Growth of a climate expert

Stephen Henry Schneider

Dr. Steve Schneider talks about how he became interested in earth systems and in atmospheric research in this excerpt from an interview done by Gray Thompson in 1992

“I was actually born in New York City. I didn’t live in it until I went back to Columbia University 17 years later. And I grew up in [Woodmere,] Long Island. And what I remember enjoying a lot about Long Island before the developers hacked down all the woods was getting dropped off in a square mile of woods which I used to call “the deep, dark forest…” and run around and just enjoy streams and nature.

And one day a hurricane came by, and I went back to the forest and half the trees were knocked sown and it all had been disturbed. And I came to realize even at the age of none that ecology and climate and soils were all connected systems. And not much happened for 15 years—it just sat in the back of my mind. Then later on, I suppose, these experiences were an emotional driver for getting involved in earth sciences. But that’s jumping way ahead… By the time I was ten years old, my “deep dark forest” was a housing development. Pretty painful to me. And I’ve been able to trace back to that event to come up with some of my passion for preserving what remains of wild nature… I started out in engineering. I liked racing cars when I was in high school. And I had an older brother and we’d go drag racing and I tended to be the mechanic and he was the driver. And I still remember finding an old high-ratio rear axle which had us win a whole bunch of trophies against all these guys with the souped up cars. And then, I remember when Detroit started designing cars, that when you turned the key they started and the heaters worked and they were faster than anything any of us were hand-doing. And I said, “You know, there’s something to be said for knowing the principles.” I went to engineering school to learn how to build the fastest race car—and that was a high school dream. And I don’t think I was there sic weeks before I got turned on by a different problem—going into space—the space program. Mechanical engineering student studying fluid mechanics, what’s called engineering physics. It was about one-third physics and the heavy math/science concentration, rather than the practical applications. So my practical initial notion was completely dashed by my own choice about a year and a half into school when I went more theoretical. But in a sense it all came out from recognizing that you make good products only by understanding how nature works and knowing the principles.

Anyhow, I went through all of this until somewhere around Earth Day 1970. I attended all these first Earth Day celebrations at Columbia. I was finishing up my thesis. I was toward the end, a little bored. I was working on a plasma physics problem—that’s high temperature gases that hopefully one day will produce electricity from pollution-free sources. Of course, it turns out it’s not pollution-free and it doesn’t work—yet. Those two things I didn’t understand at that age. But anyhow, listening to Earth Day presentation\, somebody said we could change the climate by our pollution—it could either heat it up if it’s greenhouse gases or cool it down if it’s sulphur injections—and I didn’t believe it.

I searched around the campus to learn more and there was one course in the atmospheric sciences taught at Columbia and it was a graduate seminar taught by a scientist named I.S. Rasool. He went over the difference between Mars, Earth, and Venus. And he said, you know, Venus is very hot with its very thick atmosphere and has a super greenhouse effect. And Mars is very cold with a very thin atmosphere and has a weak greenhouse effect. And the Earth is right in the middle. Venus is too hot for frozen water, Mars is too cold for liquid water. And Earth is just right and water makes us different. Pollution could, in fact, dirty the greenhouse window. When I discovered that, it was fascinating to me.

So I worked with him one summer—the summer that I was writing my PhD thesis and he made me a deal. He said, “Ill takle a chance on you if you take one on me. I will give you a post-doc to convert you to atmospheric science—to modeling the climate, mathematical model of the climate, if you’ll leave plasma physics.”

I thought long and hard about that. Should I switch fields in the middle? Is this foolhardy? I went through all this agony. And then I thought to myself, I always have wanted to do something that could protect the environment and preserve things. And what people are doing is they’re now modifying the atmosphere. They’re essentially using it as a sewer without a price—there’s no price to dump floating garbage in the air. And that, eventually, if you use the atmosphere as a free sewer long enough, it starts to “stink.” Now I don’t mean literally, I mean figuratively., of course. And in the sense that it could make the climate warmer or  colder, substantially, in a way that could affect life and us. So I thought long and hard and realized that the field of climatology, which had been 2200 years old going back to Thales of Miletus really was only five years old as a modern subject, because it took the computer and the earth satellite—the computer to process the data and run models, and the satellite to provide the bird’s eye view and the validation that you need to make sure that the models are reproducing the earth and not just come imagination of the computer programmer. Eventually I realized I was getting into a field that had hardly started…

Sometimes I feel like the dentist who tells you, “Why don’t you brush a couple of extra times?” Well, most won’t do it and the dentist does a booming business. Likewise, I keep saying to the world, “Why don’t you use energy more efficiently and put me out of business?”