It’s getting hot in here

Global warming is a trend, not a certainty, a Stanford scientist says. But do we want to gamble that it won’t get worse?

“If there’s a 1 percent chance the wing on a plane is going to fall off, are you going to get on it?”

asked Stanford University professor Stephen Schneider. “[Global warming] is a planetary gamble we can’t afford to lose.”

Underline “gamble.” Schneider, who visited Chico State University two weeks ago, will be the first to admit—indeed, insist—that global warming is not a certainty. Science doesn’t provide certainty on such matters, he explains. The best science can do is outline trends and provide possibilities and, sometimes, probabilities.

Just as strenuously, however, he argues that the trend on Earth is indisputably toward warming. In fact, the last 30 to 40 years of average global temperatures have been warmer than any equal period of time over the last 2,000 years. And this trend suggests ominous possibilities and even probabilities.

The fierce debate on the issue in the media and in governments around the world has been much more black and white than Schneider’s shades-of-gray probabilities would seem to warrant.

Is the Earth’s climate warming due to human activity? Will it lead to great melting of the ice caps, the accelerated extermination of plant and animal species, wars over dwindling resources and the ultimate damnation of life on this planet as we know it?

Or are such doomsday scenarios being pushed by a bunch of knee-jerk Chicken Littles who have an agenda that, if brought to fruition, would more or less flush our economy down the drain, making America a second- or even third-world nation?

Both sides have fixated on the issue as though proving it right or wrong would settle this great debate.

And the media, ever eager to sell their stories, tend to latch onto one extreme or the other. This is frustrating for scientists like Schneider, who gather information, make predictions and estimate probabilities to inform the public and its leaders.

Schneider has been one of the leading researchers in the field of global warming for more than 30 years and has served as an adviser to every administration since Richard Nixon’s. The central message he brought to Chico stresses the importance of remaining informed and open-minded on matters as controversial as global warning.

Ever the scientist, Schneider did not provide concrete answers to the heavy questions, but rather offered “extrapolations” and “probable outcomes.”

“That’s my role—to stress uncertainty,” Schneider said during an interview in Selvester’s Cafà during a break in his busy two-day visit here.

“Science,” he explained, “is not two-sided.”

When it comes to looking like a scientist, Stephen Schneider is straight out of Central Casting. His hazel eyes are ringed owlishly by oversized glasses, curly wisps of dark hair coil from his head, and a slight midriff paunch is held at bay by ’70s-era brown slacks.

His face is youthfully smooth, belying his age, which is 59. He looks like a man who’s spent many hours in a classroom and lab coat, studying computer models or lecturing students.

His concerns about global warming are even evidenced by the car he drives, a Honda Civic hybrid that gets 46 miles per gallon.

Part of the challenge of being an honest scientist, he says, lies in being able to put aside personal biases and values.

Schneider is a member of the environmentalist Union of Concerned Scientists, but he didn’t sign the recent, much-publicized resolution, endorsed by hundreds of eminent scientists, condemning the Bush administration for exerting more pressure on researchers for desired conclusions than any previous administration. As one who sometimes testifies before Senate and House subcommittees, Schneider says, he doesn’t want the political baggage that would come with appending his name to such a resolution.

“What you have to constantly do is keep in touch with your peers and ask, ‘Am I off line here? What do you guys think?’ Truly good colleagues tell you if you’re being subjective, not separating out personal values from scientific opinion.”

On the other hand, Schneider is mystified by the reaction of some in government to the information he provides.

“If you are aware that there is a 10 percent chance the sandwich you have on the plate in front of you contains the food poisoning bacteria called salmonella, would you eat that sandwich?”

The answer is no.

But if our government learns there’s a 10 percent chance global warming will have damaging effect on our environment, will environmental policies remain unchanged? The answer is yes.

“It’s a holy war,” he said. “All you have to do is find a few Ph.D.s to tell you [global warming] isn’t the result of human activity. And so you ignore things like the 25 percent increase in those scientists’ income [working] for Cheney and Bush.”

The famous cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead years ago told Schneider that with new theories he’d have to be patient, “learn to live battle to battle and still realize it will take a generation before ‘new’ ideas are accepted.”

Stephen Schneider

Photo By Tom Angel

Schneider said the methods for measuring global temperature change were not available when scientists first started studying the subject.

“You have to pre-think things,” he said. “Who knew back then, without the evidence we have now, that the last 30 years would change [climatically]? Who knew we’d be right?”

The scientist’s job, Schneider said, is simply to “tell people the odds.” ;

He gives examples: “We can start working on the odds of a 10-kilometer meteor striking the Earth, which is about once every 100 million years. Or consider a dangerous climate change, which is more of a [50-50] coin-flip. And there will be detrimental results [with the latter]. But how damaging will it be?

