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Steve Schneider’s first letter to the editor

Filed under: — gavin @ 25 April 2011

There was a time at NASA when writing a letter to the paper without your director’s permission could get you fired. And no, I’m not talking about the last Bush administration.

It was 1971. Steve Schneider at the time was a postdoc at NASA GISS, working for the then director, Robert Jastrow (later of the George Marshall Institute). He had just co-authored the high profile Rasool and Schneider (1971) paper in Science on the radiative forcing from increasing aerosols and CO2.

His letter, which appears to be his first letter in the New York Times, was printed Sept. 16 1971. It was sent in response to a rather lame op-ed by a Eugene Guccione, editor of a mining magazine [Incidentally, this Guccione is not the Bob Guccione who edited Penthouse (despite a confusion on this point in Steve’s last book)]. Because the publication of the letter came as a surprise to Jastrow, he fired Schneider over the phone while Steve was visiting NCAR in Boulder. He was rapidly reinstated after NASA management let it be known that they appreciated young scientists like Schneider doing public outreach.

This was a period when the role of MIlankovitch (orbital) forcing in causing ice age cycles was starting to be elucidated and some discussion was already occurring on whether a new ice age driven by orbital variations was foreseeable. Scientists had known for a while that CO2 was increasing due to industrial activity – but they didn’t know about the rise in methane or CFCs. They knew too that aerosols had increased and that this would imply a cooling (all else being equal). They were not predicting imminent ice ages though, despite what you might read elsewhere.

Reading the Guccione op-ed (right, click for full size), it is immediately obvious that the rules for writing mendacious anti-science were discovered a long time ago. First, find some metric that you can use to indicate something is getting better – a cherry picked weather report, a pollution index in a specific town – it doesn’t really matter what, and because of the large amount of natural variability and almost infinite choice of metrics, one can always find something.

In 1957, … the average particulate concentration was 120 mg. …. In 1969, the average was 92.

(which cheerfully ignores the fact that aerosol optical depth was increasing (implying a big shift towards smaller particles)). Second, extrapolate your metric wildly to cover all pollution types/regions/impacts (it doesn’t matter if this makes any actual sense). For good measure, set up a strawman argument that is so ridiculous that your readers can instantly see that no-one in their right mind would agree with it (though don’t mention that no-one actually does).

.. environmentalists cling to the notion that sulphur dioxide concentration increases annually. If that were the case, none of us would be here today because our parents, grand-parents and great grand-parents would not have been born.

Oh those foolish so-called “environmentalists”, why would they believe anything so absurd? Be sure to put quotes around the names of your opponents in order to impugn their integrity without actually saying anything. Try to do this at least 3 or 4 times in any piece. Extend your critique to anything else that people might be concerned about, but there is no need to provide any actual evidence of your claims, merely declaring some “theory” to be self-evidently idiotic is sufficient.

Greenhouse Effect Theory: The build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so goes this particular idiocy, will cause a temperature increase throughout the planet…

And finally, conclude that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. It might be worth putting in something about how important reason or science is to dealing with problems. That neither reason nor science played much role in the argument just given will hopefully be missed by the casual reader.

Some people may recognise this style as somewhat cornucopian or even proto-Lomborgian. Schneider clearly recognised it for what it was – “often inaccurate and certainly misleading”. His letter is a good rebuttal that makes some points that are still apropos today. He points out the cherry picked nature of the metrics in Guccione’s op-ed, calls out the strawman arguments, and ends on two points that were exactly right in 1971:

[S]erious scientific studies have indicated that CO2 and dust [aerosols] can affect climate, albeit in opposite directions. We do not yet know the magnitude of these influences well enough to be certain which, if either, of those effects might predominate.

What we do need is an accelerated program of scientific research along with improved international cooperation.

Overall, a reasonable and scientific response.

Now, 40 years later, what has changed? Jastrow’s rather impetuous management style is not something seen very much anymore, and NASA scientists are now free to voice their opinions on science or policy. Similar op-eds to Guccione’s are still appearing – if not at the New York Times, then in Forbes or the WSJ (and similar rebuttals to Schneider’s are being sent too). This is despite the fact that the science has advanced tremendously – what were just “idiotic” predictions in 1971 are now history: temperature increases throughout the planet, polar ice caps melting etc. Efforts from those so-called “environmentalists” got the Clean Air Acts passed, and in the US and Europe, the air is cleaner of sulphur dioxide than it was (but that didn’t really happen until the after the 1990s cap-and-trade legislation).

In 1971, Schneider was correct to say that more research was needed to see which of the effects would predominate, but in 2011, it is very clear that greenhouse gases have, and will continue to do so.

67 Responses to “Steve Schneider’s first letter to the editor”

  1. 51
    Joseph Sobry says:

    Mais ou sont les neiges d”antan???

