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

A précis of Dr. Schneider's career

Born in 1945 on Long Island, NY, Dr. Schneider earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1966 at Columbia University. In 1971, he earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and plasma physics there. He went on to study the role of greenhouse gases and suspended particulate material on climate as a postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, becoming involved almost at once in the controversial politics of the subject. He testified often before Congress and participated in international conferences before the IPCC existed. He was a White House Consultant in administrations from Nixon to Obama.

He moved on to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Later, when the budget of NCAR was cut back and the interdisciplinary studies he pursued were dropped, he transferred to Stanford University. There he remained until his death in 2010.

His output was prodigious: over 400 scientific papers, numerous editorials, magazine articles, and interviews. He also wrote, contributed to or edited twenty books. He steadfastly endeavored to educate the public on climate change. He appeared frequently on television, including several guest appearances on The Tonight Show.

Dr. Schneider understood quickly that the advent of industrial society meant studying climate changes of the past was no safe guide to what is happening today.

"We don't use paleaoclimate—that is, prehistoric situations—to give analogies to the future. This doesn't work well because land use changes, atmospheric CO2, and aerosol forcings will be the main drivers of climatic changes in the near future. Those forcings are all going to be different from anything that's ever occurred in history."

– Page 77

A good deal of his 40-year career was devoted to the war with those he (usually) calls "contrarians". They are people who profess a divergent interpretation of the scientific evidence for climate change — people like his former colleague Richard Lindzen. They met in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the 1972 Scientific Panel on the Natural Stratosphere. This was the situation that developed.

"On day one, Lindzen denounced the enterprise as irresponsible. The report had to be written in two years, and he claimed that the science would not be definitive in that time frame. According to him, whenever scientists are forced under political pressure to provide answers that cannot be given, they are violating their scientific integrity. Although Lindzen had very impressive credentials, I totally disagreed with his scientific philosophy, as did Mike MacGracken and Bob Dickinson.

"MacGracken said, as I recall, "Dick, we are not arguing that we should tell people we know the answer. What we are basically saying is that we have the best information there is and that we should explain what we know, and what the likelihoods are, and how much of this we can fathom. And we should say what research needs to be done." Mike outlined beautifully what a good assessment should do. I thought it was an excellent speech—and in essence presented the same arguments for risk assessment of climate change that I hammer home in my talks today."

– Page 41

Lindzen went on to become one of the most prominent "contrarians," and perhaps the one with the most impressive climate science credentials. Professional contrarians are a relatively small group, numbering at most several hundred. 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. 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.

Books by Stephen Schneider

  1. The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival
    (w/Lynne E. Mesirow) 1976ISBN 0306309041
  2. The Primordial Bond:
    Exploring Connections Between Man and Nature through the Humanities and Sciences (w/Lynne Morton)
    1981ISBN 0306405199
  3. Diabetes & metabolic diseases:
    New directions in therapy (w/Avedis K. Khachadurian)
    1982ISBN 0874886791
  4. The Coevolution of Climate and Life:
    (w/Randi Londer)
    1984ISBN 0871563495
  5. Global Warming:
    Are We Entering the Greenhouse Century?
    1990ISBN 0679730516
  6. Scientists on Gaia:
    (editor, w/Penelope J. Boston)
    1993ISBN 0262193108
  7. Encyclopedia of climate and weather:
    (Editor of 2-volume set)
    1996ISBN 0195094859
  8. Laboratory Earth:
    The Planetary Gamble We Can't Afford to Lose
    1997ISBN 0465072798
  9. Climate change policy:
    A Survey
    edited by Stephen H. Schneider, Armin Rosencranz, John O. Niles 2002ISBN 155963880X
  10. The Patient from Hell:
    how I worked with my doctors to get the best of modern medicine, and how you can too (w/Janica Lane)
    2005ISBN 0738210250
  11. Optimization of novel distributed energy networks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California :
    PIER final project report (Whitney G. Colella, Stephen H. Schneider and Daniel M. Kammen)
    2008ISBN 0738210250
  12. Science as a Contact Sport:
    Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate
    2009ISBN 0-618-99061-5
  13. Preparing for Climate Change:
    (w/Michael D. Mastrandrea; due October 2010) 2010ISBN 9780262014885
  14. Climate Change Science and Policy:
    w/Armin Rosencranz (editor); Michael D. Mastrandrea (editor); Kristin Kuntz-Duriseti (Editor) 2010ISBN 1597265667

