Q&A: Stephen Schneider
Q&A: Stephen Schneider
Leading the Charge
Stephen Schneider, one of the nation’s most outspoken scientists, has been calling for a sharp drop in greenhouse-gas emissions since the 1980s. He has authored or coauthored hundreds of scientific papers, book chapters, and other works related to global warming. Audubon recently spoke with the Stanford University climatologist about tipping points, extinction, and the Live Earth concerts.—Keith Kloor
Audubon: In the past year there seems to be a groundswell of public concern about global warming.
Schneider: Thermometers say that we’re warmer than we’ve been in a thousand years or more. Glaciers are melting all around the world now. Big ice sheets are starting to melt. Plants and animals are moving around. [Climate change is] not a theory anymore. There was Katrina a couple of years back, then Al Gore’s movie, and—this is what’s not visible to the public, but I think just as important—a lot of corporate leaders have decided that this problem is real. So we have a true social tipping phenomenon, which gives us a better chance for action on climate than we’ve ever had before—as long as we don’t waste it.
Q: What sort of government or legislative action should be at the forefront? Are we talking cap and trade?
A: Well, we cannot keep dumping our smokestack and tailpipe waste into the atmosphere as if it was an unpriced sewer and expect nothing to happen. There have to be incentives not to use too much of the bad stuff like coal and incentives for market share—and research and development—on the good stuff, like hybrid car batteries or wind and solar. So for that to happen we’ll eventually need a carbon-emission fee or a cap-and-trade program.
Q: Many experts believe a carbon tax would work best but that it’s a non-starter because of Americans’ antipathy toward taxes.
A: You know, the Clean Air Act was a non-starter before it was signed, too. There are a lot of non-starters. The banning of cigarettes in most restaurants in the country and in virtually every public place in California was a non-starter 25 years ago. It’s amazing how things that people don’t want to happen, which they declare non-starters, start, usually when there’s enough annoyance among a majority that it finally happens.
Q: What are the impacts to wildlife from climate change? It seems like a hard thing to pin down.
A: My wife, Terry Root, who’s an ecologist [at Stanford University], has often referred to a number of species as “functionally extinct.” They’re not extinct now, but the trends that we’re on means that they’re going to run out of habitat through the combination of fragmented habitat and climate forcing them to move but having nowhere to go. Somewhere between 10 percent and 50 percent of species could become extinct over the next several centuries. The actual process takes a long time. But once they’re gone, they’re gone. So we really have to get going on reducing the pressures on nature.
Q: On a lighter note, what did you think about the Live Earth concerts all around the world that millions of people either attended or watched online?
A: I didn’t see it, but my email inbox is filled with it. I’m not a big rock fan. Now, if they had had Peter, Paul, and Mary doing it, then I would have watched.
Q: Now you’re dating yourself.
A: That gives you my vintage.
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