RealClimate logo


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. 101

    Steve had twice as much energy as any normal person. And he was ready to engage with any issue, from climate catastrophic to a trivial detail of one’s personal life.

    Steve and I co-taught Climate Change Policy five times at Stanford and co-edited two books together, including CLIMATE CHANGE SCIENCE AND POLICY, which came out earlier this year (and whose progress up the Amazon charts Steve followed avidly). What many people wouldn’t know about Steve was the priority he gave to students and their learning. For example, he fully supported our recruitment of ten former students as authors or co-authors of the new book’s 49 chapters.
    If a student asked him for a letter of support, Steve would drop everything to do it.

    What an amazing and irreplaceable man he was!

  2. 102
    Stu Weiss says:

    I first met Steve when he was fly-fishing in Colorado, and I was an undergraduate butterfly chaser in 1980. I knew him when he came to Stanford in the 1990s, and he was always gracious and engaged when you came to him with an interest in climate change.

    He taught (by example) the art of the soundbite and appropriate metaphor, and was a role model for desperately needed scientific advocacy (along with Paul Ehrlich). I followed him into “Mediarology” as I evolved into a grassroots rabble-rouser/scientist working to conserve biodiversity in a rapidly changing world.

    So, Steve (and Terry) – this soundbite’s for you!

  3. 103
    Marc Hudson says:

    Have just been re-reading Samuel Johnson’s essay “What Have Ye Done?”
    Every man is obliged by the Supreme Master of the universe to improve all the opportunities of good which are afforded him, and to keep in continual activity such abilities as are bestowed upon him. But he has no reason to repine, though his abilities are small and his opportunities few. He that has improved the virtue, or advanced the happiness of one fellow-creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.

    Every man is obliged by the Supreme Master of the universe to improve all the opportunities of good which are afforded him, and to keep in continual activity such abilities as are bestowed upon him. But he has no reason to repine, though his abilities are small and his opportunities few. He that has improved the virtue, or advanced the happiness of one fellow-creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.
    I have not updated the sexist language from 1759.

    “Every man is obliged by the Supreme Master of the universe to improve all the opportunities of good which are afforded him, and to keep in continual activity such abilities as are bestowed upon him. But he has no reason to repine, though his abilities are small and his opportunities few. He that has improved the virtue, or advanced the happiness of one fellow-creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.”

    Applause due to Prof Schneider. Extremely long prolonged standing ovation, I’d say.

  4. 104
    Annamaria Talas says:

    Good-bye, Steve. We can no more turn to you in search for answers, we need to find the answers ourselves armed with the knowledge you gave us. I’ll keep working hard translating complex science for mass audience just as you wanted me to do and be worthy of your special comments. My deepest sympathy for all your loved ones, Terry, your son and daughter, grandchild, colleagues, friends and students.

    in tears,
    Annamaria

  5. 105
    Mike Kaplan says:

    The coevolution of climate and life was the first paleoclimate-climate book I ever read, when I was still an undergraduate at SUNY Buffalo around 1990. It would be a slight stretch or exaggeration to say it was turning point, changed my life, and so on..but it must have had some influence..I am now a paleoclimatologist and Research Scientist.

  6. 106
    Bill Ruddiman says:

    A few personal memories of Steve Schneider.

    Some time in the late 1970′s or early 1980′s, Steve spent a semester at Lamont. When his faculty host became unavailable, my wife Ginger and I volunteered to take that role. I remember having several delightful dinners at various funky places that the Schneiders and Ruddimans all enjoyed, because they were so off-beat (some laughably so).

    In those days, Steve was an irresistible primal force of nature. Young, very handsome, with a full head of curly black hair, and verbal at a level beyond anyone I had ever met. Being a much more low-key paleo guy, I remember coming to those dinner meals wanting to be ‘on my game’ around Steve. The best analogy I can think of is someone from the rural countryside getting ready to drive into Manhattan and handle the traffic.

    Early in that stay, Steve abruptly decided to put together a semester seminar on climate modeling. At that point, I was trying to nudge Lamont paleo grad students to become aware of the potential usefulness of climate modeling in their thesis work, and I was delighted. I recall students like Alan Mix, Doug Martinson, and others telling me how much they learned in that class.

    Sometime in that same general interval, probably the early-middle 80′s, I remember visiting the Schneider family at their house in Boulder on (I think) Maple Street, which had a median strip planted with maple trees. I remember thinking this was probably a ploy to attract immigrants from the east coast and make them feel at home. I remember wine-lubricated discussions about global warming, and I recall accusing Steve of being overly alarmist and evangelical about the threats it posed. At the time, I was sure I was right, but now I am just as glad those discussions were not taped. Time and the facts have come to justify his concerns, and his leadership on this issue has been down-the-middle solid.

  7. 107
    Miri Koral says:

    I only just learned of Stephen’s passing because I was traveling, and it saddens me greatly. I had the privilege of working with Stephen at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in NY the early 70′s when I was a student at Barnard. That was when he and Jim Hansen were first developing their theories and doing the pioneer modeling at GISS related to man’s impact on climate. In those early days it wasn’t yet clear which way we were heading: cooling due to the affect of aerosols or warming due to CO2. But it wasn’t very long before warming took center stage and Stephen wrote his seminal courageous and popular book on the subject. He was a wonderful mentor and friend to me as a student (and grad student at Columbia) when my studies were in the then-nascent field of environmental planning. Though I last saw him briefly at a major conference in L.A. at least 20 years ago, just knowing of his continued championing of awareness and need for change vis a vis global warming gave me a sense of hope. His untimely passing is indeed a great loss for all of us, and of course especially his family.


Switch to our mobile site