Stanford University climate scientist and fierce "climate warrior" Stephen Schneider died of an apparent heart attack while on a flight from Sweden to London on Monday. Schneider has long been at the forefront of arguing for massive government intervention to address man-made global climate change. In a recent interview in Stanford Magazine, Schneider opined about the differences between ideologues and scientists:
[Q.] How do you respond to the perception that scientists are friends of the leftand enemies of the right?
[A.] Scientists get associated with the left not because they're really in the left. It's because they have a particular belief system that is more likely embraced by Democrats: people not on the far left—because the far left is just as crazy radical in its deep belief as the far right—but middle-center left. [There is a] great American divide. The deep red states, the ones who want to teach creationism as if somehow belief was science, when science is method, are in what I call the faith-trust value system, where evidence that overthrows deep faith is somehow a real violation of their deep ethics. Those of us in science come from a completely different paradigm—much more likely in California, especially coastal California, and New York and the deep blue states—which I call doubt-test, where no matter how cherished our beliefs, if you have enough evidence kicking you in the face to the contrary, you change your mind. That is blasphemy to certain groups. This is in my view a fairly dangerous value dichotomy because in the end, if you absolutely cling to absolute values, then all you get is subjugation and violence. That's where we end up with wars and with radical movements that cannot compromise and kill first.
Scientists also create some of their own trouble because we're a very snooty, elitist bunch, and we believe [in] a very high-knowledge entry barrier before you're even entitled to have an opinion over technical issues. Part of that entry barrier is high because we're so incompetent in explaining things simply. You really do have to know what you're talking about before you have an opinion on facts, but you also have to explain the facts simply. If you use metaphors, you can get the average person in an hour to know what they need to know to make a good value judgment.
Fair enough. In testimony at a 2003 OECD workshop on climate change, Schneider stated [pdf]:
My own personal value position, given the vast uncertainties in both climate science and impacts estimations, is to enact (and act on) policies to slow down the rate at which we disturb the climate system. This can both buy us time to understand better what may happen—a process that will take many more decades—and lead to the development of lower-cost decarbonisation options… Slowing down the pressure on the climate system is the "insurance policy" against a number of potentially dangerous irreversibilities and abrupt non-linear events.
However, Schneider's preference for a precautionary approach (a.k.a. raising the price of energy and slowing down economic growth) in addressing climate change is ideological, not a fact about the world. Perhaps a better "insurance policy" would be to speed up economic growth, thus endowing future generationa with the wealth and new technologies to address whatever climate change occurs.
In any case, climatologist Roger Pielke, Sr., who frequently disagreed with Schneider, sadly notes:
He and I have interacted for several decades and I was always impressed by his openness to engage in scientific debate. Even when we disagreed on issues, he permitted my views to be heard, such as the time, in his capacity as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Climatic Change, I was able in 2002 to present a paper on problems with the IPCC assessment report. He published a companion article at the same time by Mike McCracken, and I have urged climate scientists to read both of these perspectives. Steve's openness allowed this constuctive scientific debate to occur.
To get a sense of how Schneider personally balanced climate and economic risks, take a look at his Edge interview here.