David Schnare was 26 years old and just out of the U.S. Navy Reserves in 1974 when he had an unforgettable encounter with a dead horse.
Awaiting the start of a master’s degree program that fall, Schnare took an internship working with Minnesota’s public health department. What he saw shocked him. There were communities with raw sewage running down the streets, and a woman and her children living in a home with cracks in the wooden floorboards wide enough to see the ground beneath, he said.
He recounts one particularly gruesome sight. That woman’s husband had put a horse carcass under his neighbor’s window because they were having an argument, Schnare said. Rats had started to nest in the dead animal’s body.
Schnare thought at the time, "This is what real public health is about."
These days, Schnare is best known for his attacks on mainstream climate science and his litigation against scientists doing the research.
As a former member of U.S. EPA’s transition team who stayed at the agency after President Trump’s inauguration, Schnare proved to be polarizing for his focus on re-examining the cornerstone of EPA’s climate regulations, the endangerment finding for greenhouse gases. He is among a vocal minority of conservatives who see such a review as possible and necessary for undoing regulations on greenhouse gases. He had pushed unsuccessfully for the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, to include reconsideration of the endangerment finding as part of the agency’s transition plan.
Schnare later left the agency in dramatic fashion, citing conflicts in management styles with Pruitt and later publishing an op-ed criticizing his former boss.
Beyond his most recent work with the Trump administration, Schnare has publicly fought for access to climate scientists’ emails in a number of lawsuits. He describes the litigation as an effort to increase transparency, although the targets of his efforts contend that it’s an attempt to harass and intimidate them.
Schnare isn’t one to call climate change a "hoax," as the president once did. Like Pruitt, he does not reject outright humans’ impact on the climate, but he has doubts about how serious that impact will be.
"My examination of climate science suggests that we are not facing a cataclysmic problem. I’m one of those that says, ‘Yes, greenhouse gases do have an effect on the climate. The newest and best data we have show that it’s a much smaller effect than we thought a decade ago, by a factor of four,’" he said.
In other words, it’s not as pressing a problem as a rotting horse with rats nesting in its carcass.
‘In the weeds’ of climate science
Schnare, 69, is easy to pick out of a crowd. He stands over 6 feet tall and sports a silvery-white goatee.
He’s given to writing short, sometimes abrupt emails, but in person Schnare is a storyteller, offering anecdotes from conversations decades earlier. He diverts onto seemingly unrelated tangents that ultimately illustrate his thinking on a given issue. He speaks in a soft, measured voice, periodically punctuating important points with sharp raps on the table in front of him.
Schnare first became interested in climate science about a decade ago, when he was a staffer at EPA, he said during a recent interview with E&E News. He recalled conversations with two of his colleagues at the agency, John Davidson and Alan Carlin.
"I respected John’s intellect enormously, and Alan Carlin, as well. They are just very bright people. So I decided to take a hard look," he said. "My approach has always been you have to get in the weeds, you have to go look at the data."
Carlin’s name has been floated by the conservative Heartland Institute as a potential member of a team to critique climate science — an idea Pruitt is advocating. Both Carlin and Davidson co-authored a report in 2009 that was critical of EPA’s use of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data to develop the agency’s endangerment finding. Al McGartland, then the director of EPA’s economics office, declined to forward the report to the office managing the development of the finding (Greenwire, June 26, 2009).
Republicans at the time and recently have called the episode an example of the Obama EPA suppressing science. Pruitt recently echoed Carlin’s and Davidson’s critiques in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee (Climatewire, Dec. 8).
Carlin and Davidson weren’t the only ones casting doubt on the science behind the endangerment finding. According to emails obtained by E&E News, Schnare also urged EPA staff working on the endangerment finding to consider two different studies that took a divergent view on climate science. In an email exchange with Steve Newbold, an economist at the agency, Schnare said the research cast "significant doubt" on whether man-made greenhouse gases significantly contributed to temperature changes in recent decades.
In the years after EPA published the endangerment finding, Schnare became increasingly interested in speaking out publicly about his views on climate change, a topic that was not a part of his work at the agency.
One of Schnare’s main arguments against mainstream climate science is what he describes as an overreliance on climate modeling over empirical temperature data. He questions the way researchers track temperature changes and often points to the benefits of carbon dioxide to plant life and the perils to the planet if atmospheric CO2 fell too low. Climate scientists repeatedly note that other effects of climate change may outweigh the benefits that a CO2 uptick might offer vegetation (Climatewire, Oct. 17).
His targets complain of harassment
Inspired by the "Climategate" scandal, in which hacked climate scientists’ emails fed fringe theories of a climate conspiracy, Schnare began sending out Freedom of Information Act requests for the emails of a number of government and university climate scientists. If the scientists were too slow to respond or refused his request, Schnare took them to court to get the emails. Schnare describes these lawsuits as part of an effort to publicly reveal the data and people guiding policymaking decisions on climate change.
Those who have been on the receiving end of his lawsuits see matters quite differently. A number of people who spoke to E&E News described Schnare’s legal actions as an attempt to harass and silence climate scientists.
Some questioned whether Schnare was following EPA’s ethics guidelines when he started pursuing the emails of climate scientist Michael Mann from Mann’s time at the University of Virginia. Schnare brought the case while working with a group he helped found, the American Tradition Institute. ATI is the precursor to Schnare’s later group, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, where until recently Schnare served as general counsel. In an Oct. 24, 2011, affidavit, Schnare states he had permission to do pro bono work with ATI before he retired from EPA on Sept. 30, 2011.
