Bill Nye answers questions about climate change and global warming
Bill Nye has been the science expert for teachers and students for decades, most notably with his PBS show, “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
In recent years, he has been a strong advocate for the fight against climate change. It will be a featured topic on his new show, ‘The End is Nye’, set to air later this year on Peacock..
Nye sat down with USA TODAY this week to answer some of Google’s most frequently asked questions about climate change and global warming.
What is global warming? When did it start? How does climate change affect humans, animals and the ocean?
The “science guy” himself has answers to these questions and more. Here’s what he had to say.
Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What is climate change?
Nye: Global warming is therefore at the origin of climate change. By trapping this extra heat in the atmosphere, we are changing the global climate faster than at any time in recorded history, but faster than at any time in Earth’s history, with the exception of when the asteroids hit the Earth.
What is global warming?
Nye: Humans add an extraordinary amount of additional greenhouse gases; the largest is carbon dioxide, then methane. We are adding these gases to the atmosphere so rapidly that the world has never warmed up so quickly.
Visible light passes through these molecules, like carbon dioxide, hits the Earth’s surface where it transitions to a longer wavelength, infrared. These gases retain a large part of this infrared, of this heat.
The world is getting warmer, and with a warmer world we have more heat energy in the ocean and storms are bigger and last longer. We are changing global weather patterns where it becomes this huge drought in the west and very rainy in the east.
Is global warming real? Do you have an answer to people who say it’s not real?
Nye: Well, for the people who say it’s not real, you’re wrong. The scientific consensus on human-caused climate change is overwhelming. People who are in denial have been too heavily influenced by the fossil fuel industry. (The fossil fuel industry) was able to introduce the idea that plus or minus 2% equals plus or minus 100%.
For example, this ice cap in Antarctica, this huge ice sheet is going to break off from Antarctica and fall into the sea. Antarctica is the only continent under water; it’s under the ice. When a big chunk of that ice falls into the ocean, we’re going to add a lot more fresh water to the ocean, and a lot more water to the ocean. Sea levels will rise and the salinity of the ocean, especially in the south, will change very rapidly.
People say, “Well, when is it going to be? Is it going to be tomorrow or in 10 years?” When it comes to geological processes, plus or minus 10 years is extraordinarily accurate. Some people say “Well, then that’s too much uncertainty. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s wrong. The uncertainty of climate change is very low. Humans are the cause. It’s global. It changes climates all over the world.
‘Death by 1,000 cuts’:How the US Forest Service is losing a water war in the West
When did global warming start?
Nye: People like to say around the year 1750; it was then that James Watt, who was a mechanical engineer, got a steam engine that worked very well. Many people had fun making steam engines for decades. It was in the middle of the 18th century that steam engines became really practical and found themselves everywhere. When this happened, people started burning coal and digging up old plants and old swamps that had turned into coal. (People were burning) the coal and the old swamps, adding carbon dioxide, which had been buried when these plants were alive, and releasing that carbon into the atmosphere very, very quickly. We are talking about the last 2½ centuries. Compare 250 years to 2.5 million years and that’s very fast. We’re adding carbon dioxide faster and faster, and it’s warming the world faster.
How to stop global warming?
Nye: You probably can’t stop global warming in the life of someone who’s alive now.
What we can do is deal with it, prepare for it, and reduce the rate at which it happens.
We can do this by stopping the addition of carbon monoxide, above all, and then methane in the atmosphere; stop this as soon as possible. The way to stop this is to stop burning fossil fuels. The way to stop this is to provide alternative sources of electricity. This is where we enter wind, solar, geothermal, and perhaps one day nuclear fusion, where we would have virtually unlimited supplies of electricity distributed around the world. We can stop burning fossil fuels. We could then slowly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using the same unlimited amount of electricity.
To do all of this, we have to start. Let’s go. Let’s go!
How does climate change affect people?
Nye: If you live in Western California, there are water restrictions. I have a garden where I grow a lot of food; I can only water it on Thursdays and Sundays.
And there isn’t (the same amount of) snow in the California mountains that there would normally be or once was. Because the world is warming, weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean are changing. It doesn’t snow as much as it used to, so we no longer store water as snow in the mountains like we used to. The reason you and I are able to have lunch and dinner today is because of food grown in the West, food grown in Mexico. These crops depend on rainfall and water stored in the form of snow.
As we stop having water stored in reservoirs, we won’t be able to produce as much food, and that will cause problems. People go for food. They will move. Food prices will rise, and that’s one more thing that hits the poor faster than the rich. People who cannot afford the rarest food will be hit harder.
How does climate change affect animals?
Nye: The animals change their place of life; they are moving.
Animals that really move are insects. There’s that infamous beetle that attacks trees out west. As the world has warmed and winters are milder, these beetles have been able to attack more trees and kill them. When an occasional thunderstorm happens it starts fires and we can’t put out the fires because the trees are dead and the wind is blowing and the fires are spreading which by the way adds more dioxide of carbon in the atmosphere, destroys the ecosystem and drives out all the wildlife and kills everything.
It’s bad, bad, bad.
You talked about the evolution of the ocean and salinity. If not, how does climate change affect the ocean?
Nye: Greenland is a very large island covered with a lot of ice; as the ice pours into the sea, changing the salinity of the ocean. When you change this part of the ocean’s salinity, you change the way the currents flow.
You have probably heard of this famous current called the Gulf Stream. The reason we have ice-free ports in Norway is because the Gulf Stream keeps it a bit warm. The reason there’s all this wonderful agriculture in Europe – French wines, Italian wines – is because the Gulf Stream keeps this part of Eurasia a little warmer than it otherwise would be. By making this central part of the Gulf Stream cooler, less salty, the salt water flows more slowly; this layer of fresh water remains on top, slowing the clockwise circulation of the Gulf Stream. It will affect the climate in Europe, and it will affect people’s ability to produce food in Europe, and it will affect the economies of Europe, and it will affect everyone in the world.
How does climate change affect biodiversity?
Nye: In the case of the forest and beetles, when you kill a clump of trees, the ecosystem deteriorates very quickly; only certain species can cling to it. When you lose diversity in the ecosystem, the ecosystem becomes less resilient, less flexible, less able to tolerate change.
It’s been very well documented over the last 60 or 70 years; as you destroy ecosystem diversity, things get worse and worse in ecosystems. This is true in forests. It is true in the ocean. Carbon dioxide is in the air; it dissolves in sea water because the air touches the ocean. The ocean becomes slightly more acidic. This slight, slight change in the free protons floating in the ocean makes life impossible for (animals that make coral reefs). When you lose coral in the ocean, you lose the nooks and crannies that allow many, many other species and organisms to live. When you do that, you have less diversity in the ocean.
How does recycling contribute to climate change?
Nye: Almost all the clothes we wear almost all contain plastic. These materials are amazing, but they have an effect on the ecosystem. We don’t want to throw away this plastic. We want to recover it and reuse it.
Especially in the case of aluminum. Aluminum takes so much energy to produce. It takes a lot of electricity to produce this from rocks. Recycling it is fantastic. We want everyone to get used to not throwing these things away.
The other problems, with the example of plastic, we can tackle these problems in the years to come. But for now, let’s start by not throwing it away. The way we deal with waste, a lot of things end up in the ocean. How does it go from land to ocean? We throw it and it rolls downhill. So everyone, let’s stop this. There are all kinds of ways to get people to do the right thing with materials. Let’s start with recycling!
Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She’s from Norfolk, Virginia, and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food.