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A Eulogy to Stephen Schneider

Filed under: — mike @ 19 July 2010

We were greatly saddened to learn that our revered colleague Stephen Schneider passed away this morning.

We are posting a personal account by Ben Santer of Steve’s amazing accomplishments and contributions. Ben’s account provides a glimpse into what made Steve so special, and why he will be so deeply missed:

Today the world lost a great man. Professor Stephen Schneider – a climate scientist at Stanford University – passed away while on travel in the United Kingdom.

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.

But Steve was not only the world’s pre-eminent popularizer of climate science. He also made remarkable contributions to our scientific understanding of the nature and causes of climate change. He performed pioneering research on the effects of aerosol particles on climate. This work eventually led to investigation of how planetary cooling might be caused by the aerosol particles arising from large-scale fires generated by a nuclear war. This clear scientific warning of the possible climatic consequences of nuclear war may have nudged our species onto a different – and hopefully more sustainable – pathway.

Steve was also a pioneer in the development and application of the numerical models we now use to study climate change. He and his collaborators employed both simple and complex computer models in early studies of the role of clouds in climate change, and in research on the climatic effects of massive volcanic eruptions. He was one of the first scientists to address what we now call the “signal detection problem” – the problem of determining where we might expect to see the first clear evidence of a human effect on global climate.

After spending many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Steve moved to Stanford in 1996. At Stanford, Steve and his wife Terry Root led ground-breaking research on the impacts of human-caused climate change on the distribution and abundance of plant and animal species. More recently, Steve kept intellectual company with some of the world’s leading experts on the economics of climate change, and attempted to estimate the cost of stabilizing our planet’s climate. Until his untimely death, he continued to produce cutting-edge scientific research on such diverse topics as abrupt climate change, policy options for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and whether we can usefully identify levels of planetary temperature increase beyond which we risk “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system.

Steve Schneider helped the world understand that the burning of fossil fuels had altered the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere, and that this change in atmospheric composition had led to a discernible human influence on our planet’s climate. He worked tirelessly to bring this message to the attention of fellow scientists, policymakers, and the general public. His voice was clear and consistent, despite serious illness, and despite encountering vocal opposition by powerful forces – individuals who seek to make policy on the basis of wishful thinking and disinformation rather than sound science.

Steve Schneider epitomized scientific courage. He was fearless. 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. 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. We would not be on the verge of a global treaty to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases.

It was a rare privilege to call Steve Schneider my colleague and friend. It was a privilege to listen to Steve jamming on his beloved 12-string guitar; to sing Bob Dylan songs with him. It was a privilege to share laughter, and good food, and a good glass of red wine. It was a privilege to hear his love of science, and his deep passion for it.

We honor the memory of Steve Schneider by continuing to fight for the things he fought for – by continuing to seek clear understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change. We honor Steve by recognizing that communication is a vital part of our job. We honor Steve by taking the time to explain our research findings in plain English. By telling others what we do, why we do it, and why they should care about it. We honor Steve by raising our voices, and by speaking out when powerful “forces of unreason” seek to misrepresent our science. We honor Steve Schneider by caring about the strange and beautiful planet on which we live, by protecting its climate, and by ensuring that our policymakers do not fall asleep at the wheel.

Ben Santer


107 Responses to “A Eulogy to Stephen Schneider”

  1. 1
    Toby says:

    Coincidentally, I am just reading “Science as a Contact Sport” and had greatly warmed to the author.

    He is a great loss, not just to science, but to the world.

  2. 2
    Kate says:

    Oh my goodness – I can’t believe Stephen Schneider is gone! Ever since I first saw interviews with him and read his books, I considered him one of my very favourite scientists, and a great role model. He would always reply to my emails and answer my questions, and was such a support. I second all that Ben Santer wrote (although I never heard him play guitar!) RIP.

    Kate
    http://climatesight.org

  3. 3
    Stephen Berg says:

    I am saddened to hear about this! Schneider was an amazing man who could cut through all the politicized debate and present the science in a comprehensible yet detailed manner and was one of the first climate scientists whose writings I had read.

    My thoughts and sympathies to the family of this giant. He will be greatly missed.

