Reviewed 8/03/2010

Science as a Contact Sport, by Stephen H. Schneider

Inside the Battle To Save Earth's Climate
Stephen H. Schneider
Washington: National Geographic Society, 2009




ISBN-13 978-1-4262-0540-8
ISBN-10 1-4262-0540-6 295pp. HC/BWI $28.00

In addition to numerous scientific papers, Dr. Stephen Henry Schneider has written, co-written or edited twenty books. This 2009 book is his memoir. He wrote two more, published in 2010, and as things turned out those will be his last contributions in print. Dr. Schneider died on July 19th while returning from a conference in Stockholm.1 This review therefore will be longer than most, but not less critical of the book. If there is anything to be learned from the life of this outstanding scientist, it is to be forthright about mistakes — your own and others'.

"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed, and it would assess the seriousness of the situation that allowed governments to lay down guidelines they could follow to halt global warming. Nations thus started the process that would lead to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the first international accord on climate change. Yet these changes meant that many traditional corporate interests were going to lose money if controls on their emissions became law, and they wouldn't back down meekly. They responded by increasing their attacks. In order to win hearts and minds, climate scientists willing to enter the fray would have to join a rough-and-tumble free for all—no rules and no refs in this contact sport."

– Page 109

Befitting its title, a good deal of this book is devoted to Dr. Schneider's war with those he (usually) calls "contrarians." They are those who profess a divergent interpretation of the scientific evidence for climate change. Professional contrarians are a relatively small group, numbering at most several hundred.2 While they don't fully understand the science of climate change, and still less the implications of that change, they are influential because they are glib in debate and prolific in publication.3 The mainstream media's penchant for presenting every dispute as having two credible sides caters to their continuing influence. Dr. Schneider understood their techniques very well and was often able, by means of patient explanations, to bring third parties to a better understanding.

This battle continues, and it complicates an already difficult situation. Imagine the United Nations General Assembly; The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is presently composed of delegates from 194 nations and they must over the space of a few days agree on every word in the summary of each Assessment Report.4 Needless to say, these sessions run right down to the wire and often involve round-the-clock haggling. Dr. Schneider's memoir makes it clear that he was involved in the IPCC throughout its existence, and was often instrumental in removing these roadblocks to the unwieldy process.

Climate change is not primarily an economic problem; it is a human problem, an ethical problem. Dr. Schneider makes this vividly clear in Chapter 8, where he discusses the impending loss of biodiversity — not only coral reefs and the sea life they sustain, not only polar bears and mountain pikas, but many human cultures as well.

Stephen Schneider's great gift was the ability to communicate science to the public and to build consensus among his colleagues and politicians. He was great at research too; among other things, his work helped to clarify the effects of aerosols on warming. But there are plenty of scientists who are skilled at research. If you read this book — and you should — you will understand that gift. It is a rare thing, involving a sense of humor and a sense of justice, a sense for the vagaries of human motivations and how to make people understand the tradeoffs among policy options. His honest counsel will be missed.

"I am very proud of the fact that I operated in the best tradition of science: You draw conclusions based on what you think at the time, making all your assumptions explicit; then you reexamine the assumptions in light of new evidence; you recalculate; and then you publish the results without any shame. That's how science proceeds. A model provides the logical consequences of explicit assumptions. The real science is in how good the assumptions are—and that is where empirical testing and peer debate come in."

– Page 43

Science as a Contact Sport is very readable and has the usual features required in a book of this type: Extensive endnotes and a complete index. If there is one substantive defect in the book, it is that there is no mention of the Bush administration's removal of Robert Watson as head of the IPCC. I cannot believe this is due to any reticence on the part of Dr. Schneider; his courage in such matters is beyond question. He may have felt that criticizing this Bush administration decision would stir up heat rather than shed light; or perhaps he simply felt it had been discussed to death already. Like most scientists, he was by nature dedicated to shedding light on some aspect of the natural world. This his memoir is effective testimony that he succeeded.

1 His age was 65. He obviously remained active right up until the end. I'm not sure what got him, but I do know he had a heart arrythmia and had fought off mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. Of the several newspaper obituaries I've read, the best is from The Washington Post. For a list of others, see: this Knight Science Tracker entry.
2 Most contrarians are Americans. Other English-speaking countries host smaller contingents. European contrarians, a mere handful, include the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, the Russian Yuri Israel, and a few other scientists Dr. Schneider does not name because they are not involved with the IPCC process. He also does not name Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, who spoke at one of the Heartland Institute conferences.
3 Think of the small coterie of creationists on the Texas Board of Education.
4 Four assessment Reports have been completed, at intervals of six or seven years. The fifth is due in 2013. See the IPCC Home Page.
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