Stephen Schneider, Trailblazing Climate-Change Researcher, Dies at 65

Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News Service

Stephen Schneider
August 15, 2010

In Stephen H. Schneider's world, communication was key, and his pioneering message that climate change was a real threat is likely to reverberate for generations to come. Stanford University's renowned climatologist died of a heart attack on July 19 while flying to London from a science meeting in Sweden. He was 65.

Friends and colleagues remembered Mr. Schneider as someone who conveyed his scientific message to all he could reach, whether he was in the classroom, on television, or even at a Cardinals' football game.

"He was the world master at communicating, and an incredibly dedicated advocate for the kind of scientist who's involved in conducting research and also the broader communication about it," said Christopher B. Field, a Stanford climate researcher who worked with Mr. Schneider.

The late climatologist was one of the leading scientists to emerge in the 1970s to show that burning greenhouse gases could have irreversible, damaging effects on the ozone layer and contribute to warming the earth's atmosphere, a scientific concept that is now widely accepted. He wrote several books and hundreds of articles on the effects of global warming, and was a consultant to federal agencies and presidents of every administration dating back to Richard Nixon's.

In 2003, he and his wife, Terry L. Root, a Stanford biologist who lectured with him, won the National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation. Mr. Schneider was a leader and author for the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is dedicated to assessing related research and was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its work.

An 'Inspiration' to Students

Stanford brought Mr. Schneider to its campus in 1992, and later that year, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a "genius grant," for his ability to integrate climate research into classroom teaching and collaborative projects with colleagues.

Mr. Schneider, who had a passion for interdisciplinary programs, helped shape several such programs at Stanford. Among them was the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, of which he was a founding co-director. He wanted to prepare students for the intricacies of science, such as how it relates to policy, economics, and communications. He was also a founding member of the Woods Institute for the Environment, a research center at Stanford.

Many of his lectures covered how to effectively communicate scientific research and how to deal with risk and uncertainty.

"Stephen was always very good about realizing the complexities of problems," said Jeffrey R. Koseff, a colleague at the Woods Institute. "He thought our students and faculty needed to be able to work in a number of realms."

In the classroom, Mr. Schneider was electric and inspiring, former students say. He could talk for hours about a number of topics, and do so authoritatively, all the while holding the attention of his students.

Danny Cullenward, who just completed his Ph.D. qualifying exam in the Emmett program, said Mr. Schneider "planted the seed" in his head about the importance of doing research on the issues surrounding climate change. He took a freshman seminar with Mr. Schneider as an undergraduate, just to get some humanities credits. But the professor's commitment to understanding the complexity of climate change led the student to change direction.

"Being around him was an inspiration," Mr. Cullenward said. "He was so deeply passionate about understanding the truth and defining that as specifically he could. He was happiest when he got people thinking critically."

Despite Mr. Schneider's busy schedule as a global authority on climate research and his countless side projects, he always made time for students, who he believed would someday fill important roles as leading climatologists, policy makers, and economists.

While working on an undergraduate project at Stanford, Sarah Rizk got the idea of leading a course to get students involved in reducing carbon emissions on the campus. After being turned down by several possible faculty sponsors, she landed in Mr. Schneider's office without much hope, knowing the extent of his time commitments. But Mr. Schneider was excited about the project, and he advised Ms. Rizk as she taught the course.

"He was also pushing students out of their comfort zone, making them think of themselves as bigger than they could imagine being," Ms. Rizk said.

Struggles Over Health and Science

In 2001, Mr. Schneider was diagnosed with mantle-cell lymphoma, a rare form of cancer. He used the risk-assessment models he developed in relation to climate change and applied them to his disease, successfully urging his doctors to use treatments they had previously dismissed. He wrote about the struggle in his 2005 book The Patient From Hell.

Mr. Schneider also used his writing in the last decade to try to communicate his science to the masses and, specifically, tried to refute assertions made by the factions most skeptical of climate change. Battling hordes of detractors, and with his cancer in remission, Mr. Schneider remained an active professor, researcher, and consultant until he died.

"He was so distressed that people were making up lies about climate change," said Paul R. Ehrlich, a longtime friend and colleague of Mr. Schneider's. "His friends all told him he was working too hard and killing himself. But if he slowed down, I guess he wouldn't be Steve Schneider."

A Global Legacy

Mr. Schneider leaves a legacy of introducing many people to the concept of climate change, but perhaps more important, his colleagues and students say, how to research that phenomenon and communicate its potential harms in ways that everyone can understand.

"Whether you agreed with him or not, he's at least forced us to take on the climate-change issue and make decisions about how to go forward," Mr. Koseff said.

Mr. Schneider's colleagues say one of the most crucial things he did was to inspire students and train them to carry on the work he started. He did this by taking an interest in students' backgrounds and discovering what fascinated them, then pushing them to pursue their goals further than they thought they could.

Marilyn Cornelius, a former assistant and student of Mr. Schneider's, said he helped her focus her research and guided her first peer-reviewed publication.

"The biggest message to me from his death is that the show must go on, and we must keep up the work we're doing," Ms. Cornelius said. "If all of us keep going, we will continue to make a difference, and that's what he would have wanted."