“Consider it like Russian roulette, only you’re shooting yourself in the leg instead of the head.” ;

Because global warming will probably not wipe out the human species, it’s not quite as sexy a story for the press as the far-less-likely deadly encounter with a meteor.

Schneider’s words have a funny way of being both engaging and inexplicable, tumbling from his mouth in complex phrases, one building upon the last. It’s not a style conducive to sound bites. This may explain why the language of science—of uncertainties and exploration—has been lost to the sensationalist rhetoric about the renegade meteor.

Nonetheless, a realistic picture of global warming has begun to emerge.Thirty years ago, while Schneider was still a grad student in New York City, the scientific community was concerned with growing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The implications of this condition were unclear.

Further research has uncovered a whole host of gases that have the potential to produce a warming effect on the planet. These “greenhouse” gases come from sources as varied as rice paddies in Asia to car exhaust in North America, and some are in concentrations as much as 115 percent higher then before industrialization.

Evidence linking the phenomenon of greenhouse gases and global warming is largely circumstantial, Schneider said. But these concepts, along with other pieces of research, constitute a series of “footprints” pointing in the same direction that can’t be ignored.

“This is not an accident of nature,” Schneider said. “We’re a player in this.”

The most likely outcome will be a temperature increase of about 2 degrees by the year 2100. At the low range of probability are increases of less then 1.1 degree and more then 6.8 degrees.

Life on Earth would be little affected by a 1 degree increase in temperature spanning a century. Anything over that, however, would threaten the ability of many forms of life to adapt. Humans have air-conditioning, water pipelines and, at the very least, the luxury to move freely and find a suitable habitat. Animal species, on the other hand, are particularly threatened because their habitats are so fragmented by human activities. An endangered species sustained in a confined area like a wildlife refuge won’t be able to pack up and move on once things start heating up.

Some have argued that the water cycle will hold global warming at bay. More heat leads to more evaporation and cloud cover, which blocks the radiation of the sun. Unfortunately, Schneider’s research has pointed to the fact that these clouds may not be broad and reflective, but tall and cold, which would increase the warming effect on the Earth.

Overall, there’s no way of knowing what will happen until it does. It’s a cosmic experiment, one that Schneider doesn’t want to run on Earth. He recommends taking whatever actions are necessary to reduce greenhouse emissions.

He points to the heat wave that gripped Western Europe last summer that contributed to the deaths of 15,000 people in France alone.

“This wasn’t just global warming; it was super bad luck plus 2 degrees,” he said. “The medieval buildings there are slow to heat but also slow to cool. There are no elevators; there are walk-ups instead.

“The scientists predicted a worse-case scenario of 500 deaths with that kind of heat wave,” he said. “They were wrong—it was 20 times worse.”

The principal way that Schneider sees emissions reduction happening is through laws. He criticizes President Bush’s current “volunteerism policy,” which is favored by those who see any new law hindering entrepreneurial rights as impinging on American freedoms.

“Strong entrenched interests,” represented in the media through outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, often use false science in attempts to discredit information about global warming.

“They will do and say whatever is necessary, including that which isn’t true,” Schneider said. “They are in an ideological war for the preservation of their values.”

Schneider makes similar criticisms of environmental groups such as Greenpeace that have blown the issue out of proportion in order to make their own cases. He described one group’s ad that showed the future temperature forecast for the United States as 15 degrees higher than it is now. Schneider, who was consulted for the ad, had provided several possible scenarios for the ad, but this was the one with the lowest probability. The fact that the increase was so unlikely was not mentioned anywhere in the ad.

Schneider describes an “ethical double bind”: He is torn between his desire to advocate for environmental protection and his obligation to provide objective information to the public. Many in his field scorn finding solutions to the problems they study, let alone dealing with the circus of misinformation that is the media.

Seizing on more dramatic scenarios about global warming is tempting to bring attention to the issue.

“There is a balance between being honest and being effective,” he said. “The system doesn’t allow you to tell the whole truth, but if you don’t play in that world nobody will hear you.”

What Schneider has done is provide plenty of information, in the form of a 62,000-word Web site ( and five books on the subject to back up his cause. Schneider feels more at ease knowing that the full side of the story is available to anyone interested enough to look.

Ultimately, Schneider says, it’s up to individuals to inform themselves on global warming. Seeing past media hype, understanding probability and separating value systems—whether favoring free-market economics or environmental ethics—from the issue is a skill that Schneider deems “environmental literacy.”

“When people don’t understand the language of the debate they become disenfranchised,” he said. “It makes people shrug and give up.”