Science as a Contact Sport by Stephen Schneider

In the 1960s, the whole idea of a “greenhouse effect” was well understood, and assumed to be an important potential factor in climate change. So was glaciation, and the short and medium term future of the Earth’s climate was less clear than compared to now. But the basics were there … C02 was being released into the atmosphere, this could cause a greenhouse effect, and that would warm the earth. Certainly by the early 1980s, it was possible to make some thumb-suck estimates of how much the earth would warm given various assumptions about CO2, and it was not that difficult to see that a lot of fossil carbon was being put into the atmosphere.

But in the 1960s, we had experienced a cooling trend and the only really good data we had on climate was the highly selective (but presumably accurate) meteorological data that had been collected from the 1940s onward. Pretty soon, historical records (such as those kept at army bases and research sites for a century or more) would be accumulated, and paleo-proxies would be worked out, and eventually we would have a year by year temperature record going back many many thousands of years. But then, in the 1960s, we had a single squiggle (“squiggle” is a highly technical term that refers to an up and down in a climate data graph …. or a back and forth if you hold the graph at a 90 degree angle). We had one squiggle and we were in the middle of it. The earth had cooled, and then was warming, not by much in either case, over a couple of decades.

Over time, as climate scientists began to realize, and openly predict, serious global warming, and political pressure from a big-business and industry owned political party (the Republicants) repressed that research, one event after another would occur to belie the truth. Thousands dead in a massive European heat wave, Katrina, the realization that African desertification was an early version of that European heat wave, but worse, and so on. These real live changes continued to throw egg on the public face of the global warming denialist opposition, while at the same time, the climate scientists toiled away, collecting data, modeling, theorizing and testing theories, eventually to come to a series of culmination events, the most recent being the IPCC meetings and reports over the last two years.

Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate is one researcher’s story paralleling, more or less, this time period. McArthur award and Nobel Prize (with the IPCC) winning Stephen Schneider has worked at NCAR, the Stanford Woods Institute, as scientific adviser to most recent presidents, and has seen it all. In a work similar in form to Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen (a colleague of Schneider’s), he recounts the intellectual and political development of climate science and the politics of climate change.

Schneider, who passed away in July, gives lay audiences a first hand look at where and how a lot of science ends up being ‘done’ (not always advanced, not always apolitically) at conferences, meetings, and so on. For Schneider, as it was for Hansen, there was an evolution of learning how to talk to politicians (depending on what kind) and how to make what is fundamentally important, real, and uncertain meaningful to the non-scientist.

Some have criticized Schneider, who also wrote Climate Change Science and Policy for taking cheap shots at anthropogenic global warming denialists. Maybe he does, but maybe they were asking for it, and maybe you’ll enjoy that part of the book as much as I did!

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One thought on “Science as a Contact Sport by Stephen Schneider

  1. Stephen Schneider was a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. I dont believe he was associated at any time with Woods Hole.

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