At a high-caliber research university such as Stanford, professors are often valued as much for their scholarship as they are for their teaching talents and personal relationships with students and other faculty. In Stephen H. Schneider, however, the University had a member whose contributions to the University spanned both, combining a shared passion for a cause with highly respected scientific research and influence.
Schneider, a biology professor, Woods Institute senior fellow and one of the world’s leading climatologists, died on Monday at 65 from a heart attack while flying from Stockholm to London.
Over his full and prominent career, Schneider pioneered tirelessly for recognition and swift action to address climate change, pushing research as well as public awareness and leading many other scientists to explore the issue.
Schneider, who came to Stanford in 1992, had an influence that reached far beyond the walls of the Farm. His 40-year career included advising the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, both Bush and Obama administrations, as well as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He also played a pivotal role in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as lead scientist on the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, which shared the prize with Al Gore.
As a researcher, Schneider was well known for his vocal and widespread approach to climate change. Aside from more than 450 scientific articles and more than 200 book reviews, editorials and other works, he was a frequent contributor to popular media such as “Nova” and “The Today Show.”
But however prestigious his involvement outside of the University, Schneider will be best remembered at Stanford as approachable, passionate and knowledgeable, and as an invaluable mentor.
“Professor Steve Schneider was a legend on campus,” wrote William Anderegg, one of his graduate students, in an e-mail to The Daily.
“A brilliant, funny and indefatigable scientist, Steve was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs, to communicate science, and to engage the media about the risks of climate change,” Anderegg added. “But more than that, Steve was a great person — unflinchingly honest, caring, passionate.”
Although climate science has made vast advances in recent decades, Schneider was among early advocates and pushed for the cause long before it began to gain popular momentum. In these efforts, students and professors credit his tenacity and dedication to a goal.
“What I remember most is his incredible passion and dedication to the cause of trying to change the world and making it a better place,” said Woods Institute director Jeff Koseff. “He was untiring, and completely and utterly dedicated to the cause.”
“I think more than anything, he was a great catalyst and lightning rod, whether you agreed with him or not, to get us to confront the real possibility of climate change, getting us to focus on the issue and debate the issue,” Koseff added. “There were a lot of people who disagreed with him, but now 75 percent or more of Americans think climate change a huge issue, and I think people like Stephen Schneider had a great role in influencing their opinion and educating them.”
“His outgoing personality, seemingly superhuman energy and incredible intelligence made me scared to have a conversation with him,” wrote Lee Anderegg ’11 in an e-mail to the Sustainability e-mail list. “But Steve was not just well spoken, funny and smart. He was dedicated to shaping a better world, to education and science and a sustainable future, on a level that I can only hope to emulate.”
Sarah Chadwick, Schneider’s assistant, wrote to The Daily on behalf of his wife, biology professor Terry Root, expressing a similar take on his drive.
“Steve was relentless in fighting misinformation and explaining the need for policy action on numerous fronts,” Chadwick said. “He was determined to communicate messages that would inform the public about the real risks that are involved with a business-as-usual position and suggest concrete steps to reverse the more ominous trends.”
Schneider’s dedication was particularly highlighted during a serious battle with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare cancer, which he chronicled in a 2005 book titled, “The Patient from Hell.” He consistently fought for involvement in medical decisions about his health during the saga, which ended in his successful victory over the disease.
“Steve dealt with his cancer battle as he did most issues in life — as a climate scientist — and was his own most diligent researcher,” Chadwick said. “He was determined to get the best treatment possible and bring awareness to the current flaws within the system. He continued to be his own best advocate into his final days.”
Schneider himself saw the lessons he drew from climate science as applicable to other parts of life, specifically his cancer struggle.
“Am I going to apply to my own treatment the principles that I’m advising government and industries to apply to deal with climate change uncertainties?” he asked in a 2005 interview with the National Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member. “Hell, yes.”
In both climate change and his cancer struggle, Chadwick said, Schneider knew where to draw the line between scientific expertise and personal value judgment, constantly assessing risks along the way of an uncertain route.
Aside from personal health struggles, Schneider’s work in climate change was not always greeted with open arms, even in recent years. In the wake of the University of East Anglia leaked e-mails controversy in November 2009 and in conjunction with the Copenhagen conference, Schneider and other climatologists came under fire, which included receiving hate mail and threats.
“The effect on me has been tremendous,” Schneider told The Guardian earlier this month. “Some of these people are mentally imbalanced. They are invariably gun-toting right-wingers. What do I do? Learn to shoot a Magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket? I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we’re now in a new Weimar Republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists.”
Schneider’s long-held desire to increase climate awareness for all people, not just academics, can be seen in his many contributions to popular media and his outspoken qualities. But his ability and eagerness to share knowledge was best manifested in interactions with students.
“In spite of his global renown and accomplishment, he was willing to explain, and re-explain, the most minute details of climate change to [even the] most uninformed students,” wrote Students for a Sustainable Stanford co-president Siddhartha Oza ’11 in an e-mail to the Sustainable e-mail list. “His fight for climate change was, and remains, an inspiration for all of us.”
“He was an unbelievably good communicator,” Koseff added. “He had the ability to put such complicated concepts into layman’s terms and help people understand them.”
And apart from his scientific ventures, Koseff recalled, Schneider was “a New Yorker through and through.”
“He played on the Columbia football team, back when they had a football team for people who weighed less than 150 pounds — I think he called it the 150-under football team,” Koseff said. “He loved football and was so proud to have played on the football team at Columbia.”
Although his scientific accomplishments speak volumes for themselves, it is the final words of the students he worked with that do the best to sum up Schneider’s lasting impact at the University.
“[Taking a class from Schneider] was like having a living textbook, except with better stories and a whole lot more personality,” wrote Brady Hamed ’12 in an e-mail to The Daily.
“Professor Schneider inspired me and so many others to follow our passion for protecting the environment,” Oza said. “His impact on SSS was, and remains, undeniably rewarding. Indeed, if there was one thing that he taught us by example it was this: don’t back down from a campaign you believe in.”
“He was fantastic mentor, and an inspiration to his students, his colleagues and the global community,” Anderegg added. “He was a leading light in the science of climate change and in communicating the risks of climate change to the media and the public. His legacy will live on through those that he taught, spoke with and inspired, as we try to carry on his great work of protecting our planet’s climate.”
He is survived by his wife Terry, two children, Adam and Becca, and one grandchild.