Stephen Schneider: An extraordinary life

A global outpouring of tributes marks his passing

21 July 2010  •  One of the most influential and colorful atmospheric scientists of modern times passed from the scene unexpectedly on 19 July. Stephen Schneider died of an apparent heart attack while on board a flight from Sweden to London.

Schneider’s death sent shock waves through the UCAR community. Tributes appeared across the Web, and news media around the world noted his passing. “Steve did for climate science what Carl Sagan did for astronomy,” wrote close colleague Benjamin Santer (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), whose eulogy was circulated and quoted widely. The Daily Climate's online obituary includes a set of links to news stories and online remembrances.

two photos of Stephen Schneider
Stephen Schneider (left) at NCAR in 1978 and (right) more recently as a professor at Stanford University. (Right photo courtesy L.A. Cicero, Stanford University News.)

Schneider spent many of his formative research years at NCAR. He arrived as a postdoctoral fellow in 1972, entered academia part time in 1992, and became a professor at Stanford University in 1996. Schneider played a key role in shaping NCAR’s approach to climate research in the 1970s and 1980s, co-founding the Climate Project and later heading the Interdisciplinary Climate Systems Section. He served as an adviser to each U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama.

Stephen Schneider in NCAR map room in 1974
In 1974, Schneider was rising quickly through NCAR's scientific ranks.

In addition to writing or co-writing more than 400 scientific publications and popular articles, as well as founding and editing the journal Climatic Change, Schneider appeared in countless news reports and television and radio interviews. He stressed the need to approach global warming in terms of risks and probabilities, using analogies such as a loaded set of dice to illustrate how greenhouse gases could skew our future climate.

“Steve became one of the world's strongest voices articulating climate change science and its societal consequences,” says Warren Washington, a colleague of Schneider’s during his entire NCAR tenure.

“I was lucky to have Steve as my mentor throughout my career,” says NCAR’s Linda Mearns. “Many will tell you of his important contributions to climate science and policy, and many will also tell you how brilliant and brave he was. But it was his self-confidence and generosity that struck me. He never took exception to any of my tongue-in-cheek witticisms at his expense, but rather enjoyed them.”

Schneider’s globally acknowledged prowess as a science communicator took root during his NCAR years. He made four appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1977 (see video clip, below) and, in 1989, wrote Global Warming, a landmark lay-oriented book on the topic. He later created Mediarology, a website exploring the ways in which climate change is characterized—and often mischaracterized—in the popular press.

From engineering to climate modeling

A confirmed science buff in childhood, Schneider studied mechanical engineering and plasma physics during his undergraduate and graduate days at Columbia University. A seminar by Joseph Smagorinsky, one of the founders of numerical modeling of the atmosphere, helped turn Schneider’s attention toward climate, as did a seminar on planetary atmospheres by NASA’s Ishtiaq Rasool. The original Earth Day in 1970 strengthened his interest in environmental research, and Schneider found himself captivated by the power of modeling.

Stephen Schneider at left, Starley Thompson at right
One of Schneider’s closest NCAR colleagues was Starley Thompson, an early modeler of climate’s effects on ecosystems over long periods. Together they worked on what Schneider dubbed “simple simulation of complex models” (article available as PDF).

“It was absolutely exciting to me that I could sit down at the key punch, type up a box of cards, and hold in my hands the capacity to simulate the Earth, polluted or not,” Schneider said in a 2002 oral history for the AMS/UCAR Tape-Recorded Interview Project.  

Early on, Schneider recognized the vast potential of human-produced greenhouse gases to warm, and aerosols to both cool and warm, global climate. His first book, The Genesis Strategy (1977, cowritten with Lynne Mesirow), stressed the need for society to prepare for such risks. Schneider emphasized the consistent long-term threat posed by enhanced greenhouse warming even as some of his research put the possible effects of sharp cooling events into perspective. In the early 1980s, modeling by Schneider and NCAR colleague Starley Thompson suggested that a global nuclear war would more likely produce “nuclear fall” than “nuclear winter,” with hugely destructive effects and millions of deaths possible but the extinction of humanity unlikely.

Throughout his NCAR career and beyond, Schneider pushed for a broad-based, multi-model approach to studying global climate and its impacts on society, with an emphasis on uncertainties and probabilities. He was heavily involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from its inception in the late 1980s. Schneider was “a titan, a towering intellectual and scholar,” says IPCC chair Rajenda Pachauri. “He never lost his sense of optimism and ebullience . . . The scientific community [will] miss this great leader, and I shall miss a very dear friend.”

Schneider’s death took on added poignancy because of his battle with mantle cell lymphoma over the last decade. He collaborated with physicians on his individualized treatment strategy and then chronicled the effort, drawing analogies to how society should approach climate change, in his book The Patient from Hell, cowritten with Janica Lane. The book’s main purpose, he wrote, was “to use my cancer-treatment experiences to argue for needed reforms in a medical system that I believe is not optimally serving patients—especially those with serious, less-well-studied diseases.”

Eminently quotable, Schneider long served as a lightning rod for climate skeptics. In recent months, he was outspoken as always about the dangers of climate change while calling attention to the increasing risks of being a researcher in the aftermath of the so-called Climategate controversy, including an onslaught of vitriolic e-mail. “I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted,” Schneider told the London Guardian in early July.

In a recent interview with Stanford Magazine, Schneider elaborated on his concerns about how climate science expertise is presented to the public: “What the media needs to do is not to ignore outliers—we should never ignore outliers—[but] to frame where they sit in the spectrum of knowledgeable opinion.” He added, “I really trust this generation of kids to make a difference. I know we can invent our way out of some of the problem. What we have to do is convince the bulk of the public, that amorphous middle.”

Update: 27 July 2011  • The 2011 Stephen H. Schneider Symposium - Climate Change: From Science to Policy will be held at NCAR in Boulder, August 24–27. The gathering will bring together scientists, science communicators, policymakers, students, and friends of Schneider with the aim of making significant progress on some of the issues he cared about. Information, including how to register, is available here.

Update: 3 August 2010  •  A Memorial Fund has been created at Stanford "to honor his great legacy and his commitment to educating the next generation of environmental leaders and stewards," as described on the website of Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, where information about the memorial fund is available.

We will post additional updates here when commemorative events are announced.

Schneider (left) with Johnny Carson (right) in 1977
Video: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In the summer of 1977, Schneider was interviewed four times by Johnny Carson. This clip is from 19 July 1977. (10:58 minutes, QuickTime. Courtesy Carson Entertainment Group.)
Schneider at lecturn in 2010
Video: AMS Symposium. This half-minute clip is drawn from the Warren Washington Symposium at the American Meteorological Society’s 2010 annual meeting, where Schneider presented a talk entitled “Have we improved our confidence in climate sensitivity since 1970?” A complete recording of the talk, with PowerPoint slides and audio, is on the AMS website. (0:31 minutes, QuickTime. Courtesy AMS.)


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