  4. 4
    John McCormick says:

    To say that Dr. Schneider was a great and gentle man does not convey his importance to his colleagues and all who trusted and tried to follow his passionate call to abate climate change.

    My prayers to his family and close friends.

  5. 5
    dhogaza says:

    This news just flat-out sucks … how sad.

  6. 6
    Dr John Abraham says:

    Steve,

    May your courage be a standard for us all.

    John

  7. 7

    A completely straight shooter. I knew him for a quarter century and it’s hard to imagine the ongoing fight without him in it. Damn, a real loss.

  8. 8
    cindy says:

    He worked so hard and cared so much. Not least this great piece in the Huffington Post at the beginning of Copenhagen.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-h-schneider/hammering-out-a-deal-for_b_386117.html

  9. 9
    ghost says:

    A great man and a great loss. Condolences to Dr. Schneider’s family and friends.

  10. 10

    This is sad and unexpected news.

    I first encountered Stephen Schneider back when I was a student, and he gave a talk based on his new book The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival. That was my first exposure to the proposition that climate could change, and become problematic for civilization.

    Last time I saw him he was giving another talk, at a public meeting in Greenland. There he did a fine job presenting what science now understands about climate change, speaking to a Greenlandic audience well aware of its local manifestations.

    Both talks, and many others in between, were carried by the ability Ben Santer notes to communicate complex scientific ideas to new audiences, in fresh but carefully supported ways. His energies will certainly be missed.

  11. 11
    Bud Ward says:

    A severe and tragic loss to both outstanding climate science and climate journalism, communications, and education. Steve was “the real thing,” a unique and uniquely valuable resource who will be sorely missed. The world is a less interesting, and less interested, place than it was just 24 hours ago. Fond memories. Condolences to Terry and the whole world family that is in his debt.

  12. 12
    Alan Robock says:

    Ben,

    So well said. I cannot say it better. I never realized that Steve was a Dylan fan. As Dylan said in Political World (Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music),

    “We live in a political world
    Icicles hanging down
    Wedding bells ring and angels sing
    Clouds cover up the ground”

    This speaks to me of Steve’s work on nuclear winter. We honor Steve by continuing to work for a nuclear-free world so that we have the luxury of working to solve the global warming problem.

  13. 13
    Bob Doppelt says:

    A great and tragic loss indeed. Lets hope the world steps forward and addresses its energy and climate challenges. It would be Stephen’s greatest legacy.

  14. 14
    Russell Seitz says:

    Just when he was needed most!

  15. 15

    Thanks to Stephen Schneider for all his work. In 1989 it was his book, “Global Warming: Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?” that brought home to me the magnitude of climate change, and thanks largely to his work then it has been at the forefront of my mind since then.

  16. 16
    Roger Jones says:

    Devastating news. A couple of weeks ago he spoke at the NCCARF Adaptation Meeting in the Gold Coast, Australia that over 950 people attended – the largest gathering ever of adaptation researchers, planners and doers on the planet so far – that is his legacy.

    I was so glad to catch up with him then, especially now given this sad news. Now he is gone, the rest of us will just have to step up a bit more …

  17. 17
    Shannon says:

    Thank you, Ben. This is outstanding. The eulogy that Steve deserves…

  18. 18
    Ray Weymann says:

    Ben Santer’s eulogy was moving and inspiring. I hope we are
    all inspired to carry on Steve’s work in whatever way we can

  19. 19
    David says:

    Stephen was an inspiration. This is very sad.

    Keep doing good research, and speak the truth as clearly as possible.

  20. 20
    Andrew says:

    I only knew him when we were much younger, and the courage which marks so much of his recent years was not visible to me. The most optimistic thought I occurs to me know is that perhaps many others will likewise find the wellspring, or grow into the habit, as shown by his example.

  21. 21
    Wil Burns says:

    I write on climate change from the law side, but I benefited so often from being able to drop Steve a line to get help in understanding some scientific concept, or to get a kick in the pants when I was frustrated. The great ones live on through their legacy of contribution to the field and those they inspire; Steve’s flame burns brightly today.

  22. 22

    I’ll repeat once more (haven’t done so for a few hours now) my memory of Steve’s visit to the TIME offices, a couple of years after he’d helped us put together the conference that led to the magazine’s “Planet of the Year” issue in early 1989. We hadn’t published much on climate science since then, and he told us “you write about politics every week–you should be writing about climate every week! It’s really important!”

