With his wacky antics and over-the-top experiments, Bill Nye entertained — and educated — a generation of young would-be scientists with his popular 1990's show, "Bill Nye, The Science Guy."
He's still talking to many of those kids, who are now adults, about science — climate change, in particular. Nye told Colorado Matters he's concerned with what he sees as a growing anti-science movement.
"The President of the United States and his vice president have said succinctly, that they don't accept climate change," Nye says.
Nye's rise to fame, and his decades-long fight for science are chronicled in the new documentary, "Bill Nye: Science Guy." To see the effects of climate change firsthand, Nye visits an ice core extraction site and the glaciers in Greenland with University of Colorado professor and climatologist Jim White.
"It was really something," Nye says. "I’ve been reading about and seeing air photographs of receding glaciers for years, and to be standing right across from the toe, or the end, of one of the glaciers and watch it fall apart before your eyes is troubling."
It's important to show viewers what's happening far away, since the impact can be felt right here in Colorado, said CU professor White. Snowboarders and skiers, in particular, are sensitive to the changing climate.
"They are very concerned about the fact that we've lost a couple of weeks in the fall, and we lost a couple of weeks in the spring to Colorado's ski season," White says. "That is money and that is fun, and we're taking away both money and fun."
Read the transcript of the interview with Nye and White below:
Nathan Heffel: Bill, Jim, welcome to Colorado Matters.
Jim White: Thanks!
Bill Nye: It’s so good to be here.
NH: Now, Jim, to show Bill the evidence of human caused climate change you take him to an Ice Core Lab in Greenland.
[CLIP FROM DOCUMENTARY] JW: Snow falls every year and you get layers and layers of ice, like pages in a book, and as we read this book we learn more and more about the story of our planet.
NH: What evidence is collected from ice cores that, in your mind, prove humans are causing climate change?
JW: I think Ice cores give us the basic baseline information that we need to make that connection. In ice cores you can find greenhouse gasses and in ice cores you can find temperature records and we can put those together and show that when carbon dioxide goes up temperatures go up and when carbon dioxide goes down temperatures go down.
BN: It’s, and, as I say all the time, there’s nobody running around under the ice sheet in Greenland with a hypodermic needle squirting bubbles of ancient atmosphere into the ice. It’s just not how it is.
NH: Bill, what was it like seeing the melting ice caps first hand?
BN: Well, it’s, it’s creepy.
BN: And, frankly, it’s exciting. I mean, it’s just... I have been talking about ice cores in my public talks, like at colleges, for over ten years and so thanks to Jim I finally, actually, went to see where they’re extracted from the actual ice. It was really something. And then I’ve been reading about and seeing air photographs of receding glaciers for years and to be standing right across from the toe, or the end, of one of the glaciers and watch it fall apart before your eyes is troubling and, frankly it’s exciting. I mean, there’s tons of ice, the piece of ice, the big piece that fell while we were standing there was probably a 100 feet high, probably weighed, I don’t know, 30 tons, 40 tons.
[CLIP FROM DOCUMENTARY] BN: The white ice reflects a lot of sunlight but as the ice goes away, as the glacier does stuff like that! It’s exposing bare rock and is warming even faster.
JW: You can clearly hear your emotion watching this happen in real time. You said it was
creepy but also exhilarating.
BN: Well, just whenever you watch a natural phenomenon, it’s like a waterfall is exciting. It’s just, your heart goes to your throat. I mean, wow! But when you realize, intellectually what you’re, seeing the world warming at this extraordinary rate. I hope, you find it a little troubling. Well more than a little.
JW: You’re watching sea level rise, which is pretty amazing, when you think about it.
NH: Is that why you wanted this trip to be in the documentary, to have that visual cue for the viewers of this film?
BN: It wasn't my decision. I signed an agreement. I have no creative control over this filmand, yes, there's a part in the middle where I want to blow my brains out but I’ve gotten through it a couple of times now. I’ll be alright. So it was the producers that made the decision to hope to get to the Greenland Ice Sheet and Dr. White here, Jim, enabled us to be there. It was really, it was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.
