Science Guy Bill Nye’s radically simple blueprint for ending climate change

“The Science Guy” tackles climate change.
“The Science Guy” tackles climate change.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Bill Nye “The Science Guy” instilled an early appreciation for science in young Americans who grew up watching his TV show in the ’90s. And now, he’s using his voice to spark a national conversation about climate change.

The head of The Planetary Society and former Boeing engineer released a new book last month called Unstoppable, which outlines how the current generation of young people—dubbed the “Next Great Generation”—can use science to curb climate change within their lifetime. While world leaders met in Paris to hash out a climate deal that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Nye shared with Quartz his thoughts on climate change denial, curbing global warming, the wonders of electric cars, and why we should invest in science education.

Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Quartz: What’s the biggest issue preventing us from tackling climate change and how do we fix it?

Nye: It’s such a big problem that people are paralyzed—they’re paralyzed by self doubt. And this, in my perception, feeds into denialism. It’s just so overwhelming, you can’t even contemplate doing something about it. But as I like to say, the longest journey begins with but a single step. The sooner you get started the sooner we can address these issues.

What do you say to climate-change deniers who don’t believe we need to take responsibility for global warming?

The first time you hear that climate change is this amazingly huge problem, many people, it seems to me, go through the five stages of grief: It’s: “I don’t believe you, that’s ridiculous”—you’re in denial. Then you get angry about it. Then you go: “Well, if we just do this one thing, everything will work out.” Then you get depressed. And then you accept it. But getting past denial doesn’t happen after one hearing or one presentation or one confrontation. It happens after many many interactions with the topic.

There are a lot fewer deniers than there have ever been, at least in the US. Over half of [Americans] now are concerned about [the risks of climate change], so that’s great. 

In Unstoppable, you highlight efforts at the household, local, national and global levels that would enable us to “do more with less” and reduce our carbon footprint. How do we make such widespread change happen?

You have to work the problem, as I like to say, everything all at once. For example, we could induce automobile manufacturers to work a lot harder on electric vehicles. These would be mass produced the same way military vehicles were in World War II, where these things were designed and built as a matter of national security. This is in some ways wishful thinking, but in other ways maybe not. If half of the US is concerned about it, then we just have to work on it.

If we invest in basic research that will lead to technologies that will allow us to store more energy, it will improve the quality of life for everyone in the world. And if that technology could be developed in the US and exported, that would improve the economy in the US and eventually everywhere. I can’t emphasize this enough: Investment in basic research is what keeps the US in the game, economically. The economies of the future, the successful ones, are certainly going to address climate change.

I don’t think there’s a magic bullet technological solution that builds a better battery or family of batteries. Instead, I think we’re also going to need a policy change very much akin to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, where you can’t just crank out all the carbon dioxide you want. [We need] to support not only new technology and basic research and investment in companies that are making better batteries, but policies that also induce people to make less carbon dioxide and then, ultimately, zero carbon dioxide.

How can we alter our existing infrastructure to help slow global warming?

The big thing is to electrify ground transportation. What’s the car everybody wants right now? A Tesla, because, as Elon Musk says, you don’t want to make electric cars that are as good as gas-powered cars, you want to make them better than gas-powered cars. That turns out to be not that hard to do. The technology for making electric vehicles exists, we just have to employ it.

Another huge opportunity would be to use either NASA itself or something akin to NASA to develop hydrogen-powered jet airplane engines. When you create the infrastructure to produce hydrogen at industrial scales—all you need is water and electricity and you can produce all the hydrogen you can imagine—that’s a big job. But, compared to mobilizing for World War II, it’s not that big a job. When you had an industrial assembly line suited for making cars, it wasn’t that much trouble to make them make tanks. And it wasn’t too much trouble to make huge airplanes to carry bombs instead of people and cargo. In the same way, we have electric motors all over our society—every elevator, every blender, every crane, diesel locomotives have huge electric motors in them. We have this technology, it’d just be a matter of deciding it’s worth doing. 

If we already have many of the essential tools to fight climate change from a technology, academic and policy perspective, why aren’t we using them?

Whoever is going to be elected president is going to have to embrace climate change as a huge problem and convince other lawmakers to allocate resources for it. The world’s most influential person is the US president. The sooner we get that person on board, the sooner we can make enormous changes.

What’s one of the best things people can do in their daily lives to help curb climate change?

The big thing I say all the time right now is talk about climate change. If we were talking about climate change in the same way we were talking about the terrorism in Paris or the racism in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore, Maryland, we would be getting the work done.

And, then, do more with less. The biggest decision that most people in the United States make that affects the world’s climate is what vehicle you drive. Choose a car that, ideally, is electric and buy your electricity from a green source. Almost everywhere in the US now, there’s enough wind energy that you can choose to have your electricity generated renewably or as renewably as possible. It makes a big difference. 

The other huge investment you can make if you’re a homeowner, or if you’re a landlord, is the windows. If you have energy-efficient windows, it makes an enormous difference in your energy bill. Anything you do to reduce your energy bill will improve the world with respect to climate change. If you’re a college student turn out the lights.

The book makes fighting climate change seem attainable within our lifetime. What advances or strides have been made that give you this positive outlook?

We will not accomplish anything unless we believe we can. If you go into this thing defeated you’re not going to get anything done. These are ancient truths in leadership. Consumers are now making choices based on the environment, which is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do. That’s good news. I just think once everybody accepts this problem, we’ll make the big changes.