Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A Discernible Human Influence: Schneider and Climate Change

• September 16, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Climate scientists carry forth the memory, spirit, and research of Stephen Schneider, the field’s greatest ambassador.

In his darkest hour, Ben Santer considered walking away from his life’s work. A physicist and atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Santer has spent his career detailing the modeled and observed effects of human-induced climate change. His research led to his appointment as the lead author of a key section of the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report, which concluded, “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”

The statement was one of the first, definitively worded assertions from the scientific community recognizing people’s role in triggering climate change, and it drew outrage from skeptics and deniers. The critics didn’t limit their vengeance to Santer’s scientific findings, and accused him of personally manipulating and deleting sections of the report.

“I was very disheartened by what was happening and the highly personal nature of some of the attacks,” Santer recalls. “After the assessment report was published and the ‘balance of evidence’ statement came out, I seriously considered giving up science.”

Santer stuck it out, in large part due to the words and encouragement of Stephen Schneider, a colleague from Stanford University and a titan in the field of climate science. Schneider spent his career studying human effects on the planet and climate, and the consequences to different courses of action — and inaction. He also helped craft the “balance of evidence” statement — and had weathered his share of denigration and even death threats over the years. He refused to allow Santer to walk away from his research and conclusions.

“Steve was a huge source of support to me,” Santer says. “He told me, ‘Ben, some things are worth fighting for, and this is worth fighting for.'”

Schneider, who died in July 2010, is looked upon as a pioneering mind and voice within the climate science community. Throughout his career, Schneider’s research paralleled the exploration of global warming trends in the 1970s and the increasing sense of urgency to address the risks caused by man-made greenhouse-gas emissions.

From his days as a postdoctoral NASA fellow in the early 1970s, Schneider was responsible for some of the first studies and models of the impacts of greenhouse gases on climate. During two-plus decades at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, Schneider tackled a range of subjects: modeling the climate effects of a nuclear winter, unraveling the feedback relations between environmental parameters, and contemplating the prospects of geo-engineering strategies to offset warming.

Schneider moved to Stanford in 1996, where he was a professor of interdisciplinary environmental studies and a senior fellow at the school’s Woods Institute for the Environment. He contributed to all four IPCC reports-a fifth is being drafted now-and served as the maestro when it came to communicating and framing climate research and policy implications.

A three-day symposium in Schneider’s name took place at the National Center for Atmospheric Research the last week of August. With topics drawn directly from Schneider’s bookshelves, the conference attracted more than 150 friends, colleagues and researchers to remember Schneider’s contributions and to share their own research across a number of disciplines.

Among his legacies, Schneider championed an interdisciplinary research agenda, drawing on the physical and social sciences in studying climate change. A rising tide of interdisciplinary academic and research programs that extend across traditional concentrations is one of his lasting imprints. A forthcoming plan of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, to be announced in September, will recommend expanding the program’s scope along interdisciplinary lines. The development would “warm Steve’s heart,” says Warren Washington, a veteran atmospheric scientist at National Center for Atmospheric Research who first met Schneider in 1972.

“Over the years, he pushed for more interdisciplinary science, and previously, the U.S. Global Change Program was primarily focused on climate change,” Washington says. “What’s happening now is the program is being brought to its original congressional mandate [from 1990]. The driving force is still humankind’s effect on the planet, but there’s a whole host of issues that will be looked at in an integrated way, such as health, agriculture, population, and urbanization.”

Some researchers are also following up on another of Schneider’s enduring interests in discussing the “tails of distribution” — the low-probability, high-consequence outcomes of climate change, such as a megadrought.

“Steve, rightly so, said the policymakers need to know what’s in the tails because it actually makes a big difference to the issue of policy,” says Terry Root, a Stanford biologist and Schneider’s wife.

Schneider believed that despite scientific uncertainty, the research and trends behind climate change — including potentially extreme yet less likely events — needed to be bluntly stated to the public and policymakers, and to be defended against critics who claim that unknown aspects are reasons to delay adaptation or mitigation measures.

A May 2011 report from the National Research Council, “America’s Climate Choices,” carries Schneider’s message. The report’s findings state that uncertainties exist in projecting future greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of climate change impacts, but the council concludes: “Uncertainty is not a reason for inaction, however; it is, in fact, a compelling reason for action, especially given the possibilities of abrupt, unanticipated, and severe impacts.”

Symposium speakers also credited Schneider for pushing his colleagues and former students to recognize that being a climate scientist doesn’t mean abstaining from sharing one’s views as an informed citizen with personal values. Long before most people even knew about global warming, Schneider led the charge, writing books on the subject and even appearing four times on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

“When he started doing this in the 1970s and went on Johnny Carson, he got a hell of a lot of flak. It was seen as a negative,” Root says. “He got a lot of static for what he did, but obviously he persisted, and now it isn’t a negative to talk to reporters. He was the person who really made it safe for scientists to talk to the media and policymakers.”

Scientists, in general, are often assumed to be uncomfortable discussing the policy implications of their results, let alone the riskiest and severest effects. No doubt, one of Schneider’s most lasting impacts is the example he set for colleagues and future climate scientists-being comfortable and resolute in asking the tough questions, and providing the even tougher answers about climate change.

“The big questions Steve posed and helped clarify remain today,” says Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.

Mann has also endured attacks on his reputation and work, which includes the notorious “hockey stick graph” that illustrates the unprecedented spike in global temperatures during the last decade and century compared with the previous millennium. In 2009, he was one of the targets of the so-called Climategate controversy, when hackers nabbed thousands of scientists’ emails and claimed to have found evidence of shady practices by Mann and others.

“During the toughest times, when I was being attacked, I looked to Steve as a leading light, and I went to him for advice,” says Mann, who has been cleared of any misconduct by several review panels, including an inquiry by the National Science Foundation concluded in late August.

Mann is working with colleagues, looking at how major atmospheric events, such as the Asian summer monsoon, will be influenced by projected changes. He’s among several researchers developing the next generation of climate models to refine estimates and reduce uncertainties by incorporating paleoclimate data-records of long-past environmental conditions-into their assessments. And, in the spirit of Schneider’s work and vision, Mann gives lectures, communicating the science to the public.

“One of his most significant contributions to the public discourse,” Mann says of Schneider, “was this notion of the ‘double ethical bind’-the idea that ultimately, it’s possible to be faithful and honest to the science, and to be effective as a communicator. You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Joshua Zaffos
Joshua Zaffos is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer who reports on the environment, science and politics. He has written for High Country News, Grist.org, Fly Fisherman, Orion and 5280.com, among other publications. Zaffos holds a master's degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His work and musings are online at joshuazaffos.com.

More From Joshua Zaffos

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.