Whole Earth Systems symposium celebrates climatologist Stephen Schneider

Marga Bergman Heinz_ Schneider

Teresa Heinz Kerry, left, chair of the Heinz Family Foundations and wife of former presidential candidate John Kerry, spoke with symposium honoree Stephen Schneider after her speech praising Schneider’s research.

Climatologist Stephen H. Schneider turned 60 on Friday, and to mark the occasion his Stanford colleagues threw a bash befitting one of the world's leading climate experts—a three-day international symposium on climate change and its potential impact on the planet.

More than 250 policymakers, scholars and government leaders participated in the Whole Earth Systems symposium, informally dubbed "SteveFest," Feb. 10-12 at the Schwab Residential Center. Participants came from around the world and represented a wide range of disciplines, including business, science, law and medicine.

"The way we're going to solve the world's problems is by interdisciplinary work, not disciplinary work, and it is actually being shown here at this meeting," said conference organizer Terry Root, a senior fellow at Stanford's Center for Environmental Science and Policy (CESP). "We're also here to celebrate Steve Schneider's career thus far and to celebrate his 60th birthday. He's the most wonderful man in the whole world, because he happens to be my husband!"

Throughout the symposium, speakers and panelists made direct reference to Schneider, who holds several titles at Stanford—professor of biological sciences, courtesy professor of civil and environmental engineering, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies, and co-director of CESP and of the Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Schneider frequently sat in the front row of the audience; he took copious notes while speakers praised and gently teased him.

"Steve is definitely a pioneer, because he was approaching the study of the climate system in a totally new, original way in the 1970s—quantifying the problem," said scientist André Berger of the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. "He's one of probably 10 big names in the climate scientific community, which is worldwide now."

Berger praised Schneider's ability to communicate the complexities of climatology to the public: "Very rapidly at the world scale he's become someone we can rely on, because of his understanding of the problem, but also as a person who likes to provoke, make a point and twist the arms of the policymakers. He's a very strong advocate."

Linda O. Mearns, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., recalled when Schneider was her co-doctoral adviser at the center before he came to Stanford. "As many people know, Stephen speaks very quickly and volubly," she said. "Before our meetings, I would always drink about three cups of coffee so that I could get my own speech up to speed, so that I could interrupt at key moments so we could have a dialogue—and I've been drinking three cups of coffee every time I talk to him ever since."

Teresa Heinz KerryA highlight of the symposium took place at the Faculty Club on Thursday night, when Teresa Heinz Kerry delivered what she called her "first real speech" since her husband, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., lost the presidential election. Harvard scientist John Holdren introduced Heinz Kerry, chair of the Heinz Family Foundations, and extolled her philanthropic support of environmental issues. He also acknowledged her as "one of the few people who can rival Steve as a talker."

In her speech, Heinz Kerry recalled first meeting Schneider at a climate change meeting with Al Gore and other policymakers in Sundance, Utah. "Stephen is an old, dear friend," she said. "You are the teacher I would like to have had."

She told the audience that the media were largely responsible for the perception that her husband ignored the environment during the 2004 campaign and noted that although he discussed energy issues every day and she frequently talked about sustainability, their comments were not reported. According to Heinz Kerry, the media continue to falsely present climate change as a "duel of battling scientists," even though the consensus of the scientific community is that climate change is real and has to be addressed. "We need more scientists like Steve who are willing to speak up about the implications of their science," she concluded. "I believe Americans will respond."

Heinz Kerry spoke less than a week before enactment of the U.N. Kyoto Protocol on climate change, an international agreement designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The protocol, which officially goes into effect today, has been ratified by 141 countries, with the notable exception of the United States, the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter.

Broad themesThe Stanford symposium was organized into several major themes, such as preserving whole Earth systems, economics and policy analysis, and "media-rology"—the role of scientists as communicators and advocates. Because the conference represented a wide spectrum of expertise, speakers and panelists often used broad brushstrokes to make their point. For example, Stanford economist Kenneth J. Arrow offered a concise history of global sustainability predictions, from Adam Smith to the present, then raised the question of whether the modern world is sustainable.

"The basic issue in environmental economics is that much of the environmental goods consumed are not accounted for on the market," said Arrow, a Nobel laureate and senior fellow, by courtesy, at the Stanford Institute for International Studies. "This is conspicuously true of water or airborne pollution and of the greenhouse gases which create global warming, but also of many other services. Of course, properly computed, there is a net gain, not a cost, to the prevention and mitigation of climate change and to the use of ecosystem services to regulate water flows and improve its quality."

Arrow was followed by Professor Paul N. Edwards of the University of Michigan, who traced the history of global weather data networks from the 1800s to the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, where Schneider serves as an author and adviser.

The symposium ended with a "roast" of Schneider at the Arrillaga Alumni Center hosted by his friend and Stanford colleague, Paul Ehrlich—one of several events that, according to Berger, made the symposium unique and well worth the trip from Belgium.

"I never, never saw 200 people attending a birthday and discussing [everything] from fundamental science in the climate system … through ecology, economy and finally social science," Berger said. "This is really exceptional. This is one in the world."

The symposium was sponsored by CESP; the Energy Modeling Forum; the Stanford Institute for the Environment; the New-Land Foundation; the Ju Tang Chu and Wu Ping Chu Foundation; the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance; and anonymous donors.