Stephen Schneider: Climate Communicator

Remembering an esteemed scientist’s contributions to the media over three decades

Stephen Schneider was not an American household name. But within the ranks of science journalists and scientists, this Stanford University climatologist was a celebrity with the rare talent—and passion—for communicating with the public and politicians about the global threat of climate change. He was brash, outspoken, critical, and sometimes seen as a Cassandra over his long career. But as one of the earliest and most persistent scientists concerned about human impact on the earth’s climate, he also worked tirelessly with the media in trying to get the story right—and complained when the story fell off the radar screen.

Steve was in many ways a model for what the modern scientist, working in a controversial field, needs to be: someone who works closely within the inner research circles but who is also willing to speak out about the implications of his science and the need for action. His broad knowledge of climate science and his command of the English language made it easy for him to traverse the “two cultures.”

But his efforts also required sacrifices, and throughout his life he weathered a number of professional and personal storms—including beating the odds in a battle against cancer—before his unexpected death yesterday at age sixty-five from a suspected heart attack.

I first met Steve in the mid-70s at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting. He was a young researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and I was a young science reporter at The Washington Star, the now-defunct afternoon paper in the nation’s capital. He quickly became a fixture at weather and climate press conferences and a magnet for newspaper science writers seeking a quote that might help sell their stories to editors.

In his 1989 book Global Warming, Steve wrote an amusing chapter called “Mediarology” (he also had a Web site by that name) in which he recalled his own introduction to the power of the media and the career risks posed to media-friendly scientists. He was then a twenty-seven-year-old postdoc giving a talk at the 1972 AAAS annual meeting in Baltimore on the myriad human activities that could affect the weather. He ended with a clever twist of a Mark Twain quote: “Nowadays everybody is doing something with the weather, but nobody is talking about it.”

Sitting in the audience was Walter Sullivan, the distinguished dean of science writers, who used Schneider’s quip in a story on weather modification for The New York Times that went out over the wires and received widespread attention.

At the time, scientists were generally of the reluctant sort when it came to reporters: they shied away from any media limelight, complained about being misquoted and often spoke in dense prose that defied explanation. Steve did not have a shy bone in his body. But his peers were not amused. When he returned to his government office in Colorado, a clipping of the Times’s story was posted in the weather map room, with an anonymous note: “BULLSHIT.”

Steve was not deterred. He kept up his professional work and ultimately won the appreciation of fellow scientists, including election to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. But he also became an accomplished popularizer of science himself, writing his first book on the greenhouse effect in 1976, The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival, his 1989 book on global warming, a book on his cancer fight, The Patient from Hell, and, most recently, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate. (Most of these titles can still be found through his Amazon page.)

Early on, he became a go-to source for television as well as the print media. In the midst of a heat wave in July 1980, Steve was asked to appear as the sole news guest on NBC’s long-running Sunday interview show, Meet the Press. It was a novelty for science to be featured on a show that was better known for hosting (or roasting) politicians. I was asked to be one of the panel of journalists questioning Steve, and for reasons of convenience, the show was taped a few days early rather than the customary “live” show.

Unfortunately, the show never aired. That weekend, four Democratic congressmen announced a movement to dump President Carter from the ticket, and the show’s executive producer insisted on bringing them on live instead of showing the “weather” show.

Steve recalled the Meet the Press incident when I asked him to appear on a February, 2009 AAAS media panel in Chicago, “Hot and Hotter: Media Coverage of Climate Change Impacts, Policies and Politics.” At the event, he showed an NBC studio photo from that day nearly thirty years earlier, jovially noting how much hair he had then, but also making the more serious point that politics so often trumps substance (and science) in the media, both then and today.

Over the years, however, Steve kept up his efforts to keep the public eye on both the science and the politics of human threats to the planet from global climate change. He has patiently explained the issue to a new generation of reporters and editors, and even re-explained it to some senior science writers. In a July/August 2008 magazine piece I authored for CJR, “Climate Change: Now What?” he used a familiar analogy to explain the media’s tendency to mix up short-term weather events with long-term climate change: “Weather is what you get; climate is what you expect. Weather is the day-to-day fluctuations; climate is the long-term averages, the patterns and probability of extremes.”

Recently, Steve had been doing double-duty in the battle between climate deniers and climate researchers, and many of his science colleagues came to appreciate his willingness to jump into the public fray where fainter scientists dared not tread. He has made journalists’ jobs easier for nearly four decades, and will be sorely missed by all who had the pleasure of working with him.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.