  2. 52
    flxible says:

    Yes, the typos are bizarre considering the live preview now in place, but the most glaring “typos” are in the thought processes:

    A bit more longterm and socially responsible, as well as historically informed thinking would be of benefit to this ‘blog’ and its readers pseudo-journal editor.

  3. 53
    Joseph Sobry says:

    Or if you prefer, where are the snows of yesteryear ????

  4. 54
    Russell says:

    I am absolutely gobstopped by the amazing Sonja’s post.

    Is it certifiably not a Poe?

  5. 55
    Daniel J. Andrews says:

    Tried to submit comment. Says it has a spam word in it. Tried one fix, but no good. If you find it in your spam filter, please release. Thanks.

    [Response: sorry, but those comments don’t get preserved. Email us the comment at contrib – at – if it happens again. – gavin]

  6. 56

    Ray, #50–

    Thanks for the chuckle. Of course, historically I have made my share of typos too, as a search of the record would confirm. . .

    Captcha seems to agree, with “listof oillypeo.”

  7. 57
    Craig Allen says:

    #45 #47 #48


    The guy I was responding to is pushing the line that solar and wind energy are a waste of time and that we have no choice but to go hard on nuclear. I’m a flip-flopper on nuclear, but he’s using a bunch of climate denier style flimflam to argue his case, which is certainly not helping him convince me. I’ve read this “if we install too much solar then we’ll eventually be doomed by eruptions cutting electricity production” line a few times lately.

    I replied with the following:

    As the facts below demonstrate, even if an utterly catastrophic series of eruptions occurred, solar insolation could not be reduced by much more than 10%. Even if we were completely reliant on solar then we could deal with that by temporarily shutting down the production of steel and aluminium for example.

    Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies suggested that a super eruption would alter wind patterns, but not enough to significantly impact on wind energy production. Think about it – does the wind stop blowing in winter because it is colder?

    * The average amount of solar radiation is 1,366 Watts/m2 (see Wikipedia.

    * The Mount Pinatubo eruption reduced average global insolation by between 3.4 and 7W/m2 which is a 0.3-0.5% reduction.
    Changes in Earth’s Albedo Measured by Satellite (Wielicki et al. 2011)
    Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering (Trenberth & Dai 2007)

    * According to sources cited on the Wikipedia Tambora page, the Tambora eruption reduced northern hemisphere temperatures by 0.5 degC. About the same as Pinatubo. So it presumably had a roughly comparable impact on insolation.

    * The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history was the Laki eruption of 1783-84. Modelling has suggested that it caused a maximum localised decrease in insolation (at high latitudes only) of about 7%.
    Modeling the distribution of the volcanic aerosol cloud from the 1783-1784 Laki eruption (Oman et al. 2006)

    * The global average isolation reduction caused by a nuclear war in which a third of the Worlds arsenal is used would be 100 w/m2 or 7%. This would cause temperatures to drop on average by about 10degC. And by 20-30degC over most of North America and Eurasia. There would be total crop failure. A 7% drop in energy production would be irrelevant in that circumstance.
    Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences (Robock et al. 2007)

  8. 58
    Russell says:

    re 57:
    Gavin, I cna hardlt wait for Sonja to accuse s Hans Schellnhuber of throwing ‘nuclear winter’ under the Airbus.

    It will be interesting to see what his recent work on clouds of comparable optical depth, now including realistic droplet size effects

    does to what’s left of ‘nuclear winter’ Perhaps RC can subtract the new aerosol size effects from the results in Robock 2007, Were Allen to read as much Schneider as Robock, he might c even onsider the irony of his position vis a vis S. B-P’s career of serial self-citation as an editorial norm.

    CF Badash, Rathjens et al.

    “Nuclear Winter” From Gulf War Discounted | Science/AAAS
    by E MARSHALL – 1991 – Cited by 4 – Related articles
    Jan 25, 1991 … 4992 p. 372. DOI: 10.1126/science.251.4992.372. “Nuclear …
    Response: Nuclear Winter Debate
    by E MARSHALL – 1987
    Feb 20, 1987 … 4791 pp. 832d-832. DOI: 10.1126/science.235.4791.832d …

  9. 59
    Russell says:

    First line as sent shouldread

    I can hardly wait for Sonja to accuse Hans Schellnhuber of throwing ‘nuclear winter’ under the Airbus.

  10. 60
    Susan Anderson says:

    No doubt everyone here knows S B-C is editor at the hardly creditable Energy and Environment, dissected elsewhere. But it is altogether peculiar that she would make so many typos which supports Sphaerica’s suggestion:

    Why Russell tried to ruin the joke by fixing what I had assumed were intentional typos eludes me.