NH: Because this documentary is about you, Bill, it’s about your rise to stardom and how you’ve become this lightning rod, if you will, for the climate movement. Jim, why do you think it was so important to get Bill and viewers to this particular place on earth for this documentary?
JW: I think it’s helpful for people to go and, actually see how the science is done and I thought it was a tremendous opportunity as an educator to bring up somebody in Bill Nye, who is a tremendous communicator of science, and show him firsthand. This is how we do it. We dig a big pit in the ice sheet itself, it’s cold. The equipment is impressive, the conditions are harsh and but it has a certain kind of beauty to it. I think it was an opportunity to, for both the film crew and for Bill to see firsthand the incredible changes that are going on in the Arctic today.
NH: Well, is that concerning to you that people are not experiencing this type of thing with
their own eyes and that could be fueling what you mention in the movie as 'an anti-science movement'?
JW: I think that's a, I think you're right. I mean, it's a very good insight. The Arctic is a long way away. It's not easy to get to and people think that what happens in the Arctic doesn't affect them. They're wrong about that what happens in the Arctic does, indeed, affect them. Folks in Miami are watching sea level rise because Greenland is melting and going into the ocean. So the connection is there but we don't think about that connection. We don't actually get up there and watch what's going on. As I said the Arctic is undergoing incredible change today and if you talk to the folks in Canada or Alaska they will tell you that they see it. But their voices are not loud and they don't penetrate down here in the lower 48.
NH: Speaking of Colorado and the lower 48 is there effects of climate change that you are seeing here that you can say to students or people, it's right here?
JW: It is right here. I was just working with a group called Protect Our Winters, which is a Boulder based advocacy group made up of professional skiers and snowboarders, gold medal kind of folks, and they are very concerned about the fact that we've lost a couple of weeks in the fall and we lost a couple of weeks in the spring to Colorado's ski season. That is money and that is fun and we're taking away both money and fun.
We are also in a situation here in Colorado where we're going to have to think seriously about fire issues in the summertime, we're going to have to think seriously about how do we, are we going to build more reservoirs because snow is a free reservoir and we're trading snow for rain. So climate change is very, very real here in Colorado, both in our faces and in your pocketbook, keep in mind, that we're all part of this big country and we have trillions of dollars of assets along the coast and we're not going to be immune to helping to pay for that as sea level rises.
NH: You're with Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Nathan Heffel and I'm speaking with scientist and engineer, Bill Nye, you may know him as Bill Nye, The Science Guy from the 1990s TV show; Jim White, a climatologist at the University of Colorado is also here. We're talking about a new documentary about Nye, as well as how people view climate change. You say, Bill, there's an anti-science stance that is growing across the world. What makes you say that?
BN: Well, the President of the United States and his vice president have said succinctly that they don't accept climate change. The vice president in the film you see him saying he doesn't accept evolution as a proven scientific theory and that's, those two ideas are plainly wrong. And it's the fossil fuel industry that has been very successful in introducing the idea that scientific uncertainty, plus or minus two percent, what have you, is somehow exactly the same as doubt about the whole thing as plus or minus a hundred percent. And when I state it in that way everybody, of course, two percent does not equal a hundred percent but the fossil fuel industry has managed to, essentially put that in a great many people's minds, including, our current leaders.
NH: But people are so entrenched on these issues do you hope to change minds here or what?
BN: The ultimate would be to change minds so, Jim, you haven't seen the film, right?
JW: No, I haven't seen it yet, no.
BN: So I take on everybody's favorite, Joe Bastardi, who is a long time climate denier or contrarian. He's a meteorologist and he does not accept the influence of increasing carbon dioxide levels on a warming world, however, he has a son, and I believe, when you watch the movie you can see how conflicted his son, Garrett, is. And I believe this is or -- he represents the future that as the climate deniers of my age get older, and age out, and stop voting and become a minority, young people, who were raised with concern about climate change, will get to work and make sweeping changes in the way we produce electricity, clean water and access to the Internet for everyone on earth.
