XVII ISA World Congress of Sociology, Sociology on the move, Gothenburg, Sweden, July 2010



Steven Schneider (1945-2010): Remembrances and Reflections
by Raymond Murphy, University of Ottawa, Canada

When the executive of the International Sociological Association decided on the theme “Sociology on the Move” for the 2010 World Congress of Sociology with one of its subthemes being “Sustainability”, it also decided to have parallel plenary sessions with non-sociologists as well as sociologists as speakers.  One of the invited non-sociologists in the first sustainability plenary session was Steven Schneider, Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford University in the United States.  During the 1980s, he had emerged as a leading public advocate of sharp reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming.  He served as a consultant to American Federal Agencies in administrations from Nixon to Obama.  He was an important member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former American Vice President Al Gore for international research on global warming. 

At the World Congress plenary session, Professor Schneider’s presentation was entitled “Climate Change Policy: How Do we Get Behavior Change On Problems Mired in Confusing Debate?”  He gave an informative, spirited, and entertaining talk in language that facilitates communication across the natural science / social science divide.  When one of the speakers at an Environment and Society Research Committee (RC24) session had to return home for family reasons, Professor Schneider generously agreed to speak in his place, giving another informative, passionate talk.  Then a non-sociologist emailed us that for health reasons he would be unable to come to Gothenburg to speak the next day in his sustainability plenary session.  There are not many people who could rise to the challenge of speaking at a plenary session on short notice.  Professor Schneider was asked only four hours before the plenary session was to begin, and once again generously accepted.  He skipped an RC24 session he had planned to attend in order to arrange his Powerpoint slides in an order appropriate for the particular theme of that session, and gave an outstanding presentation that appeared to have been worked on for months.  The ISA and RC24 owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Steve Schneider for the success of the 2010 World Congress.

After the Congress, Steve participated in a workshop on the island of Käringön north of Gothenburg with his friend and Stanford University colleague sociologist Tom Burns together with others who had been at the Congress. The focus of this workshop involving sociologists and non-sociologists (among them three IPCC lead authors) was on what sociology and other social sciences could contribute to the theory, methodology, and empirical research of addressing climate change and sustainability issues, several of  which Stephen Schneider had taken up in his presentations at the World Congress.

When returning home to the USA on July 19, he was ten minutes into his flight from Stockholm to London when he felt pains in his chest.  He died an hour and a half later just before landing in London. 

Who was this generous non-sociologist who contributed so much to the success of a World Congress of Sociology?  What can we sociologists learn from him and his life?  How can we best commemorate him?

Stephen Henry Schneider was born on Feb. 11, 1945 in New York. He graduated from Columbia University, where he also earned a doctorate in plasma physics and mechanical engineering in 1971.  He worked as a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, for over twenty years before moving to Stanford University in the mid-1990s.  He did pioneering research on the effects of aerosol particles on climate and was a leader in the development of numerical models now used to study climate change. His research included the relationship of biological systems to global climate change.  He and his wife Terry Root led cutting-edge research on the consequences of human-caused climate change for the abundance and distribution of animal and plant species.  Recently he cooperated with many of the world's leading experts on the economics of climate change in order to estimate the cost of stabilizing the climate. He continued to produce ground-breaking scientific research on a variety of topics like abrupt climate change, the identification of levels of planetary temperature increase beyond which there is great risk of perilous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, and policies for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, summed up Professor Schneider’s contributions as follows: "No one, and I mean no one, had a broader and deeper understanding of the climate issue than Stephen.  More than anyone else, he helped shape the way the public and experts thought about this problem -- from the basic physics of the problem, to the impact of human beings on nature's ecosystems, to developing policy."

Professor Schneider helped fellow scientists, policymakers, and the general public understand that the use of fossil fuels alters the chemistry of Earth's atmosphere, and that this modification of atmospheric composition has led to a discernible human impact on our planet's climate.  He became a scientific leader, an outstanding communicator of scientific findings, and fully embraced the interdisciplinary nature of the climate change problem.  But it was not easy.  A recent study found that 98 percent of climatologists believe in global warming, nevertheless he acknowledged that the debate in public opinion was more divisive.  He wrote about this in his 2007 book Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate.  His conclusions about climate change attracted sometimes vicious attacks from extremist groups. An FBI investigation found he was named on a neo-Nazi "death list," and he said he received many hate e-mails a day.  "What do I do? Learn to shoot a magnum? Wear a bulletproof 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."  Nevertheless he believed it was important for scientists to communicate with the public and spread their understanding of climate data and findings.  Despite encountering opposition by powerful groups who make policy based on disinformation and wishful thinking instead of sound science, Schneider epitomized scientific courage.  "If we do not do the due diligence of letting people understand the relative credibility of claimants of truth, then all we do is have a confused public who hears claim and counterclaim.  When somebody says 'I don't believe in global warming,' I ask, 'Do you believe in evidence? Do you believe in a preponderance of evidence?' "

He used the same abilities, vigor and approach to fight a rare form of leukemia, helping develop a new treatment that kept him alive.  His inquisitive mind in his relationships with his doctors led to his book entitled The Patient from Hell. Fighting both climate and leukemia required making decisions with incomplete information so as to improve the chances of a better future.  He believed in risk analysis and used it and his own experience with illness to communicate in plain language why it is better to act prudently now when faced with uncertainty than wait for confirmation that action should have been taken long ago.

