Environmental lessons from the late Stephen Schneider

Stephen H. Schneider, hailed as the “Carl Sagan of climate science,” and who served on the international panel that won the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore, has passed away at 65. He should be remembered as much more than a global warming alarmist. In fact, he was once a global cooling alarmist.

In 1976, Schneider contributed a cover endorsement to The Cooling by Lowell Ponte. “The climatic threat,” Schneider wrote, “could be as awesome as any we might face, and that massive world-wide actions to hedge against that threat deserve immediate consideration. At a minimum, public awareness of the possibilities must commence, and Lowell Ponte’s provocative work is a good place to start.”

The winters of 1976 and 1977 were so severe they launched fears of a new ice age.

Indeed, “The Coming Ice Age,” was a May 1978 episode of the television program “In Search Of,” narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Newsbusters.org recalls that one of the “climate experts” the program cited was Stephen Schneider, then a climatologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Schneider’s global cooling period gave way to alarm about global warming. What most likely prompted this dramatic shift was not scientific data but the reality that global warming is a better vehicle for scaring the public and commanding attention from politicians. On this front Schneider proved tenacious.

He is on record that, to reduce the risk of climate change, it’s legitimate to quash one’s own doubts and offer up scary scenarios to the media. That is not exactly objective science. For someone with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering and plasma physics from Columbia University, Schneider could be rather cavalier about the importance of evidence. But his tactics proved effective.

The media jumped on the global warming bandwagon and Schneider duly landed on the International Panel for Climate Change. The IPCC bagged Nobel glory in 2007 with Al Gore, producer and star of An Inconvenient Truth. This prize does not mean what the winners and the media seem to imply, that the scary scenarios of global warming are true and thus demand immediate draconian action from government, primarily to burden industry and enterprise.

“The truth is that the IPCC doesn’t actually do scientific research,” explains climate scientist Roy W. Spencer in The Great Global Warming Blunder. “It is primarily a political advocacy group that cloaks itself in the aura of scientific respectability while it cherry-picks the science that best supports its desired policy outcomes and marginalizes or ignores science that might contradict the party line.”

Scientists are not of one mind on climate change and evidence of significant recent warming is elusive. As the Climategate scandal confirms, some partisans of global warming seek to quash contrary opinion. That is not part of the scientific method, which depends on open inquiry, not minds shrink-wrapped in dogma.

Schneider’s shift from global cooling to global warming did not get much play in the obituaries. The media seem determined to protect him, and other environmental celebrities, from themselves. Bad journalism thus compounds alarmism masquerading as science.

The lesson here is that intelligence, advanced degrees and Nobel prizes cannot guarantee truth. Neither can scary scenarios based on selective information serve as a foundation for sound public policy. To achieve that, policy makers should concentrate on the facts, not prophecy.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director for the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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