Bill Nye Wants Us to Invent our Way out of Climate Change


When it comes to his role in the climate change debate, we’ve learned in recent years to think of Bill Nye as a kind of warrior on behalf of reason — the guy who goes on cable TV and stands up to the voices of doubt and denial.

But that’s not the Nye of Bill Nye the Science Guy, the beloved kids show. And it’s not the picture you get from reading his new book Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World — which is fundamentally about changing how we get energy and thereby solving global warming. Here, Nye the inventor and engineer shines through — celebrating causes ranging from designing better batteries (doing so could get someone “rich, crazy rich,” he writes) to deploying fleets of robocabs in cities, to eventually powering rockets using hydrogen fuel.

The goal of the book, Nye told me in an interview last week, is “getting people to see that there are a great many engineering options and I hope, policy ideas that people will embrace to help humankind save the Earth for humankind. As I like to say, the Earth is going to be here no matter what we do. We want to save the Earth for us.”

Nye has actually been engaged with the subject of climate change for decades. A 1993 kids book that he wrote, Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Big Blast of Science, included what he terms a climate change ‘demonstration’ — Bill Nye the Science Guy the TV show also featured several. Nye also took an astronomy class from Carl Sagan at Cornell University — a man whom, he says, would have been a leading climate advocate were he still around today.

“He was talking about it in the 1980s,” says Nye.

In the new book, Nye extensively describes the science of climate change and how it relates to our electricity system — “The battle to make a better world is a battle against thermodynamics,” he writes — and then surveys all the cool ideas out there for fixing things. That ranges from geoengineering schemes that would use gigantic volumes of micro-bubbles to change the reflectivity of bodies of water and so bounce more sunlight back to space, to using battery powered electric cars as not just transportation devices, but as variable grid power sources that can be switched on when they’re parked at home.

To be sure, Nye agrees that the biggest growth will be in solar and wind technologies — in particular, he thinks offshore wind off the U.S. east coast is a fundamental asset that we’re not exploiting yet. “There’s enormous wind resources right off shore if we all decide we’re going to go get them,” he says. And he also supports putting a price on carbon, which would even the playing field for new technologies.

One key question, though, is whether the ongoing change in how we get electricity will proceed fast enough to fight climate change. Wind and solar are currently booming, but at the same time, and despite rapid growth rates at present, they still provide less than 10 percent of overall U.S. electricity.

But Nye insists that change can come very, very fast, and the rate of change that we enable is really in part a policy decision.

“My grandfather went into World War I on a horse,” says Nye. “He was on a horse, for crying out loud. But 20 years later, when people went to extend that conflict, to reignite the world war, nobody who was serious about fighting a battle went into a battle on a horse. Everything changed in 20 years. Everything.”

In terms of technologies, Nye is also fascinated by desalination, and potential nanotech innovations that could make it more efficient by using graphene, which he describes as “a layer of carbon, rather a sheet of carbon, that is one atom thick.” Potentially, Nye says, “you could gently push saltwater through this grapheme membrane and get freshwater on the other side with much much lower energy costs than we’re able to do now with reverse osmosis or especially distillation.”

The book also covers advanced biofuels like those based on switchgrass and algae, vacuum trains (the famed “hyperloop” suggested by Elon Musk), and more. “If you don’t think you can make it, you won’t, that I will guarantee you,” says Nye when I point out how far technologies like these have to go.

That’s the technology side of things — but then there remains the politics and Nye’s particular bugbear, the climate change denial. Here, too, he’s optimistic.

In the 2016 election, Nye says, he suspects that a Republican candidate may finally end the party’s longstanding tradition of science denial, recognizing how much of an electoral liability it is, especially with an electorate now comprised of millennials who have little time for denialism.

“It is my experience that climate change denial is almost universally age or generation related,” says Nye. “Only people of an older generation deny climate change. Once in a while you meet a young person, now and then. But very seldom. So when push comes to shove on the conservative side, they may decide to embrace the problem of climate change in order to get elected.”


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This segment is brought to you through a partnership between the UNDP Climate Change Team at the Ministry of Environment in Lebanon and the NAHARNET team. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any party/institution.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Dylan Lovan

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