Climatologist Schneider was open to learning from sociologists.  At the World Congress of Sociology, he attended every one of the sustainability plenary sessions as well as many of the Environment and Society Research Committee (RC24) sessions.  We sociologists should be equally open to learning from natural scientists like him.  After all, an openness to learning from him was why he was invited to our World Congress.  What should sociologists learn? 

First, Professor Schneider demonstrated how contemporary human activities are unleashing dangerous new forces of nature.  Although nature usually acts to the benefit of humans, at times its disturbances and discontinuities are harmful.  Modern societies are running the risk of degrading beneficial processes of the natural environment their descendants will need in the future and of aggravating harmful forces.  Many of the most consequential relationships for humans and their societies consist of interactions with the constructions of nature.  This should not be ignored in sociological analysis.  The focus of sociology should shift from the restricted study of the socio-cultural to an expanded analysis of the interaction between sociocultural and biophysical dynamics, that is, toward a more inclusive analysis that takes into account the dynamic material context of embodied human actors.  Sociology will be stronger if it is expanded in this way.

Second, he reminded us that, although discourse both for and against mitigating global warming is a social construction, there is a crucial difference between valid and erroneous claims and these differences will eventually be visible in their biophysical consequences.  Contested interpretations on opposite sides of the global warming debate may both be plausible, but only one side is accurate.  Merely documenting that the scientific prediction of global warming is contested, or simply describing disagreements over climate change, only adds another source of noise to the cacophony of claims and counterclaims, thereby confusing public discussion even more and reinforcing inertial predispositions in favour of business-as-usual.  It is not enough to investigate how different discourses are socially constructed.  It is necessary to take into account in sociological analysis that consensus scientific conclusions about global warming fit the preponderance of the best available evidence whereas the contrarian interpretation does not.  Ignoring differences in the scientific credibility of claims results in a deficient sociological analysis because it proceeds under the flawed assumption that differences in credibility between contrarian and consensus interpretations are unimportant.  A throw-away line in sociological publications to the effect that ‘this study does not deny climate change’ is not sufficient to compensate for methodology that otherwise suspends differences in the scientific credibility of claims. 

Third, sociologists should not assume that science is always allied with power.  The climate change issue demonstrates that when science brings troubling news, it runs up against dominant material and ideal interests, life style habitus, and consumption predispositions and aspirations.  Unscientific practical understandings simply extrapolating present safety into the distant future can result in rejection of scientific recommendations when the deeper conceptual tools of science yield predictions of threatening discontinuities if present social practices persist.  Presumption of safety is the conjugate variable to worry about risk, and merits sociological research as well.  Rather than being fixated with how the messages of scientists and environmentalists are constructed, more sociological attention should be given to how and why discourse dismissing scientific recommendations to mitigate global warming is socially manufactured, and to the particular interests and drivers behind it.  Although East Anglia scientists may have made nasty comments about contrarians, that is trivial compared to what consensus scientists like Steve Schneider have had to endure from those who refuse to mitigate global warming.  

Finally, how can sociologists, and the International Sociological Association, commemorate Steve Schneider, whose life ended after his outstanding contribution to our World Congress.  His colleague and friend, Ben Santer, gave suggestions that should be taken to heart not only by natural scientists but also by sociologists.  “We honor the memory of Steve Schneider by continuing to fight for the things he fought for – by continuing to seek clear understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change. We honor Steve by recognizing that communication is a vital part of our job. We honor Steve by taking the time to explain our research findings in plain English. By telling others what we do, why we do it, and why they should care about it. We honor Steve by raising our voices, and by speaking out when powerful "forces of unreason" seek to misrepresent our science. We honor Steve Schneider by caring about the strange and beautiful planet on which we live, by protecting its climate, and by ensuring that our policymakers do not fall asleep at the wheel.”  As a sociologist, I would add that we honor him by learning from his research and his life the three lessons outlined in the previous paragraphs, thereby expanding and deepening sociological analysis.  That would amount to a true “Sociology on the Move”, the overall theme of the 2010 World Congress.  How to do this is the challenge that Steve Schneider left with us sociologists on his last visit.

by Raymond Murphy
Environment and Society Research Committee (RC24)
of the International Sociological Association
Emeritus Professor
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Ottawa, Canada

Note: I would like to thank Tom Burns, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Uppsala, Sweden and visiting scholar, Stanford University, USA, for his valuable comments.