Scientist leaves behind a climate of abuse
I didn't know Stephen Schneider, the Stanford University climatologist who has just died from an apparent heart attack, well enough to pen a comprehensive account of his life and works.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has an In Memoriam note [46.60KB PDF] that describes Dr Schneider as...
"...a major contributor to the IPCC and one of its fiercest supporters... a warrior for honesty and a dedicated campaigner for giving people the complete story.
"Steve's scholarly approach, combining world-class research with deep commitment to broad communication, set a remarkable standard of excellence."
As a journalist covering climate change through the Kyoto conference of 1997, the Bush administration's decision to absent itself from that arena, the seminal IPCC report of 2007 and last December's UN summit in Copenhagen, Stephen Schneider was someone whose influence you could hardly miss, from his pioneering work on developing numerical models of climate to the interviews and conversations and speeches through which he sought to convey the implications of all that science to the public.
Of course, that didn't necessarily make him a popular man.
I last spoke to him about three months ago. The context was abuse: the vitriolic, sustained, personalised and sometimes apparently organised abuse that has been levelled against scientists in the climate field, including him.
It materialises in blogs and newspaper articles that appear to start from the standpoint that everyone in the field is corrupt, incompetent and crooked. It streams into scientists' e-mail inboxes.
Some of those receiving it see it as a deliberate, malicious and politically-motivated campaign of harassment.
Australian journalist Clive Hamilton has documented the threats and abuse levelled against scientists in his country in a series of online articles commencing with "Bullying, lies and the rise of right-wing climate denial".
He cites cases of scientists being compared in emails to Pol Pot, and being told that unless they stopped what they were doing, they would "end up collateral damage in the war".
From my own enquiries, such harassment does not appear routine in the UK, though it does happen. Prominent climate scientists I spoke to have encountered abusive e-mails, some registering a crescendo in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference, and others noting that it emerged whenever they published a paper or spoke in the media.
It has reached its apogee, however, in North America - not least in the threatening e-mails and indeed events that have followed Stephen Schneider, Ben Santer and several of their colleagues in recent years - events that the former detailed to some extent in his book Science as a Contact Sport.
In one of his recent e-mails to me, he said that title was probably "too wimpy an analogy" given how far things had gone.
We're not only talking here about messages accusing scientists of being communist traitors whose raison d'etre is world government - though there are enough of those - but threats to life and limb.
We're talking about a threat perceived to be serious enough that a prominent climate researcher had to be escorted to last December's American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting by security guards.
We're talking about a dead rat left on a doorstep around midnight, the perpetrator driving off hurling abuse in - perhaps inevitably - a huge 4x4.
Some of the scientists have been most concerned by a posting on the website of the white supremacist organisation Stormfront.
It shows photos of eight prominent people working in climate change, either as scientists or on the policy side - including Stephen Schneider - and labels them all as "Jews".
Further down, a comment on the thread contends that the "global warming scam has always borne the stench of the same old Jewish liars, thieves, swindlers and murderers".
Dr Schneider regularly engaged with scientists and politicians sceptical of climate science, through peer-reviewed publications, books, advice to a succession of US administrations, and the IPCC.
But how is anyone supposed to engage with Stormfront?
Here is perhaps an issue that ought to concern people sceptical of human-induced climate change.
It is a broad spectrum. But how does propagation of the "Jewish liars" or "world government" arguments affect perceptions of those who challenge the mainstream picture along scientific lines?
Doesn't the climate of abuse overshadow the real issues that sceptics are flagging up, and reduce the chances of "sceptical" science being taken seriously?
And what is the abuse supposed to change? Does anyone really expect committed scientists to stop doing science just because they are labelled "scum" or "paid liars"?
It's an approach to winning hearts and minds that must have a limited chance of success.
Stephen Schneider didn't feel inclined to pull back. In a recent e-mail to me and others, he decried the attempt by Senator James Inhofe [639.15KB PDF] and others to seek legal redress against 17 climate scientists, including Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia, as "a smokescreen of denial and deceit".
He recounted that he was working an extra four hours every evening trying to put the record straight, as he saw it, on issues such as "ClimateGate" and alleged mistakes in IPCC assessments - "No time to stop now..."