Dr. Schneider's gifts of communication were evident early in his career. They first appeared when he replied to an opinion piece by Bob Guccione (of Penthouse magazine fame). Guccione was working for a mining magazine at the time, and his editorial humorously denigrated global warming, suggesting that global cooling might cancel it out so there was nothing to worry about. Dr. Schneider took him to task1 by pointing out how unlikely was an exact cancellation and advising him of the risk of large, rapid changes which would seriously impact agriculture and other systems that had adapted to present environments. (p. 27)

He went on to make several appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, following in the footsteps of Paul Ehrlich and Carl Sagan (and urged by them to do the show.) He did well until he made the mistake of improvising some comments; Carson insisted on his guests sticking to the script, and Dr. Schneider was never called back.

A key finding he made (p. 33) was that, contrary to the conventional wisdom at the time, warming the ocean decreased cloud cover and was thus a positive feedback mechanism. Using computer models, Dr. Schneider found that even warming up a narrow strip of ocean in the model caused reductions in cloud cover some distance away, in the opposite hemisphere, because it strengthened the circulation between Southern and Northern Hemispheres. This phenomenon is called teleconnection in climatology.

Another of his contributions was to pioneer the introduction of statistics — notably Bayesian inference — into climatology (pp. 47-8.) Only thus could credible projections about future conditions be made. This too was controversial. As he describes it (p. 58): "In the early 1970s, arguing for the social implications of science that was still emerging was still viewed as suspect behavior by the bulk of the established community."

And he had an important role in fostering interdisciplinary science, or the collaboration among scientists devoted to narrow specialties like agronomy or volcanology — with a view to making the projected impacts of climatic changes more valid. The illustrious cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was his inspiration in this. Insightful about many arreas of science, forceful and innovative,2 she was then president of the AAAS. She convened a meeting in 1975 at the Fogarty International Center. Its topic was planetary health; its title "The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering." The attendees were an eclectic group of scientists including James Lovelock, inventor of the concept of Gaia. It was a spirited meeting, noteworthy for engendering discussion of the impacts of environmental stress on developing nations already struggling with famine or endemic diseases.

Dr. Schneider played a role in every international climate conference after that, starting in February 1979 with the First World Climate Conference in Geneva. They were all contentious. One example from the Geneva meeting was a paper by Sir John Mason which argued that the atmosphere is resilient and not likely to be changed much by human activities. I suspect he was echoing Lovelock's view in this. But his insouciance angered Schneider, and they had words in the Q&A. Presenting the paper, Mason said the atmosphere, with its resilience, was "wont to make fools" of those who don't understand this. (Perhaps that was its plan all along.) Dr. Schneider marks this as the birth of climate-change Denialism, or "contrarian debate," as he calls it.

Dr. Schneider was also a frequent participant in congressional hearings starting in that year, and became fast friends with Al Gore who was then a Senator from Tennessee. This was the first hearing to factor climate change into the ongoing debate about energy policy. It was chaired by Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Edmund Muskie.

The succeeding decades were not pleasant ones for Schneider. They began with Reagan pulling Carter's paid-for solar cells off the roof of the White House and slashing the budget for the Department of Energy by $1 billion. (Reagan failed in his attempt to dismantle the DOE entirely, which he had brought in Dr. James B. Edwards, a dentist from South Carolina, to do. But Edwards was openly hostile to research on climate change and alternative energy.)

