A Great Climate Scientist Passes On

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When TIME managing editor Henry Muller decided to boost the magazine’s environment coverage, he took the bold and highly visible step of naming Earth Planet of the Year in the January 2, 1989 issue. In order to generate a rich package of stories for that issue, Muller had Washington science correspondent Dick Thompson set up a conference in Boulder, Colo., where TIME staffers would hear presentations by the world’s premiere environmental scientists and hobnob with politicians, including then-Senator Al Gore.

But the real star of the conference was Stephen Schneider, then at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, more recently at Stanford. He was not only one of the leading scientists in the field, but also an animated, entertaining and frequently funny speaker. He had a gift for communicating complex ideas in a clear, straightforward way.

Today, Schneider passed away.

He reportedly died of a heart attack as his flight was landing in London, after a career that was both impressively long and far too short. Since the early 1970s, he’d been doing leading-edge research on climate change, earning the respect of colleagues and also of journalists who could trust him to be, not an alarmist or a truth-stretcher, but ruthlessly honest about what we actually know and what we don’t know about the science.

In today’s Dot Earth blog, for example, Andrew Revkin recalls how Scheider’s even-handed take on the idea of nuclear winter helped him make sense of that seemingly apocalyptic consequence of nuclear war.Schneider had some significant health problems—his autobiographical book  The Patient from Hell describes his struggle with lymphoma—but he never lost the mix of in-your-face feistiness and measured scientific reasoning that was uniquely his.

Schneider was talking about climate to the end. My Climate Central colleague Andrew Freedman interviewed him just last week for his blog in The Washington Post, In an email Schneider sent me  last week, responding to a climate scientist who’s been accusing her colleagues of downplaying uncertainty in IPCC projections, he wrote:

“So what is her point? That there are big uncertainties?? Now that is hardly original or news! But can she or anyone rule out the possibility of highly consequential negative climate impacts at more than coin flip odds–no way. So this is a risk management problem about risks with planetary life support system–what I called Laboratory Earth in book of same title in 1997.”

Back in the early 1990s, a couple of years after he’d helped us with our Planet of the Year conference, he was in TIME’s face, saying we were derelict in not writing climate every week. There wasn’t that much climate news to write  then—but now there’s plenty. It’s been our great good luck that Steve Schneider has been around to help keep that coverage honest for two decades now. It will be a little tougher—and a lot less entertaining—from now on.