Thank You, Stephen Schneider

Sad news yesterday. Stephen Schneider, a leading climatologist from Stanford University, passed away at age 65, apparently of a heart attack. He was on an airplane, flying from Sweden to London on his way back from a scientific meeting. I didn’t know Schneider personally, and I never had the opportunity to take a class from him while I was at Stanford. But I did get to hear him speak on a couple of occasions, and I can honestly say the first one of these was a small revelation for me.

The winter of my freshman year, I took “Introduction to Earth Systems”, the eponymous introductory course for my major. Each lecture was by a different professor, covering his or her area of expertise. Schneider gave one of the talks on global warming. I was familiar with the basics of climate change from middle school science class and reading the newspaper. But, because of where I was coming from personally, I was predisposed to view it as cut and dried, right and wrong politics. To see not just the policy, but the science of climate change, in moral terms—one more reason why I was right and They were wrong.

Schneider’s lecture allowed me no such luxury. Andy Revkin was right to call him “caustically honest”—within five seconds of taking the podium, he was informing us of the immense uncertainty as to the extent and consequences of manmade climate change. Not just the uncertainty, but the impossibility of certainty when forecasting the climate system 50 or 100 years in the future. “We can’t know what will happen,” he said, “because it hasn’t happened yet.” I was expecting certain science followed by a call to arms. I did not receive it, at least not in the form I was expecting.

For the next 50 minutes, he took us on a wide-ranging tour of the science and politics of global warming, from black-body radiation to why certain skeptics were willfully ignorant, paid hacks, or both. That caustic honesty was present throughout. It was electric. I was unsettled to be thrown into a topic on a level that was both more technical and less certain than any previous experience. Looking back, though, his perspective worked its way into my head. It’s something like the perspective I tried to convey in this post: that dealing with uncertainty about frighteningly important questions is unnerving, to say the least. But ultimately, gauging that uncertainty while trusting in the facts you do know is profoundly liberating. For his part in leading me to that realization, I am truly indebted to Professor Schneider.

Closing his lecture, as the students were already ruffling their papers and bagging their notebooks, he left us with his three commandments of communicating science, which I have yet to forget. “Know thy audience,” he said. “Know thy self. And know thy stuff.”

You will be missed, Dr. Schneider.

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