined with the climate science community in condemnation. “We call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them,” they wrote in a letter published in the journal Science in May 2010. “Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.”

In the wake of his fight against cancer the continuing climate conflict had taken its toll on Steve, however, with his poor health clearly visible to his fellow scientists. Yet he refused to slow down, and just two months after the Science letter died of a heart attack on board a flight home from a meeting in Sweden, aged 65. We may still need firmer action on global warming, but Steve’s determination was essential in getting us to recognise the problem, and start solving it. “The pathway he chose – to be a scientific leader, to be a leader in science communication, and to fully embrace the interdisciplinary nature of the climate change problem – was not an easy pathway,” wrote Ben Santer from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California. “Yet without the courage of leaders like Stephen Schneider, the world would not be on the threshold of agreeing to radically change the way we use energy.”

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, Steve Schneider part II

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

P. H. Gleick, et al. (2010). Climate Change and the Integrity of Science Science DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5979.689

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.

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6 Responses to “The warrior who gave his life to climate change”

  1. Jim in IA Says:

    Very insightful piece. I appreciate reading about some of the twists and turns of the story. It was hard to decipher the news accounts as it happened.

    Thank you for the series. It is a good service you’ve provided.

  2. When the climate change fight got ugly | Simple Climate Says:

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

    […] I’ve already written about the following pivotal climate scientists who came before Jim Hansen, 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, Steve Schneider part II, Steve Schneider part III […]

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