Others have critiqued the strength of Schnare’s legal arguments and the intent behind his lawsuits.
In one case, Schnare was part of a lawsuit that sought to stop EPA researchers at the University of North Carolina from conducting human trials of air pollutions’ impacts. The study tested the temporary impact of inhaling low concentrations of ozone or particulate matter. Schnare had tried unsuccessfully to argue that he had standing as a concerned citizen to bring the case himself, as well as to act as a lawyer. He even referenced the starvation death of his great-uncle and namesake, David Steiner, in a Nazi concentration camp, and the horrors of the human testing done there. This was meant to establish why he could bring the lawsuit, according to Steve Milloy, who worked on the case with Schnare.
Steve Silverman, an attorney for EPA at the time, said EPA’s controlled human-exposure studies followed strict ethical and scientific guidelines. He noted subjects were exposed to pollution levels "equivalent to that experienced in domestic urban areas." Silverman slammed the reasoning behind the lawsuit.
"I’ve never seen anything like it, both the level of malice and baseless legal theories. The District Judge hearing the case dismissed it out of hand," Silverman said in an email.
Gavin Schmidt, a NASA scientist whom Schnare sued to obtain his private emails in a separate lawsuit, derided the suggestion that obtaining those emails would lead to greater transparency in policymaking. In this case, which extended over five years, Schnare was part of a legal team that sought NASA emails on surface temperature records, as well as Schmidt’s nonofficial emails.
"The idea that they need to see my personal emails in order to improve transparency in policymaking is transparently bullshit," Schmidt said. "My personal emails, how is that involved in policymaking? I don’t work for a policy agency, I’ve never made policy in my life. And so why are they targeting me? It’s just because I’m a scientist in the public eye."
Schmidt noted that now that he has had some distance from the case, he doesn’t see the lawsuit as a personal attack, but he and others Schnare had sued became representative of the larger scientific community.
"It is very, very transparent that it’s supposed to be a chilling effect on scientists speaking out in public," he said.
3 decades at EPA
A longtime Northern Virginia resident, Schnare grew up in the suburbs outside Chicago. His father worked as an accountant for General Electric, and his mother stayed at home to care for Schnare, his twin sister and two brothers. He left Illinois for Mount Vernon, Iowa, where he got an undergraduate degree from Cornell College in 1970.
Schnare had been accepted into a chemistry Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo when he got a call from a Navy recruiter. With the Vietnam draft looming (he remembers his draft number: 29), Schnare joined the Navy Reserve and sailed around the Mediterranean instead.
Schnare credits his time in the Navy in part for pushing him into the government.
"You’re making a commitment to the American people that goes beyond yourself. And you are around people who have, as well. So there’s an ethic there that you get into," he said.
Afterward, Schnare obtained a master’s degree in public health and a Ph.D. in environmental management from UNC. Doctorate in hand, Schnare quickly landed a job working on policy in the office of drinking water at EPA, where he launched what would be a 33-year career at the agency that included work in regulatory analysis and enforcement. After about 14 years at EPA, Schnare began taking evening classes at George Mason University’s law school and obtained a law degree while still working full time.
Those close to Schnare are quick to mention his intellect, wry sense of humor and love of dogs. For many years, Schnare and his wife, Marlae, bred and showed Labrador retrievers.
Wade Miller, a consultant on water issues who has known Schnare professionally and personally for more than 40 years, equated Schnare’s commitment to the environment to that of Bill Reilly, Russell Train and Lee Thomas, former EPA administrators under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Nixon and Reagan, respectively.
"He is one of the most honest, ethical people I’ve ever met, and he is more dedicated to the protection of public health and protection of the environment than almost anyone I’ve ever met," said Miller.
‘Licking his wounds’
Last year, Myron Ebell, the head of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s EPA transition, offered Schnare a position on the team. Schnare would later go on to join the "beachhead" team — the first wave of Trump political staffers at EPA — after he said he was assured a position at the agency.
But that never materialized. While Schnare brought decades of experience working at EPA, he said he wasn’t able to work effectively with Pruitt (Climatewire, Dec. 8).
The abrupt exit from the agency was not a first for Schnare. In the mid-1990s, Schnare described leaving EPA for a period of time on detail to another federal office after he had conflicts with then-office director Mike Cook. Now, Schnare counts Cook as a personal friend. And Schnare cited conflicts over the proper degree of enforcement actions as one of the reasons he finally left the agency in 2011.
"I don’t believe it’s appropriate to bang your head against the wall and make a lot of noise and be an aggravation. I believe in team play, and I believe in supporting the people in charge, and if you can’t do that, then you don’t belong there," he said.
Miller, the consultant who has known Schnare since his days in the office of drinking water, advised his longtime friend to remain at the agency this time, despite conflicts with Pruitt. He noted that Schnare would have been a "tremendously valuable resource" at EPA had he stayed.
"He’s still licking his wounds from his parting from EPA; I think he’s trying to figure out what to do next," Miller said.
Schnare says he’s focusing his attention forward. He sees part of his time in retirement going to some pro bono work, and he is also looking to return to water issues. He is particularly concerned about the blue green algae that is de-oxygenating the Chesapeake Bay.
Outside of work, Schnare plans to get his hands dirty. A potter in his spare time with a pottery wheel and kiln at home, Schnare says he is going to go into crystalline pottery this winter.
"This is what true retirement is, when you quit your job, the kids leave home, the dog dies, and then you can do anything you want and you don’t have to worry about it. We are fast approaching that," he said.