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Promote Reason, Prevent Climate Catastrophes: Let’s Get ’Er Done


Bill Nye

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.5, September/October 2016

We had another Reason Rally in Washington, DC, this year. Like so many of us, I am concerned about women’s rights and civil rights writ large. I am very concerned about so many of our leaders, who are continually confused about the traditional separation of our laws and their religions. I shake my head with every recitation of the pledge of allegiance that includes “under God.” Although I love to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (I really do), I often head to the concession stand in time to miss the singing of “Deity Bless America.”

But for me, right now in the summer of 2016, my overwhelming concern is human-caused global climate change. I strongly believe it’s the most serious kind of trouble, and it’s coming at us like a runaway train. Sure enough also, although astronomically it was not quite summer, it was a hot day. People largely stayed out of the sun by standing under the trees along the north and south sides of the Washington Mall’s reflecting pool. It was a metaphor for humankind’s first reaction to our changing climates: run away. But of course, Earth is it for us humans. There’s no place to run. So, here’s what I said:

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, skeptics, nontheists, and especially the believers who may be here, thank you all for including me in the events today. As we stand before this shrine to Abraham Lincoln, one of history’s most thoughtful critical thinkers, I cannot help but feel that we are at a critical time, a turning point in the history of my beloved United States and the history of humankind.

Our ability to reason has helped us provide clean water, reliable electricity, and access to an electronic information infrastructure to a large fraction of people who live in the developed world. Critical thinking, reason, and science got us here. And these traditions will help us bring these technical advantages to everyone on Earth—and, dare I say it, change the world.

With these noble goals in mind, today citizens around the globe are dealing with enormous costs and extraordinary hardships associated with rapidly rising waters and weather events of the extreme kind. We have floods in Texas, terrifying windstorms in the central United States, flooding in southern Germany and France, the river Seine, Paris—the very city that hosted the most recent Conference of the Parties climate summit. There were 193 parties in attendance all hoping to work together to resolve this global-scale problem of atmospheric and oceanic warming—climate change—that has been heretofore largely ignored by most of us in the United States.

Through our enterprises, we have loaded the Earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that are warming our world 106, one million times faster, than it has ever warmed in its four-and-half-billion-year history. Humankind has brought this on—humankind must address it. But today, our efforts have barely begun.

As an engineer and citizen of the United States, I cannot help but wonder why this is. Why is this country, which for over a century was the world leader in science, engineering, and innovation, not the world’s leader in the renewable energy technologies and especially the carbon curtailing policies that we must create and put in place as soon as we can?

A handful of climate change deniers have managed to hoodwink us, to lead us to believe that there is some doubt among the overwhelming majority of scientists about the seriousness and consequences of global climate change, even as our rivers overflow their banks. Without thinking much about it, we allow climate deniers to equate routine scientific uncertainty—plus or minus 2 percent, say—with doubt about the observable global changes altogether, which would be the equivalent of plus or minus 100 percent. When I express the situation with these percentages, we all can see that the deniers are obviously wrong or very much misled. The deniers often suggest that there is a worldwide conspiracy of scientists out to drive coal miners out of work. A conspiracy? Of 30,000 scientists? Have you ever spent any time with those people? It’s just not reasonable. Yet a large fraction of us has gone along with deniers hardly questioning their inane argument and obstructionist policy proposals.

Climate denial is generational. Very few young people embrace those silly ideas. But what about the future? The kids? We cannot let them down.

Things change; the world changes. My grandfather went into World War I on a horse. He was, by all accounts, a skilled horseman. He rode around trenches, in the dark, and under enemy fire. But very few soldiers today need that skill. Today, the tasks and jobs needed to conduct a war have changed. In analogous fashion, a great many jobs will change. People in the extraction industries—those who mine coal or drill for oil and gas—today will one day soon be doing something else in the energy sector: welding wind turbine masts, manufacturing photovoltaic systems, or connecting neighbors to the Internet. We can do this. We can change the world.

In a month, a consortium of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations will open an amusement park with a religious theme in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. You may have heard about their activities. The Answers in Genesis ministry preaches that the discovery of evolution was and is somehow not real—and more urgently, they insist that our world is not warming. They promote this fiction among their followers.

To work at their Creation Museum or at their soon-to-open Ark Encounter bible-literal theme park, you have to testify to your faith in their faith. That might seem like a violation of our first amendment, which you can read from the original text just a few blocks east of here at the National Archives.

And, to finance these attractions, the organization apparently relies on a consortium of legal entities. Answers in Genesis is the main nonprofit. The Creation Museum LLC charges admission; it’s a for-profit entity. The Ark Encounter LLC is an amusement park and is also a for-profit. But you may not hear much about another not-for-profit corporation: Crosswater Canyon, Inc. The “ministry,” as it’s called, uses Crosswater Canyon to get tax breaks. Their extraordinary claim is that this Ark Park is nominally a tourist attraction. Even though it has a completely, relentlessly religious mission, it is viewed—by the governor, his tourism cabinet, and a judge of the U.S. Eastern Kentucky District Court—as existing entirely for tourists. They claim the park will attract tourists of all denominations and beliefs and so is thereby entitled to tax breaks and virtually free real estate from Kentucky and her taxpayers. Answers in Genesis claims religious affiliation when it wants to discriminate in hiring and not-for-profit status when it wants to avoid paying taxes. While the entities of the consortium have passed legal tests in Kentucky, that happened only because the governor, the tourism cabinet members, and a key judge are all believers. They accept that their religion is not separated from their state or commonwealth, as it would be under other circumstances. I’ll give Kentuckians a critical thinker’s example: Imagine if the consortium were about to open something like the Mosque Kiosk, an amusement park or tourist attraction designed to promote the Muslim faith. Such a project would be quashed at once and by the very same officials who are enabling these biblical businesses to thrive.

