Bill Nye demolishes climate deniers:
“The single most important thing we can do now is talk about climate
In a Salon exclusive, the scientist
discusses his new book, "Unstoppable," and the urgent need for climate
Bill Nye(Credit: AP/Scott Roth)
confront climate change, we all have to embrace two ideas. They are
simple and familiar ideas, but that does not make them any less true.
First: We are all in this together. Second: The longest journey begins
with a simple step.” – Bill Nye
On Nov. 10
, Bill Nye will release a new book titled “Unstoppable
As only Bill Nye can, he uses the book to explain the science behind
climate change, debunks popular myths, and asks readers to take action
in their own lives to create a sustainable future. The book is shot
through with optimism, but Nye has no illusions about what lies ahead.
The message is simple: Climate change is real; humans are causing it;
and we have no choice but to build a better and cleaner world.
spoke with Nye about his new book and about his broader intentions. We
asked him what he thought about climate deniers and the persistent
anti-science demagoguery around this issue. Our conversation is below
and has been edited for clarity and length.
So why did you write this book? Why now? And what’s your central message?
goal is to change the world! Really, that’s what I’m trying to do.
Obviously, this book isn’t going to change the world, but it is part of
the bigger idea that we all have to think optimistically about this.
We’ve got to go into this knowing we have a hard challenge but that
we’re going to win this fight, and we’re going to save the earth for
As I like to say, you’re a human being no matter what
you do. So we have to save the earth for us. Things are going to change;
there’s going to be upheaval, but we have to deal with it as best we
can. And that means getting to work!
Most people probably
aren’t familiar with the latest climate science, and so I’ll just ask
you: What do we really know about the causes of climate change and how
troubling to you are the latest climate models?
very troubling. My goodness – it’s apocalyptic if you let it get to you.
Certainly the worst case scenarios are terrifying. But on the other
hand, we’re at a point now where wind energy is an increasingly viable
alternative. Now, I wrote this book a couple of months ago, but things
are improving every day. When I wrote the book, fossil fuels were at 1.8
cents per kilowatt-hour and now they’re at 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.
But wind is now at 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour, which mean they’re
converging. Wind is now competitive with fossil fuels. Furthermore, if
we were to charge a fee – oh, we must never call it a tax – on fossil
fuels, wind would be way cheaper — way cheaper. And wind is
just one example. There are other affordable alternatives, like solar,
which in many cases pay for themselves – if only we’d invest in them.
just think of my grandfather who went into World War I on a horse – he
rode a horse into battle. You’ll be shocked to learn he was a chemist,
and his assignment was to put chlorine — bleach essentially — in the
Lyster Bags, the canvas canteens. And he lived through it. But when that
conflict continued under the heading “World War II,” nobody did
anything like this – technologically it was a new world. No one who was
serious went into battle on a freaking horse. And that changed in just
20 years! It wasn’t 10 centuries; it was a weekend. And so we can do the
same thing! C’mon, everybody, let’s go!
Part of the
problem, as you know, is that we’re not all dealing with the same facts.
People love “truth” in the abstract, but they hate inconvenient facts.
And there’s so much misinformation and propaganda out there, and there
are monied interests working to muddy the waters at all times. This is a
tremendous burden for those who want to solve this problem.
you’re leading to my next point. Part of the solution to this problem
or this set of problems associated with climate change is getting the
deniers out of our discourse. You know, we can’t have these people –
they’re absolutely toxic. And so part of the message in this book is to
get the deniers out of the picture, and along that line – I’ve been
saying this a lot the last few weeks as I listen to the Republican
debates – maybe one of these people will go out on his or her own,
thinking for him or herself, and say, “You know, I’ve been thinking
about this and climate change is a very serious problem. So if I’m
president, we’re going to address climate change.”