    At the time, there wasn’t that much for a news magazine to write about, but Steve wasn’t interested in minor details. He was the first scientist to make me aware of the potential impacts of climate change, at a time when the signal had not yet emerged from the noise. I could always count on him to clarify a point I didn’t entirely understand, with clarity, vehemence and a sense of humor.

    My post from today’s Ecocentric blog at TIME.com isn’t even remotely as knowing or thoughtful as Ben Santer’s above, but for what it’s worth:
    http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2010/07/19/a-great-climate-scientist-passes-on/

  23. 23
    Deech56 says:

    My condolences to his friends and family. His recent book, Science as a Contact Sport is a fitting tribute to his life’s work, his advocacy on our behalf and his collaborations. What a fitting tribute by Ben Santer. Many other tributes in the comments on DotEarch, but some dross sprinkled in.

  24. 24
    Deech56 says:

    Kate, your post on Prof. Schneider’s quotation that was twisted throughout the blogosphere was an excellent piece of reporting. Good for you for tracking down that story.

  25. 25
    Amy says:

    Steve, Thank you for the amazing contribution you have made to climate science. I am honored to have crossed paths with you. I will continue to teach your neice and nephew to value our environment and the impact we have. With deepest sympathy to you, Terry and your family.

  26. 26
    DeNihilist says:

    Saddened to hear of his passing. He was a great human, who cared about us all. Much love to his family in these trying times.

  27. 27
    Mark A. York says:

    A great loss at a time when we can ill-afford it. He wasn’t afraid to fight. And today the WSJ with more of the usual. The battle for scientific truth is ongoing.

  28. 28
    Rafael Friedmann says:

    I’m in shock! Steven was such a great communicator and understandably, admired by many of us. My condolences to all of us, and especially of course to his family. Words are too few to honor such a fantastic human being.

  29. 29
    John Mashey says:

    A whole lot of us will miss him….
    A tragedy on all scales from planetary to personal.

  30. 30
    Lou Grinzo says:

    My heart goes out to all of Stephen Schneider’s loved ones in this terrible time.

    And thank you, Ben Santer, for such a fitting tribute.

    As for all those of us in this Contact Sport who aren’t scientists, let me make a suggestion: It’s well past time that we honor all the climate scientists who are doing their best to understand the Earth System and provide policymakers and voters with the information we need to act in our collective best interest. This means we should speak out when disgusting thugs send scientists death threats or “merely” try to bully them into silence, as with the current Monckton/John Abraham dust up.

    I, for one, am sick to death of watching the loud mouths score cheap points with the public based on nothing but a willingness to lie endlessly. It’s time we lay people stood up and said to the scientists, “You do your job, we’ve got your back.”

  31. 31
    Andy Bunn says:

    Steve was a mensch. A loss for science and for his family above all. Rest in peace.

  32. 32
    sciencemama says:

    I recently saw him speak at a nearby University and was inspired by his presentation. I spoke with him briefly afterward, not realizing how important that communication would be to me later. Part of my (relatively new) mission in life is to communicate climate science and the urgency of action to friends/family/coworkers/anyone else who will listen. I am somewhat daunted by the prospect given the battle ahead, but will always think of Dr Schneider when I feel that nobody is listening, and I will keep talking. Thank you Dr. Stephen Schneider.
    My deepest condolences to Dr. Root.

  33. 33

    Steve was a climate science hero.
    We will remember his great courage and passion for the Earth.

  34. 34
    Edward Greisch says:

    I never heard of Professor Schneider until now, but
    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/19/the-passing-of-a-climate-warrior/
    has a link to
    http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Mediarology/MediarologyFrameset.html

    which has the advice that journalists need to hear. I hope his web site stays up for quite a while. Could somebody provide a mirror site to make sure it stays up? I see that some of his papers are downloadable from the Site references page of the above site. What about the rest of his papers?
    The best memorial would be to win the “Climate War” for him.

    RC people: Dotearth said he had cancer as well as a heart attack. If you get cancer, try taking dichloroacetate, which is unpatentable and therefore unavailable here. And take care of your health.