To those of us here at the Reason Rally, doing our best to be reasonable, this would otherwise be a charming, if silly, bit of Americana. Something foreigners would shake their heads at. Something people in Kentucky universities and colleges in the surrounding area would apologize for continually. And that would be about that. However, there is something very much at stake here—the future.

I’m talking about the kids. If we raise a second generation of people within driving distance of these facilities—Kentuckians, Ohioans, Illinoisans, Indianans, West Virginians, and Tennesseans—who cannot think for themselves, we are all going to pay the price. We are all going to be burdened with reeducating and enlightening these kids and young adults. And just think about the economy in those areas. The workers in these nearby economies will not have been brought up with philosophical traditions, the processes of science and reason that help us all understand the world. I am certain the kids will not grow up with the tradition of innovation we and others expect from our citizens, who create search engines, smart phones, and electric sports cars.

I say this, because along with this consortium’s weird lack of understanding of biology, geology, and astronomy, this consortium promotes the idea that the world is not warming—that a deity will ensure that everything is fine despite the overwhelming, astonishing, and very troubling evidence to the contrary. So while it is a good feeling to be among like-minded people here at the Rally, there are troubles ahead unless we act this year.

I claim—and please evaluate my claim for yourselves—that this year is a turning point for us, for us humans. If we stumble forward and elect a climate change denier to be the United States president along with a cohort of deniers in other government roles, the entire world is headed for big global warming climate change trouble. If we delay another four or eight years, it will be difficult indeed for millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of us to ever achieve a quality of life that you and I have come to expect in the twenty-first century. And by the twenty-second century, virtually all of humankind could be suffering deeply.

As this summer of 2016 unfolds, I acknowledge the possibility that an insecure, confused, and currently conservative man may, by reluctant default, become the most influential man on Earth in January of next year. If this happens, I’m sure a strong majority of us, conservative and progressive alike, would be very, very concerned for our future. What would we do?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve often reflected on a joke we used to share at Boeing. I used to work there—on 747s. Don’t worry; I was very well supervised. The joke was about the fictional B-3 bomber. It would be flown by a pilot and a pit-bull. The pilot is there to watch the instruments; the dog is there to make sure that the pilot doesn’t touch anything! If the current conservative presumptive nominee gets elected in November, I have a feeling we will all have to work like pit-bulls to make sure that when it comes to the U.S. government, he doesn’t touch anything.

By the way everyone, you have to vote. For those of you who may believe that no candidate running for president right now is worthy of you, and so you will choose to not vote, would you please just sit down and shut up? So the rest of us, who do want to participate, can vote and get things done.

With all this, I acknowledge that we here at this gathering are a small minority. Although the fraction of our society that embraces reason over unreasonable claims, that embraces critical thinking over baseless anecdote and science over anti-science, is growing, we must all keep in mind that we are a minority, underdogs in the fight for reason. When my grandfather was a young man, there were fewer than one and half billion people on Earth. When I was a kid, there were fewer than three billion. Today there are well over 7.3 billion. And the overwhelming majority of these—six billion at least—are deeply religious. But it is no trouble to find common ground when the environment of the Earth is at stake. The pope’s recent encyclical stands out as a commonsense assessment of our planet and its future.

As I often say, if you like to worry about things, you’re living at a great time. We have suicide bombers, deadly drone missions, and now the Zika virus. It’s very reasonable that more than a few of us have been infected here today. But, it’s also a time in which we could be very optimistic. Reasonable studies by engineers and policy analysts have shown that there is enough renewable energy available to run all of this country, our neighbors to the north and south, and even the entire world if we just decided to do it. The sources of energy would be wind, concentrated sunlight, photovoltaic electricity, with some geothermal and tidal energy mixed in. The big potential source of energy here in the Eastern Time Zone, by the way, is wind off of our east coast. We could do it, if we just decided to get ’er done.

And for those of you who may be very skeptical of this claim, who think that we couldn’t get it done, couldn’t get renewable sources in place quickly, I give you this critically thought-through example. Both of my parents were in World War II; their ashes are interred across the river in the Arlington National Cemetery. My father was a prisoner of war captured very early in the war, in 1941 by the Japanese military from Wake Island. My mother, who I will admit was very good at puzzles, was recruited to work on the notorious enigma code. They were part of what came to be called the Greatest Generation. They didn’t set out to be great. They played the hand they were dealt, and in barely five years resolved a global conflict. So must we. We must employ critical thinking and our powers of reason to recognize the problems of global climate change, play the hand we are being dealt, and get to work.

This summer, let’s all work to promote reason. Let’s remind our fellow citizens that each and every vote matters. Let’s acknowledge and embrace the facts of global climate change. Let’s go. With critical thinking and reason, we can find common ground. We can promote policies to reduce carbon emissions. We can develop and distribute what we need to provide clean water, reliable electricity, and access to electronic information to everyone on Earth. Together, we can change the world.

Bill Nye

Bill Nye's photo

Bill Nye (The Science Guy) is chief executive officer of The Planetary Society. He learned his love of astronomy from Carl Sagan while earning a mechanical engineering degree at Cornell University. He was the writer, producer, and on-air talent for the Emmy Award-winning Bill Nye the Science Guy TV series from 1992–1998. More recently his program 100 Greatest Discoveries aired on the Science Channel. He is a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow and was the keynote speaker at the recent Center for Inquiry/CSI/CSH Summit Conference in Tacoma, Washington.