First of all,
politically, it would engage what everybody loves right now, the
millennials. And then it would have some potential for influencing
everybody, no matter who wins the presidential election, to address
climate change. And the reason it’s so important for us in the United
States is that we are the world leaders. You can hate the U.S., you can
hate everything we do, but the U.S. still is the world leader in all
sorts of policies, climate change being among them. So it’s all the more
reason to get going!
How do you respond to the
recalcitrant skeptics, the ones who say, “OK, I acknowledge that the
earth is heating up, and I understand why that’s a bad thing. However,
we don’t really know what’s causing that. And we don’t really know to what degree humans are responsible.”
we do! It’s human activity. It’s the burning of fossil fuels and the
release of methane, a natural gas mostly from agriculture, but to a
lesser extent from leakage, so-called fugitive gas from an oil field.
But these are solvable problems.
And the science is clear on that, right?
Absolutely. We know exactly why the climate is changing — it’s human activity!
What do you think are the biggest myths and misunderstandings about climate change right now?
there’s no question. The biggest myth is that scientific uncertainty,
plus or minus so many percent, is the same as doubt about the whole
thing. And that’s wrong; that’s patently wrong. And that’s a dangerous
confusion. This is one of the big reasons I wrote the book.
me ask you about fracking, because I hear a lot about that, and it’s a
big controversial issue and one a lot of people are concerned about.
What’s your take on all this? And how does fracking factor into the
I don’t know if you read the details from
my uncle who used to blow stuff up, but it’s in the book. He was quite a
character. I mean, politically, we disagree about everything. But I
love the guy. Anyway, he’s always worked with explosives. I’m told he
fracks wells now and then by dropping explosives straight down – I mean,
straight down. With modern drilling techniques, however, you can go
sideways, almost horizontal. So this has done a few things.
of all, in the notorious cases, it’s put natural gas in people’s sinks,
which is horrible and lawsuits ensue, and it’s thoughtless and
mean-spirited and all these things. But in the bigger picture, fracking
has driven down the price of natural gas by making it abundant,
especially in the U.S., which is the largest user of all this stuff. But
it has slowed the development of renewables, like wind and solar,
because gas is so cheap. And it has caused an increase in fugitive
natural gas, which is bad for the atmosphere. The costs, in other words,
clearly outweigh the benefits. Most of the confusion on fracking has to
do with economics and the mean-spirited callous attitude of certain oil
Let’s talk a bit about anti-science
demagoguery. You have a charming way of cutting people down when
they’re talking nonsense and, I think you’ll agree, there are a lot of
people who simply refuse to believe in what is, in what the data tells
us. What do you say to those who insist that climate change is a hoax or
some grand liberal phantasm?
Well, I just chip away.
Here’s a recent example I can cite. I spoke with a guy the other day
whom I’ve known for about five years, and we’re like-minded on many
issues, but he decided to go fire-walking. He was very excited; he was
going to have this empowering experience and walk on hot coals, because
he believes strongly that this will only be possible if he mentally
prepares himself. And he got into some pseudoscience stuff about an
energy field that comes out of your feet, that allows you to do this
stuff. Well, it turns out, walking on hot coals is possible because of
nature, or science, or physics — whatever you want to call it. It turns
out that you can walk on hot coals for a dozen steps or so – for most
people – without burning your feet; it’s just the way it works– coals on
fire don’t conduct heat that well. I started explaining to this guy
that he’s been fooling himself all these years. It is not spiritual
enablement; it is physics. But the first time he hears this, he’s not
going to change his mind. He’s not going to change his mind the second
or third time, in fact. But after two years of people pointing out to
him that he’s not doing this because he’s magical but rather because of
the world, because of the structure of the universe, he will give in; he
will change his mind. For similar reasons, I believe that if we just
chip away at the science-deniers, they will come around – they have to.
