Stephen H. Schneider is the quintessential media-savvy scientist-advocate. Since the early 1970s, this climatologist and science popularizer has been a fixture on TV news shows, on Capitol Hill, and on White House panels, where he weighs in on both the politics and science of climate change. In Schneider's opinion, scientists sometimes need to dramatize their data and discard the subtleties to sell a message.
A mechanical engineer by training who is now a biology professor at Stanford University, Schneider, 55, says his advocacy began with the heightened environmental awareness that bloomed around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. Then a plasma physics and engineering grad student at Columbia University, he remembers a talk by biologist and erstwhile presidential candidate Barry Commoner--himself an ardent advocate--claiming that pollution was poised to send Earth's climate off kilter: Either airborne particles would bring on a mini-ice age, or carbon dioxide would trigger global warming. Intrigued, Schneider took a summer job as a computer programmer for planetary scientist S. I. Rasool, who asked him to model both grim scenarios. Their 1971 paper in Science landed global climate change--specifically, a major cooldown--in the pages of leading newspapers, which eagerly quoted the articulate young postdoc.
By 1975, Schneider's more refined models pointed toward warming. Not missing a beat, he began warning of the havoc rapid global warming might bring. Unlike many of his colleagues, Schneider feels at ease weighing in on policy issues such as the 1997 Kyoto protocol to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which he thinks doesn't go far enough over the long term. He says he gained this expertise early in his career by hobnobbing with social scientists at places like the Aspen Institute: "I taught them climate, they taught me economics."
Schneider recommends "three rules" of advocacy: explicitly stating when one's views reflect values rather than science; using colorful, easy-to-grasp metaphors; and producing a "hierarchy of products," ranging from sound bites to op-eds to scholarly papers to lengthy books "where you can put in all the caveats." At the same time, he says scientists shouldn't shy away from painting "scary scenarios"--such as deadly heat waves in New York City and a dried-up Mississippi River as possible results of global warming--to get a message across.
Schneider says he gets "frustrated" by "all the false spin on my motives or advice" from the likes of conservative columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, who have trumpeted his 30-year-old paper on global cooling to question his credibility on global warming. But controversy hasn't made him gun shy. Lately, Schneider has been urging his colleagues working on the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to overcome their natural reluctance to describe the most extreme possible outcomes, caveats and all. "Policy people are notoriously bad at translating science," he says. And if scientists don't speak up, "who's going to talk about it? Somebody less qualified or with an agenda?"