NH: So you see it as a generational thing it sounds like. I want to talk about the fact that in the documentary, Bill, you're pretty open about some of your work has seemed to actually fuel this anti-science fire; you debated Ken Ham, a well-known creationist, who's opened museums that show things like humans and dinosaurs living side-by-side because he says the Bible proves the world is only around 4,000 years old.
BN: His interpretation of the Bible says that.
NH: That is his interpretation of the Bible but, Jim, in the documentary you say that you believe in God but that people don't have a choice when it comes to believing in climate change, unlike believing in God. There seems to be a real tension there.
JW: The tension is there because physics is based on, or our universe is based on unbreakable rules. Gravity is gravity. I just flew in an airplane today and I'm very thankful that the gravitational constant is indeed constant because a manufacturer of an airplane can figure out how fast it has to fly and how to shape the wings and all that stuff. All that technology depends on the dependability of things like vibrational frequencies of atoms or gravitational constant. This is how the whole system was created and when we think that's it's not going to be constant, as I tell people, have you ever woken up in the morning plastered to the ceiling of your bedroom on one of those no gravity days and the answer is no, it doesn't happen. We understand at a very basic level that our universe has predictability to it because of the way that the system functions and as an educator, as a professor, this is the one thing that really drives me slightly crazy is that people will say things like I don't believe in climate change and I will tell them, ‘Well, wait a minute, you don't get to believe in climate change any more than you get to believe in gravity.'
NH: And, Bill, final question for you some of the criticism you receive in this new documentary is that you're not 'A scientist". That you hosted a kids' science show. It's something right wing politicians have you repeated to try and discredit you that you have a degree in mechanical engineering.
BN: That's physics, people, that's all I did was physics. What do you want from me, man! I used to have a job. I have a license.
NH: But you're hearing that over and over and over.
JW: Hey, mechanical engineering is science, I'm sorry, it really is.
BN: Well, it's all classical physics. So.
BN: Suppose I had an associates art degree in education, the climate's still changing! You can
shoot the messenger all you want but the climate is still changing. So I've been doing climate change demonstrations since ' well, the one I published in 1993 in my first kids' book that I'd been concerned about this for quite a while, over 20 years, and we've hardly done anything about it. Now, this is, I believe, almost entirely because of the fossil fuel industry and their amazing success at introducing doubt. That somehow your opinion, one's opinion is every bit as good as provable scientific facts and that's just not true. And it didn't use to be that way. The reason the United States sent people to the moon and invented the iPhone and the Internet and is raising crops that enable us to feed 7.4 billion people where we used to feed one and a half, is because of science. And so I think the pendulum's going to swing back really fast, once the deniers "age out" as I like to say.
NH: Now, is there an opportunity, do you think for discussion between your view and the views of some who say climate change is not a real thing or does that bring up a false equivalency?
JW: Well, I don't think there's a debate there. We don't, there's no debate in terms of physics, there's no debate in terms of what we understand is the basic climate system. I think where the debate is is what do you do about it. How do we move the needle, so to speak, in terms of getting people to be more interested in this to take it seriously to vote with that in mind? And what do we do about it?
There's a lot of rather difficult pieces to this equation. For example, because seventy percent of the earth is covered with water and water takes a long time to, to heat up water a watched pot never boils. What's going on today is basically we're just warming up the ocean and once the ocean's warmed up, it's going to stay warmed up for a long period of time. This creates an inter-generational problem and what we're doing to the planet today our grandkids, my grandkids, are going to have to deal with and there's, that's an unfair situation. But it's difficult to get people to think beyond their generation but until we do that we're not going to be able to deal with this issue.
NH: Jim, Bill, thanks for being here.
BN: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, Jim, it's good to talk with you again.
JW: It's good to talk to you, Bill.