change is often discussed as though it were merely an environmental
issue. But it’s clearly a lot more than that. If climate trends
continue, there will be dire political and economic
consequences, many of which you address in your book. What worries you
the most when you’re thinking about our reluctance to deal with this
What worries me the most are the social effects, and by that I mean people are going to have to move. They’re
going to have to be displaced, and I’m talking about the United States,
the developed world. But in the bigger picture, there are people all
over the world who are not going to be able to move fast enough. They’re
going to have to abandon their material possessions; they’re going to
have to abandon their farms, and they’re not going to be able to get
clean water for agriculture in general. And so we have to – this is why
I’m so passionate about this – take steps right now. The sooner, the
And that’s why my current spout is that the 2016 election
is the biggest election in your lifetime, if you’re a millennial. The
millennials are in power – they have a vote and they can swing the
election. And that’s what we need them to do. The U.S. is so important
to the way the world works. That means we’re an opportunity and a
threat. We need a culture of renewable energy. We need a culture of
environmental stewardship. We need a culture of recycling goods and
manufacturing goods from materials that can be recycled, we can change
Cynics complain about the practicality of
resisting climate change. I’m thinking of the crowd who acknowledges
everything you’re saying about climate but says, nevertheless, that we
shouldn’t make sweeping changes if we can’t get the rest of the world to
act in concert with us, particularly if those changes involve
sacrifices. How do you respond to that?
If we were leading, everything
would be different. If we’re dragging our feet and being scientific
dingbats, no one is going to follow us. If the United States were
leading, it would change the world. If the United States is screwing
around, being divisive and self-defeating, or being terrorized by
self-doubt, then no one is going to follow us. So much of this defeatism
is pure whining – India is doing this, China is doing that, etc. If the
United States were manufacturing the best solar panels, if the United
States were exploring the best solar hot water systems, if the United
States were exporting the service to erect wind turbines, if the United
States were leading the way in getting birds or bats to avoid wind
turbines, which has to be a solvable problem, then everybody would buy
that technology and things would change.
Buried in the
broader conversation about climate change is the assumption that we have
to save the planet. I’m not opposed to saving the planet, of course,
but isn’t it true that the planet will happily survive climate change –
it’s people who will die. This seems like a non-trivial distinction –
what do you think?
Oh, that’s the key. The evidence now
is that at one time there were about a hundred humans, a tribe or a
large group of tribes, but we squeezed through the evolutionary sieve
and here we all are. But somebody will live through all of this, even if
it’s the apocalyptic vision that you see in “Road Warrior.” But I would
like a lot of people to live through it, like me and you! We have to
get to the point where everyone understands what we’re facing, where one
of our politicians can stand up and think for him or herself without
listening to the polls.
At the end of your book, you write
that you don’t want to scare people or blame people or give readers a
sense of despair. But you also write that you have no illusions about
what lies ahead. Climate change is an immensely difficult challenge, and
it’s not clear that we have the will to deal with it. How optimistic
are you that we will do what’s necessary?
Sooner or later, we’re going to do what we have to do. And I have to believe that.
think a lot of us are looking for ways to make a difference on the
climate front, but don’t necessarily know how. What advice do you give
to people who want to apply your ideas or other eco-friendly practices
in their daily lives?
There are plenty of things you can
do – some are easy and others are hard. Don’t waste water bottles. Get
in the habit of not wasting our resources. Don’t waste food in the
restaurant where you eat. Don’t bring home extra napkins or extra French
fries. Don’t waste. Insulate your house. If you haven’t insulated the
ceiling, insulate it – it makes a real difference. If you want to go
wild, invest and do the windows. The single most important thing we can
do now, however, is talk about climate change. My claim is that if we
were talking about climate change the way we’re talking about Ferguson,
Missouri, or Baltimore or other important issues, we would be getting
these things done. We would be solving this problem together. And, look,
it’s hard. You’re going to meet people who don’t want to talk about it.
You’re going to meet people in denial. You’re going to hear people say,
“I’m not a scientist, therefore I am not going to use my brain.”
if we continue to talk about it, things will get done. If you want to
make a difference, these next few months and the election in general
have the potential to become a huge turning point. Not just for the
U.S., but for humankind.