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Stephen Schneider, a leading climate expert, dead at 65

Schneider was influential in the public debate over climate change and a lead scientist on the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

L.A. Cicero Stephen Schneider

The New York Times described Stanford biologist Stephen Schneider as a 'climate warrior.'

BY LOUIS BERGERON AND DAN STOBER

Stephen H. Schneider, a Stanford biology professor and a leading researcher in climate change, has died.

Schneider was flying from a science meeting in Sweden, to London today, July 19, when he apparently suffered a heart attack. He was 65.

A climate researcher for decades, he had long been in the midst of political and scientific debates over global warming, tirelessly urging political leaders and the public to take action now to avoid disasters such as rising sea levels in the future. The New York Times called him a "climate warrior."

He was a leader among the scientists whose climate research earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, an honor they shared with former Vice President Al Gore.

"Steve, more than anything, whether you agreed with him or not, forced us to confront this real possibility of climate change," said Jeff Koseff, Schneider's  colleague at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

Schneider was influential in the public debate over climate change and wrote a book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate, about his experiences. He also wrote a book, published in 2006, about his battle with mantle cell lymphoma, Patient from Hell.

He drew a parallel between his climate-change research and his involvement in designing the treatment regime for his cancer. In both cases, he said, there was a need to predict the future with incomplete evidence, and yet there was no room to be wrong.

"He was pretty close to gone," Koseff recalled. "It was pretty amazing how he pulled himself from death's door."

Struggled with health problem

"He had been struggling with a health problem for maybe seven years now and all of his friends were warning him to slow down and he was so dedicated to getting the climate science right and getting the public properly educated on it that he absolutely refused to slow down," said biologist Paul Ehrlich, who shared bird-watching expeditions around the globe with Schneider.

Another Stanford climate researcher, Chris Field, described Schneider as "an inspiration to a whole generation."

L.A. Cicero Schneider, right, was a leader among the scientists whose climate research earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, an honor they shared with former Vice President Al Gore, shown here with his wife, Tipper.

Schneider, right, was a leader among the scientists whose climate research earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, an honor they shared with former Vice President Al Gore, shown here with his wife, Tipper.

"He had a level of commitment to issues he cared about that was greater than, I think, anybody I have ever met."

In his long career, Schneider had been a White House consultant in the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

He and Terry Root, his wife and Stanford collaborator, jointly won the 2003 National Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation.

Schneider was born in New York City. He received his doctorate in mechanical engineering and plasma physics from Columbia University in 1971. In 1975, he founded the journal Climatic Change. In 1992, he won a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship for his ability to bring global climate issues to the public through lectures, teaching, Congressional testimonies and the news media.

He had studied the role of greenhouse gases as a postdoctoral fellow at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in 1972 and was a member of the scientific staff of NCAR from 1973-1996, where he co-founded the Climate Project.

"The Stanford family is profoundly saddened by the loss of Stephen Schneider," said Stanford President John Hennessy. "He was a valued member of our community and a passionate advocate for our planet.  A world-renowned scholar, he focused on the impact of human activities on climate change in his teaching and research, and his contributions extended well beyond our campus.  Through the many ways he sought to increase understanding of the implications of climate research among the general public, policy makers and global leaders, Stephen Schneider worked to make the world a better place for us all."

At Stanford, Schneider was the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, professor of biological sciences, professor (by courtesy) of civil and environmental engineering, and a senior fellow in the Woods Institute for the Environment.

In recent years, he mourned, with his usual high level of verbal energy, the loss of talented science writers from newspapers. In the sound-bite feuds of television, he said, climate researchers were given a scant few seconds to explain complicated issues.  "So what I'm trying to do is get media and the political world to stop framing climate change in either/or terms, when we're really looking at a bell curve of possibilities," he recently told Stanford magazine.

The same effort to sound a climate warning that earned him a MacArthur award and the Nobel Prize also brought hate mail, some of which veered on the edge of death threats. He was disturbed, but not deterred.

'He was fearless'

"He was fearless," said Ben Santer, a climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "The pathway he chose – to be a scientific leader, to be a leader in science communication, and to fully embrace the interdisciplinary nature of the climate change problem – was not an easy pathway."

Schneider had an outgoing personality. "Steve clearly lit up any room he was in and you could always tell that wherever Steve was, there was going to be lively conversation, there was going to be sharp analysis and there was going to be a lot of intensity," said Field.

"He fought a very tough and effective battle defending the scientific consensus about climate change," added Stanford biologist Donald Kennedy.

Former Vice President Gore on Monday described Schneider as "wonderful communicator."

Richard J.T. Klein of 
the Stockholm Environment Institute was with Schneider at a science conference on the Swedish island of Käringön before his flight to London. "While it was clear that Stephen Schneider was not well, he was lively at the meeting, and he visibly enjoyed the wonderful atmosphere on the island," Klein wrote in an email.

Said Pamela Matson, dean of Stanford's School of Earth Sciences: "He is irreplaceable – as a colleague, adviser, friend and scientist.  In his science, he has done more for the world than most of us recognize, and our children will thank him."

Arrangements for a memorial service are pending.

The Woods Institute has established a memorial fund in Schneider's memory.

Schneider is survived by his wife, Terry, who lives on the Stanford campus; a son, Adam, of San Diego; a daughter, Rebecca Cherba, of Eugene, Oregon; a sister, Elizabeth Lindenfeld, of La Jolla; a brother, Peter, of New York City; and a grandson, Nikolai.

Media Contact

Louis Bergeron, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, Louisb3@stanford.edu