  35. 35
    Bernard J. says:

    A profound loss for all of us, currently living, and those yet to come. Steve was a marvellous abassador for scientific truth at a time when so many ignorant and vested-interest folk are attempting to misrepresent science.

    I hope that more people are isnpired to live by his example. Science, and the planet, will be the better for it.

    Thank you, Stephen, for the legacy that you leave with us.

  36. 36

    We, as climate change educators, have lost an incredible friend and colleague. What a terrible loss.

    Thank you RealClimate.org and Ben Santer for providing such a fitting and beautiful eulogy.

    We are recommending it from the front page of our main website — spreading the word to millions of teachers, students and those working in climate education internationally. ( http://www.climatechangeeducation.org )

  37. 37
    Milind Kandlikar says:

    He was the best of the best. Oh, how sorely he will be missed.

  38. 38
    Joe Witte says:

    We have all lost a good friend and a courageous scientist who was always willing to help explain atmospheric sciences
    in clear and concise ways. His post on “mediaology” shows his insight to the many communication challenges sciences face. Thank you Steve for your inspiration.

  39. 39
    inversesquare says:

    Though I couldn’t agree with much he said, I would fight to the death for the right of his opinion to be heard. Rest in piece. My heart felt sympathies go out to his colleagues, friends and family. Piece.

  40. 40
    Qing Yan says:

    A great loss to the world. A great man, a standard for us to learn. How sad!

  41. 41
    KeenOn350 says:

    I know Steve only from video clips on the Internet, but even so, I personally feel this as a great loss. He certainly fought the great fight, and was not one to mince his words – he had the courage to be direct and forthright about the world we live in and what we are doing to it.
    My condolences to his family, and all those who had the privilge of knowing him personally.

  42. 42
    Darin Toohey says:

    Steven Schneider’s books were my introduction to climate science and the importance of speaking out about one’s own work, and are among my most cherished books. It was shocking to hear to news this morning. I did not know him, but certainly felt like I did from his many public appearances and publications. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy will live on in the works and actions of those he inspired. His positive inpact on this planet cannot be overstated. My heart goes out to his family at this difficult time.

  43. 43
    KeenOn350 says:

    I know Steve only from video clips on the Internet, but I still feel this as a personal loss, and a great loss in the ongoing struggle to awaken humanity.
    He was obviously a man of great brilliance, courage, and integrity.
    My condolences to his family, and to all those who had the privilege of knowing him personally.

    Dave Willis Hudson QC Canada

  44. 44
    Nate Hultman says:

    I was one of the many (countless?) students that Steve inspired over the years. It was always good to know that Steve was in the trenches, making his case, day after day. Ben Santer said it best: “We honor the memory of Steve Schneider by continuing to fight for the things he fought for”.

  45. 45
    ccpo says:

    How ironic that a high school friend was using Dr. Schneider’s “reversal” from global cooling (particulates/aerosols research?) to global warming as proof of, I guess, a lack of scientific integrity and/or scientific uncertainty. Given his record, it’s irony on a massive scale.

    Rest in peace knowing you did your job so well they’re still trying to spin your work faster than Earth spins on its axis. That’s quite a testimony.

    Cheers

  46. 46
    Bill Travis says:

    Steve tutored and inspired many of us on the social science side. My wife met Steve only a few times but this evening recalled the first, in 1979, over lunch in the New York Deli in Boulder, where he was challenging, argumentative, funny, and charming all at once. Sitting next to him at a conference, as I was reminded at Asilomar in March, was like being next to a sportscaster constantly analyzing the state of play; he was a force of nature. Science as a Contact Sport is something of an autobiography which we’re lucky to have (along with Climatic Change), and shows the scope of his role in advancing climate science and policy. A terrible loss.

  47. 47
    ScaredAmoeba says:

    I never knew Dr Schneider, but I too valued him as an inspirational and trustworthy communicator.

    He will be missed.

  48. 48
    John Mason says:

    Great piece, Ben – thanks.

    John

  49. 49
    MR SH says:

    What a sad news. I have once met him. He was a serious scientist with a sense of humor.

  50. 50

    You were a great man and I feel privileged to have met you. You will inspire us to continue the hard work of bringing the truth of climate change to public understanding, and commonplace fact.


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