"In every congressional hearing from that one [in 1981] until the one in 2003 run by senator John McCain, contention, denial, and overstatement became the rule, not the exception. We would have to wait until 2007, after the Democrats took over the chairs of the many environment and science committees in Congress, for civility from both sides of the aisle and serious witnesses to become the rule again. But in the decades between, indelible damage was done to our capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Perhaps most serious of all was the development of deep partisanship over environmental policy. Concern for environmental issues, which began as bipartisan actions by such presidents as Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon (the originator of the EPA) was transformed by the Reagan administration to a conservative versus liberal issue."

– Page 95

On the climate front, George H. W. Bush was no better. Persuaded to attend the Rio summit only at the last minute, he felt any requirement to limit greenhouse gases was a threat to national security. At the Summit he declared, "The American way of life is not up for negotiation."3

And then there were the climate-change Denialists:5 The American, Don Pearlman; the Saudi, Mohammed Al-Saban; the Russian, Yuri Israel. (The U.S. has more than its share.) Denmark's science ministry, under a new conservative government, decreed that the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty was wrong to have criticized the dishonesty of Bjorn Lomborg's book. (page 221)

But sometimes environmentalists can cause trouble too. Schneider recounts an incident in 2000 at COP6 in The Hague when green zealots including the WWF objected to REDD — a reasonable plan to protect forests. Their motive, it turned out, was to hold America's feet to the fire: "We simply can't let the U.S. find any excuse not to cut its industrial emissions." (page 240) Even New Zealand caught the conservative bug. Jim Salinger, its version of James Hansen, was muzzled and then fired (ostensibly) for having dinner with some members of parliament. (page 254-5)

Schneider was conscious of the need to cut his own carbon footprint. He spent several years salary, he says, remodeling his house with weatherstripping, double-pane windows, and other energy-saving improvements.

His wife, Dr. Terry L. Root, conducted extensive meta-analysis on the behavior of plants and animals. Studying some 150 papers that reported on 1,000 species around the world, she and her team showed that the sorts of changes expected with global warming had been seen in 80 percent of these species. Behaviors included trees flowering earlier in the spring, birds migrating sooner and laying eggs earlier; butterflies moving towards the poles. Schneider mentions mountain pikas. Over 100 years they have moved from a typical elevation of 7,000 feet to 9,000. The World Wildlife Fund found 7 of 25 pika groups disappeared from the Great Basin area of the American West.

And even as the evidence accumulated — species heading for colder conditions, glacier melting speeding up, heat waves becoming more common — the opposition to policy changes on climate change mounted.

"There had been fights aplenty, especially as the days had sped by with the most contentious statements postponed for further discussion. Over and over again in notes about the meeting, the phrase, "Saudi Arabia, supported by the U.S.," and sometimes, Russia and China or similar groupings appeared—usually in a challenge to any specific conclusion that strengthened the assessment and thus might lead in other forums to a call for policy regarding oil or other fuels. I can't say I was shocked, but I was sometimes disgusted how national interests trump planetary interests and the here-and-now overshadows long-term sustainability."

– Page 193

Dr. Schneider never gave up the fight, and seldom if ever lost his temper in it. That's another lesson to take from his remarkable career.6

1 I don't know if this interaction had any lasting impact on Guccione. But he did go on to publish a magazine called Omni which had significant science content.
2 Recall her famous quotation: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and dedicated people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
3 Mr. Bush, please tell that to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.
4 William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider, Expert Credibility in Climate change, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107
5 Ozone depletion had its deniers too — like Richard Scorer of Britain, who called the theory "a science fiction tale," "a load of rubbish," and "utter nonsense." (Perhaps he should have said "utter bilge.) This worthy was featured in Dupont's ad campaign.
6 Dr. Schneider is survived by his wife; a son, Adam, of San Diego; a daughter, Rebecca Cherba, of Eugene, Oregon; a sister, Elizabeth Lindenfeld, of La Jolla; a brother, Peter, of New York City; and a grandson, Nikolai. For more on his career, see his home page at Stanford.
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