Schneider’s Legacy: Speaking Truth to Power

There’s been much hand-wringing of late over the disconnect between science and “Main Street.” When it comes to communicating complex concepts to the general public, even many scientists admit that they haven’t been making the light bulb come on.

(Photo: Stanford University)

That was never an issue for Steve Schneider. He never had any problems communicating. Most colleagues of the Stanford climate scientist, who died this week, remember him not just for his science resume, but also for his laser-like approach to getting the point across.

Ben Santer, a climate modeler at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and a man who’s not given to blurting things out, wrote in an open letter yesterday that “Stephen 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.” Wow. That’s a pretty remarkable statement, given the high profile of some scientists like James Hansen at NASA and yes, non-scientists like Al Gore. Hansen writes in Storms of My Grandchildren that after testifying at a squirmy Senate hearing in 1988:

“I was firmly resolved to go back to pure science and leave media interactions to people such as Steve Schneider…people who were more articulate and seemed to enjoy the process.”

“Steve had the rare gift of being able to explain the complexities of climate science in plain English,” wrote Santer. “He could always find the right story, the right metaphor, the right way of distilling difficult ideas and concepts down to their essence.”

Appearing at a Commonwealth Club event last evening, Climate scientist Joe Romm, best known today for his prolific Climate Progress blog, eulogized Schneider as a great personal inspiration as well as a great communicator. Afterward, Romm told Climate Watch that Schneider “was one of the climate scientists who early on recognized the need to speak to the public and to not pull punches.”

Adjectives like “fearless” and “tireless” tend to recur in remembrances of Schneider, who served as a White House advisor to seven presidents, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. Schneider gave to his final book the title: Science as a Contact Sport, which a Newsweek review said “exposes the bare-knuckles infighting, bruising backroom brawls, and arm-twisting that characterize climate science.”

One of Schneider’s Stanford colleagues, Chris Field, who considered Schneider to be a personal mentor, said he was able to bring clarity to chaos within scientific, as well as policy circles. In an email to me last night, Field recalled a grueling session preparing part of the IPCC’s 2007 climate assessment:

“On the last day, negotiations had been going on for 22 hours, and most of the people in the room were napping, surly, or resigned.  But Steve was animated, strategic, funny, and (as usual) right.  He effectively argued for wording that clearly conveyed the core elements of a complicated issue, single-handedly getting an off-track process back on track.”

One of Romm’s comments stands out as a clue to Schneider’s legacy: “He made clear that messaging is as important as doing the actual science,” said Romm. “He was an inspiration to us who wanted to do messaging and how to do it.”

Santer goes even further:

“We honor the memory of Steve Schneider by continuing to fight for the things he fought for – by continuing to seek clear understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change. We honor Steve by recognizing that communication is a vital part of our job. We honor Steve by taking the time to explain our research findings in plain English. By telling others what we do, why we do it, and why they should care about it.”

Santer’s entire remembrance, including a review of some of Schneider’s core science work, is posted on the RealClimate blog.

And if you have any doubt about Schneider’s credentials as an early harbinger of potential threats from carbon emissions, take two minutes to watch this video from 1979, posted at Climate Science Watch and credited to Peter Sinclair.

Climate Watch intern Chris Penalosa contributed to this post.

Schneider’s Legacy: Speaking Truth to Power 20 July,2010Craig Miller

4 thoughts on “Schneider’s Legacy: Speaking Truth to Power”

    1. This quote is attributed to a 1989 article in Discover magazine. To be fair, the full context of his statement may be lacking here. He may have simply been pointing to the dilemma that all scientists face between precision and concision. When forced to choose, the media will nearly always opt for the latter. Schneider also told that same magazine in 2006: “Science is a self-correcting institution,” Schneider says. “The data change, so of course you change your position. Otherwise, you would be dishonest.” This doesn’t strike me as a remark from someone trying to “sell” a particular point of view.

    2. A basic concept taught in environmental law and science is “existence value” – a concept that is intended to fracture the (pernicious) limits of mere quantitative value. A familiar example: if so very few people will ever see the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, why is it important to protect and preserve it? The answer is that its existence value, to all of us who may never visit ANWR, far exceeds its dollar value or any other quantitative metric.

      Existence value is real.

      I’m struck by the focus of the many comments about Steve’s passing on his keen mind, his clear thought, his focused speech, his unbridled courage, his infinite energy. All true, all appropriate. As a rapt student of his in the early ’90s, I saw all of this, and then some.

      Yet today I feel a larger loss, one that suddenly discloses to me Steve’s larger, nay enormous, existence value. Because Steve was out there, teaching and speaking truth to power on a daily basis, he possessed and delivered existence value to everyone on the planet, not just the few who were lucky enough to know him, or hear him speak.

      Today, we have lost the measurable Steve, but not the immeasurable Steve, not his existence value.

      His thought lives on, and thus his value persists in this world, on this planet. While I mourn, I also must, if I am to be perfectly honest, celebrate, for it is only know that his compleat value to the world will be most fully and broadly known.

  1. re Craig’s “To be fair, the full context of his statement may be lacking here” – Indeed.
    Kate at ClimateSight tracked it down (link)
    (“…With the full quote, it’s easy to see that Dr Schneider was attacking, not supporting, the “sound-bite system”. But an attack editoral from the Detroit News selectively cut out parts…”)

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Craig Miller

Craig is a KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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