“When we stumble onto those moments of wonder when we have pushed back the frontier of human knowledge, Steve is smiling. Whenever we find Steve’s courage to stand up to the forces of unreason, Steve is cheering. And whenever we open our office doors and our lives to students, guide them, mentor them, and teach them, Steve will be smiling.” A few notes from the Steve Schneider Memorial Celebration, December 2010, and a few words from Steve to help put things in perspective as we begin a new year.
The Memorial Celebration for climate scientist Stephen Schneider, 1945-2010, held on the campus of Stanford University on December 12, 2010, was a memorable event. Among the more than 20 speakers were Paul Ehrlich, Tim Wirth, John Holdren, Naomi Oreskes, Jon Krosnick, Chris Field, Richard Somerville, Jane Lubchenco, Diana Liverman, Gary Yohe, Bud Ward, Jean-Pascal van Epersele, members of Steve’s family, and others.
Steve’s wife Terry Root, eminent biologist at Stanford and a dear friend, spoke briefly. There were “symposium” presentations and personal remembrances. There was music, video, Steve’s photos, conversation, and wine. It went on for about six hours, with hundreds of people in attendance.
I’m grateful to the organizers of the event and glad to have had the opportunity to be present for it. Perhaps some of the video that was shot from the back of the room will be posted somewhere, sometime. I won’t try to recapitulate it in detail here.
But I do want to take note of something that was said by William Anderegg, one of Steve’s graduate students and co-author with Steve and others of the paper, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2009. Bill is a doctoral student who is researching the causes of forest death in the western United States. I was touched by his remarks, which included this (excerpt):
“Steve was amazingly, incomprehensibly selfless. He gave his time freely to students, colleagues, reporters, and donated years of his life to defending science and contributing to the IPCC. He made sure that he provided his students with the best opportunities that he could, writing articles, giving talks, connecting us with colleagues. He exemplified what it meant to be a mentor. …
“He gave us all something extraordinary. To his students, he gave us a sextant, a compass, and a map to navigate, to chart, and hopefully someday to illuminate the world around. He gave us his love and infectious joy and passion for this planet. …
“Even now, I can see him in my mind’s eye and he is smiling. … When we stumble onto those moments of wonder when we have pushed back the frontier of human knowledge, Steve is smiling. Whenever we reach across disciplines and bridge epistemologies to solve problems, Steve lives on. Whenever we find the right metaphor to communicate the risky experiment humans are conducting with our laboratory Earth, Steve is grinning. Whenever we find Steve’s courage to stand up to the forces of unreason, Steve is cheering. And whenever we open our office doors and our lives to students, guide them, mentor them, and teach them, Steve will be smiling.”
Amen to that.
And I was reminded of a passage in Steve’s memoir Science As a Contact Sport, published in 2009. Steve wrote (pp. 231-232) about how Erik Rasmussen, a communications expert and founder of the Copenhagen Climate Council, had asked him to work with a youth group Erik had established:
“… knowing that the opinions of 20-year-olds matter, as they are the generation inheriting our legacy. I spent considerable time with them … and we went over all the various issues. “So what is our most important message?” one asked. “Is it to limit the climate emergency we face by mentioning specific emissions reduction targets?”
“I replied as best I could:
‘I think it is okay for you to discuss science, impacts, and policy issues, but in truth that is not really your job now—that is the IPCC’s job, among others. You have maximum credibility in telling my generation how you feel about their legacy to your generation. I’d tell them—were I somehow able to be 20 again while knowing what I know now—that you know your elders love you and want to leave you in a better world than they inherited. But the older generations’ traditional model of “what was best for us is best for you” may not apply. You could say to them, “You were brought up to believe that the older generation has an obligation to leave us a legacy of wealth and infrastructure. We don’t altogether reject that, but we are willing to trade off some of that consumptive orientation to get a legacy of clean air, a full complement of the diversity of nature and culture, and not just material wealth on a damaged planet.”
‘… And most important of all, learn how to separate what part of the discussion is over scientific disputes and what part is over worldviews. Armed with that kind of literacy about sustainable development and communications, there really is a good chance you will have had a hand in getting the kind of world you’d rather have from those who can only change course if you tell them what you believe and what you value. Youth can be a powerful force for change through your honesty. … Always know some of us will be there right with you as you go through a life-long apprenticeship in planetary sustainable management.’
“Without these kids, I don’t know how I’d find the energy to stay focused in this 40-year war. Their caring honesty—along with my wife, friends, and family—helped me endure the three weeks in a hospital clean room during my 2002 bone marrow transplant. I learned first-hand the power of youth to focus the older generation to stay on track to achieve a better legacy. We have been making progress in changing people’s minds, but we have a long way to go, and time is not on our side. ……….”
Clear-eyed, straight shooting, from the heart, hopeful without wishful thinking. And, confronted with ignorance, mean-spirited attacks, and misrule by the wealthy and powerful on a daunting scale, always willing until the end to roll up his sleeves and keep putting out his best effort and life-affirming energy—finally beyond the point of endurance. OK, Steve, we’ll try to follow that as best we can, but you were truly one of a kind and one of the irreplaceable ones. We’ll see if we can find new ways to keep getting some smiles out of you.
The Memorial Celebration ended with a singing of what I assume was one of Steve’s favorites, the Crosby, Still, and Nash classic from the 60’s, “Teach Your Children Well” —
“Climate Change Science and Sanity: Steve Schneider’s Extraordinary Contributions to Both” —Text of John Holdren’s talk at the Stephen Schneider Memorial Celebration, December 12, 2010