    Had a delightful time trawling the YouTubes with early Schneider video – Bill Maher, Wesley Clark (pro-Clinton dates it), Martina Navratilova and Andrew Sullivan caught my eye, and doubtless there are other gems there:

    It *is* sad we seem to be going backwards.

    While Dr. Schmidt’s careful exposition on ABC nightline was excellent, I am a bit tired of hedging. A few decades of weather *is* largely climate, if taken in the aggregate. This is the only thing that will truly get people’s attention, which needs doing.

    Robert Kennedy Jr. “Americans are the best entertained but least informed people on the face of the earth.”

    If you lose a comment sometimes you can retrieve it using “back” (if in popup, right mouse from PC). Suggest you copy it in case in fails again. Common culprit is special-ist which computer IDs as medical product.

  11. 61
    JiminMpls says:

    #31 Gavin – Thank you for publishing Sonja’s letter. It’s nice to see such clear proof of her brainwashing.

    Sonja – We TOOK and continue to take strong actions against sulphur dioxide emissions. Over the past 30 years, SO2 emissions in the USA have been reduced by 40% and by 75%(!) in the EU – all in times of rapid econonic expansion. This was not accomplished through voluntary actions or the “invisible hand of the market”. It was accomplished through aggressive regulation, huge investments in R&D of scrubbing technologies, and an effective cap and trade program.

  12. 62
    Celia Schorr says:

    Re: comments #2 (Bob), #3 (Rich Pauli) and others: I did some research a couple of years ago, and found that the first mentions of warming in North America go way, way, way back. I found a quote from an 1853 issue of Colonial Magazine (Canadian) in George Kimball’s book “Our American Weather”, published in 1955 by McGraw-Hill (p.299). Here’s part of the quote:

    “Since a portion of its forests have been cleared, its swamps drained, its villages and settlements established, the Indians inform us that the frosts have been less severe and frequent – that the snows fall in smaller quantities, and dissolve sooner.”

    That quote prompted more research, and I put together a three minute digital piece last year called “Unheeded Warnings: A Brief Review of a Long Conversation.” My technical skills are very limited – – so it’s a bit rough, but the content is interesting. It features a chronological review of global warming news coverage, beginning in 1939 and ending in 2010. Here’s the address:

    It’s not a comprehensive review, but it includes about 30 or so articles from that period. It’s all U.S. press, mainly NYT, WA. Post, WSJ and LA Times, though I may have included a couple of others. The first mention I found (courtesy Andy Revkin) of the link to CO2 was a 1956 NYT article by Waldemar Kaempffert titled, “SCIENCE IN REVIEW / Warmer Climate on the Earth May Be Due To More Carbon Dioxide in the Air.”

    While doing the research, I found that the earliest coverage focused on the idea that winters were becoming milder – ‘Is your Grandfather right?’ – that sort of thing. And the evolution of the “keywords” was interesting. Through the 1950s, coverage was generally catalogued under “science” or “scientists”; the term “greenhouse effect” came into more common usage in the late 60s and 70s; then “global warming” followed by “climate change.” And the spate of articles in the 1970s on predictions of a coming ice age was interesting, as was coverage about contrails and the potential dangers of SST late in that decade.

    Anyway, check out the video, although as Joe Romm says, ‘you may need a head vise’! It’ll give you sense of how long this so-called debate has been going on.

    – Celia Schorr

  13. 63
    Brian Dodge says:

    “…the Indians inform us that the frosts have been less severe and frequent – that the snows fall in smaller quantities, and dissolve sooner.”

    Ha!! I knew it! It”s a long standing plot between the Indians and eco-hippy scientists to steal back the country!!!

    The more things change, the more willful ignorance stays the same. Nice video.

  14. 64
    frankis says:

    Makes a stark contrast doesn’t it? – the intellectual integrity and calibre of Stephen Schneider writing in 1971, compared with that of S B-C doing whatever it is that she does in 2011.

    A trivial observation is that she projects onto her sworn enemies (scientists) the character failings that she (unconsciously) hates in herself.

  15. 65
    john byatt says:

    Any Australians, please lodge an official complaint re this Breach of code of practice at ABC , Ted Lapkin has distorted Stephan Schneider’s call for honesty into a call for dishonesty,

    Code: others viewpoints must not be misrepresented,

    [Response: Of course, it won’t be the first time people have made false claims about Steve’s views.–eric]

  16. 66
    john byatt says:

    Anyone wishing to swamp, yes i mean swamp the abc with complaints re #65

    can in the first instance do so here, enough is enough


  17. 67
    Jean-Louis says:

    Indeed, it’s been suggested that Voltaire was not criticizing the entire philosophical argument of Leibniz as much as its simplification by such as Pluche.