Mourning the Huge Loss of a ‘Giant’: Stanford Climatologist Stephen H. Schneider


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Schneider and wife Terry Root at 2008 Rothbury Festival Global Warming ‘Think Tank.’

The planet feels hotter now, and certainly more at risk. The world is smaller for the death of Stanford University climatologist Stephen H. Schneider. And certainly a whole lot less intelligent and decent.

Schneider was one-of-a-kind, “the real thing,” as they say. No one is irreplaceable, it’s true, but there is at this point no telling which scientist (or likely which scientists) it will take to fill the science and communications voids he leaves behind.

The obituaries and eulogies mount as word circulates of the 65-year-old pioneering scientist’s fatal heart attack upon flying into London from a conference in Stockholm. A Google search for “Schneider” and “will be missed” might just tilt servers worldwide. Just as his decades of research, communications, education, and service to the science community and the public tilted the playing field toward better understanding of climate change.

A “giant.” That too is a term that crops up in the tributes to Schneider. Now we have one less giant among us. And one less truly exceptional voice embodying both scientific excellence and extraordinary communication skills.

Climate scientist Ben Santer writes that 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 did for climate science what Carl Sagan did for astronomy.” Of few others might it be thought that Santer here may even have understated.

Among the many things that made Schneider unique in the climate change science community is the level of respect he earned not only from his science colleagues, but also from those in the news media trying most conscientiously to cover the issues in ways consistent with sound science and quality journalism. He was an unrelenting critic of lazy climate journalism, and in so being he endeared himself to those reporters most serious about their work. Despite a decades-long 24/7 work schedule that often had him toiling at home well into the early a.m. hours, Schneider was endlessly generous and giving with his time and his expertise. He knew the media well, well enough to use but not abuse it. Few could compare with him in terms of speaking his mind clearly and crisply. As patient as he was in tutoring and mentoring those wanting to learn more, he could not abide those who willfully set aside sound scientific practices and evidence in deference to political expediency. For the latter, he did not spare his keen wit or sharp tongue.

You always knew where Steve Schneider stood, because he looked you in the eye and told you. And you knew whether he was speaking from personal belief or from sheer emotion or preferences and when he was speaking based on his understanding of established evidence. Again, because he told you.

Schneider participated early, often, and constructively in efforts to improve the dialog among scientists and the news media. His “mediarology” website, part of his Stanford site, is a go-to reference for scientists and reporters alike.

Writing in Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators,* Schneider cautioned colleagues not to shun communications with the public because they would thereby “abdicate the popularization of scientific issues to someone who is probably less knowledgeable or responsible. The bottom line is simply that staying out of the fray is not taking the ‘high ground’ — it is just passing the buck.”

Schneider didn’t pass many such bucks. Always the innovator, he and his wife Terry Root, Stanford biologist, in the summer of 2008 brought a “Global Warming Think Tank” to some 40,000-plus 20-somethings gathered for a huge summertime music festival at Rothbury, Michigan. If they won’t come to you through the mainstream media, Schneider reasoned … go to them where they live.

Schneider was always reaching out, always reaching higher.

“I can easily imagine that Steve is now giving God a hard time about how He set things up,” says climatologist Tom Crowley. “Moreover, he is probably offering suggestions about how things could be improved and then badgering God to speed it up or justify Himself better. He was a good one.”

Good indeed. A good giant, whose legacy of students, post-docs, journalists, scientists, and more will now have to build on the strong foundation he left them.

I’m humbled, but proud, to say that I too now share in that responsibility, for knowing and working with Steve Schneider — in science journalism workshops, in covering climate change, and even in educating youths at Rothbury — was a great learning opportunity in so many ways.

Among some of the many notable tributes to Schneider upon his passing:


* Disclosure: Communicating on Climate Change, published by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting under a grant from the National Science Foundation, was written by the Editor of The Yale Forum.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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8 Responses to Mourning the Huge Loss of a ‘Giant’: Stanford Climatologist Stephen H. Schneider

  1. Jon Gelbard says:

    Thanks for this, Bud — it was a soothing read and I miss Steve already. Like you, I’m “Humbled, but proud, to say that I too now share in that responsibility” to maintain the Herculean efforts that he lead to advance climate change solutions. We’ve got a LOT of work to do, and Steve’s energy will always be a part of my inspiration.

  2. Bob Doppelt says:

    Well said Bud. We lost a giant. Let’s hope his work was not in vain.

  3. Pete Andrews says:

    Bud, what a tragic, terribly premature loss. We have indeed lost a giant both in science and in public policy, and an exceptional colleague and a generous and special friend. Thank you for your articulate words, and I hope the rest of the community can somehow pick up his work and live his dedication and high ideals.

  4. P Gosselin says:

    Real science is never in vain. Either it holds up, or it doesn’t.
    I just wish Schneider had not run when challenged to debate his work.

  5. Bud Ward says:

    P. Gosselin: I suspect few scientists who best knew Schneider and his work can envision him “running when challenged to debate his work.” He of course viewed the scientific peer review process as the ideal forum for such a defense, but Schneider run? Don’t bet on it. One prominent scientist, for example, pointing to lessons-learned from Schneider, says:

    “Never give up; never be dterred by powerful opposition. Be feerless.” And this:

    “Never stop trying to communicate the basic science.” And this:

    “Take time to talk to anyone about the science you do. Even your critics.” And this:

    “It is the facts that are important. It is the scientific evidence that is important — not the eminence of your position.”

    And more. And those are the lessons-learned many contemporary scientists point to in honoring what Schneider taught them. Running isn’t one of them.

  6. P Gosselin says:

    But he did run, and did so rather in a less than admireable way. May 24, 2009, he publicly boasted any skeptical scientist would be “slaughtered in public debate” against him.
    A few days later, Roger Pielke Sr. took him up. Indeed many dissenting scientists happily took up the debate challenge,
    But Schneider never backed off.
    Schneider was more an activist – not so much a scientist. That’s how he will be remembered when the dust settles.
    Science is not about hiding in the ivory tower.

  7. P Gosselin says:

    That should read:
    “But Schneider backed off.”

  8. Leigh Johnson says:

    Bud, thank you for for your lovely tribute and photo. The many stories and articles about Steve’s life have been soothing to read at this sad time.