When Stephen Schneider died on July 19th at the age of 65, the world lost a giant in climate change science. Stephen was one of the first prominent scientists to highlight the importance of human caused climate change. He was one of the early pioneers of computer modeling of the global climate system that helped understand future scenarios. He became the editor of an important journal, Climatic Change, and an influential member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as advisor to a number of U.S. presidents.
For me the loss was more personal …I lost an old friend and inspiration. I first met Stephen at American Association for Advancement of Science meetings in the early 80swhere he was making a name for himself as the great explainer of ‘global warming’ as we all called it at that time. I was then the executive producer of the flagship science program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Stephen was the kind of interviewee you could only dream of. He was passionate, articulate, funny and smart and had a lot to say. He was a producer’s joy, one of those great communicators that spoke to ‘everyman’ …and he talked so fast that we always thought we got double the value in every interview we did with him. And boy did he make sense. The nay sayers of climate change were out in force in those days too, but Stephen cut a swath through them with his logic and clarity.
For those who said, the greenhouse effect is just part of the Earth’s natural cycle, that the climate is always changing, Stephen would say yes that is true, but “it is the rate of change that has us most concerned. The last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago was 5 degrees cooler than now. The temperature increase over those thousands of years melted the mile high ice sheet; forests moved thousands of kilometers in response to the warming; sea level rose 100 meters (328 feet); species went extinct. It took 10,000 years to do it with 5 degrees. Today we are talking about that possible increase within a century.” He was even more persuasive when the climate change critics would throw out their ultimate challenge …we can’t act, they would say then, and still say now, because the science is not all in on climate change, we don’t know enough to act. And Stephen would say, “We already know enough to know that heat trapping gases are increasing and that we’re going to heat the planet. So if you don’t want to act, what you are really doing is taking a coin and writing one face on it that says ‘unprecedented climate change in the middle of the 21st century’ and flipping it, because that is the gamble that we’re facing.” It was Stephen’s ability to communicate powerful messages in the most vivid way that struck a chord with the public.
It is Stephen’s message of ultimate common sense that I have carried with me over these many years and which convinced me to dedicate my life’s work to climate change communications. And Stephen was a major contributor to my efforts. He always graciously made himself available for an interview, and when I co-authored a book on climate change, Stephen spent valuable time commenting and critiquing the manuscript to make it better. I knew him in those heady early years when we all believed that good science and common sense would move the world to action. Sadly, it has not been the case.
I leave you with a quiz that Stephen would give to his audiences over the years to demonstrate in the most simple way why we have to act on climate change even with all the uncertainties. He would ask them, “How many of you own a home? (It's a pretty prosperous crowd, so nearly all hands rise.) How many of you have had a fire in your house serious enough to call the fire department. (There is a sprinkling of hands). It’s always like five percent, maybe. How many of you have fire insurance as part of your home-owners policy. (Nearly all hands rise again). Duh. "We buy fire insurance for a house and health insurance for our bodies," he would say. We must look at climate change the same way. "We need planetary sustainability insurance."