Bill Nye vs the Barbarians: Is Bill Getting Better at This?
February 17, 2014
I fully agree that reversing the slide into the New Dark Ages is a worthy preoccupation – but, it’s worth asking, – Bill Nye getting better at this? I’m not so sure – getting sucked into “the debate” on a venue that has criminally ignored the issue for years, except to perpetuate the idea that there is a “debate” among people who actually know stuff –
he gives yet another opportunity for Marsha Blackburn (think Sara Palin without the charm) to spout science denialist talking points.
First, some context: TV news shows almost never cover climate change, which ought to be one of the most aggressively-reported issues around, given that, y’know, it’s a dire threat to the planet and everyone on it. A recent study from Media Matters found that the Sunday shows on NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox spent a combined 27 minutes on the topic in the whole of 2013. Meet the Press was singled out as “failing to offer a single substantial mention of climate change” for the entire year.
I cringed when he held up a picture of the arctic and said “antactic”. I wish he’d bluntly said “climate change is manmade”, “humans are the cause, humans are the solution”, and “we can’t prove any single event was caused by global warming” with “we can’t prove any single home run was caused by steroids — but we *can* prove there wouldn’t have been as many”.
He does not yet know how to cut to the heart of an argument. Some points for continuing to show up.
What made a difference in this presentation was David Gregory’s continued reminders to climate denier Marsha Blackburn that blatant denial was not an option, the consensus was clear. Points for him on that, but deducts for scheduling Nye and Blackburn in the first place. Should have been leading scientists with expertise, and policy maker who is serious about solutions.
Fact Checking below.
Here’s an example of how this will work. The segment, which you can watch here, begins inauspiciously, with a quote from NBC weatherguy Al Roker.
Is it a natural cycle? Is it — is it due to human interference or human conditions that we have created? That remains open to debate. But there is no doubt the climate is changing.
What Roker’s doing here is what you might call skepticism-once-removed. He’s too smart and too prominent to deny that climate change exists, but he also doesn’t want to get nasty emails from people who hate the idea that anyone would say climate change exists. (I, however, welcome such emails!) So he walks a wishy-washy and incorrect middle road: climate change is real, but is it humanity’s fault?
It is humanity’s fault, at least according to the same scientists that say it is happening, which is nearly every climate scientist with only a few isolated exceptions. A survey of climate studies completed last year found that 97 percent of 4,000 studies blamed human activity for warmer temperatures — more greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-burning leading to more heat trapped in the atmosphere. Roker is wrong.
And when you look at the fact that we have gone from 320 parts per million 0.032, to 0.040 four hundred parts per million, what you do is realize it’s very slight.
Blackburn tries to downplay the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by talking about the amounts in very, very small decimals. Which they are: If I took $400 versus $320 out of your million dollars, you wouldn’t be terribly upset.
But that’s intentionally misleading. The difference between the two is an increase of 25 percent over the past 50 years — after thousands and thousands of years of it being lower. Last year, The New York Times explained that the level of carbon dioxide now in our atmosphere is a “concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years.” And at that point, “the world’s ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher.”
Why hasn’t that happened now? Because “it takes a long time to melt ice,” as one scientist told the Times. But we’re getting there.
[T]here is not consensus [on climate change] and you can look at the latest IPCC Report and look at Doctor Lindzen from MIT. His rejection of that or Judith Curry … from Georgia Tech. There is not consensus there.
This is just cherry-picking. Finding two people who disagree with the thousands of other scientists doesn’t constitute debate any more than scoring a field goal when you’re down 70 points makes the game a tie.
What’s more, as MSNBC’s Ned Resnikoff points out, Blackburn didn’t even pick very good cherries.
Blackburn cited two climate scientists to make her point: One who has been “wrong about nearly every major climate argument he’s made over the past two decades,” according to fellow environmental scientist Dana Nuccitelli, and another who recently said, “it’s clear that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will warm the planet.”
[E]ven Director McCarthy from the EPA in answering questions from Congressman Pompeo before our committee, said reaching all of the 26 U.S. goals is not going to have an impact globally.
Rating: Mostly true
During the discussion between Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy (which can be seen here), McCarthy did say that the 26 steps the EPA would like to adopt to scale back America’s greenhouse gas pollution wouldn’t, in themselves, solve climate change. That’s because other countries — like China — wouldn’t be affected and would continue to pump out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses.
But that doesn’t mean that there would be no impact. If the American example of fighting emissions could serve as a model for other countries, it would have broader value. Fighting climate change is not something we can win by ourselves.
We didn’t win World War II by ourselves either. It took multiple countries coming together to defeat the Axis threat. What McCarthy, the head of our environmental military, suggests is that we get on a war footing.
Now, you know, when you look at the social cost of carbon, and there is a lot of ambiguity around that, what you also need to be doing is looking at the benefits of carbon and what that has on increased agriculture production.
Blackburn’s main point — in fact, the main point of he Republican colleagues and of the fossil fuel industry at large — is that stopping climate change would be expensive. Which is largely true: It means that coal plants and heavy industry wouldn’t be able to release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere for free where the long-term costs would be borne by other people in the form of increased floods or droughts.
ThinkProgress did a good job rebutting the “CO2 is good for plants” schtick. While small amounts of the gas are critical for plants to grow, it points out that the California drought, almost certainly exacerbated by if not entirely due to climate change, has hardly been a boon for the state’s agricultural centers.
The site also explains a bit more about the “social cost of carbon.” That cost “is the formula used by federal regulators to calculate how carbon pollution harms public health, the environment, property value, and other issues” — and could be as much as $129 per ton by 2020 under some emissions scenarios.
Again, Blackburn claims there’s ambiguity to the figure. In part that’s because the cost varies depending on how much we keep emitting. If Blackburn and her colleagues accept a value for that “social cost,” her cost-benefit analysis starts to work against polluters. After all, any cost to prevent the emission of carbon dioxide that’s less than $129 a ton (or whatever the final figure) becomes preferable under any cost-benefit analysis, even if it mandates regulation of the industry. And polluters and their advocates don’t want to incur any additional cost, because it’s bad for profits.
This debate goes on.
The debate is over. If Meet the Press covered the topic more — in 2013, according to Media Matters, it failed “to offer a single substantial mention of climate change” — Gregory might know that.
Fresh off a mega-debate that embarrassed Young Earth creationists and led to none other than Pat Robertson denouncing their views, Nye appeared on Meet the Press today to debate Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a global warming “skeptic.”
On the air, Blackburn, who is vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, denied that there is a scientific consensus on climate change and argued that “you don’t make good laws, sustainable laws, when you’re making them on hypotheses, or theories, or unproven sciences.” (There is indeed such a scientific consensus; at one moment, host David Gregory had to correct Blackburn on this point.)
But Nye rebutted her with some simple science lessons that made a lot of sense—noting that going from 320 to 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, something Blackburn called “very slight,” is actually a very big change in percentage terms (Nye said 30 percent; it is actually a 25 percent increase). At the same time, Nye also hammered home a compelling message centered on patriotism. “As a guy who grew up in the US,” he said, “I want the US to lead the world in this….The more we mess around with this denial, the less we’re going to get done.”
The key gotcha moment in the debate came when Nye called out Blackburn for failing to lead on the climate issue. “You are our leader,” he said to Blackburn. “We need you to change things, not deny what’s happening.”
“Neither he nor I are a climate scientist,” Blackburn noted during the debate. But as Nye observed, only one of them is a politician, whose job is to use the best information that we have at our disposal to make the world work better.