While extreme winter weather froze the Midwest this week, with many parts of the country setting record lows, President Trump again used the deadly cold to question the existence of climate change.
“What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!” the president tweeted Monday, mocking countless scientists who have tried to warn the Trump Administration about climate change’s effect on not just the U.S. economy, but life as we know it.
Famed scientist and educator Bill Nye, who is one of the world’s leading advocates for climate change action, told Rolling Stone on Thursday morning that we’re living in an extraordinary time as one of the world’s top leaders is also one of the world’s leading climate deniers. “It’s irresponsible and very troubling,” says Nye, speaking from his Los Angeles home where a freak morning thunderstorm clapped loudly outside.
This week, President Trump questioned how global warming can exist when the Midwest is facing record lows. Does extreme cold weather mean that climate change isn’t effecting us?
No, in fact there’s been a lot of discussion on the polar vortex. Around 2015, it became famous or notorious by conservative cable news media insisting it was a made-up phrase, but the polar vortex goes back to the discovery of jet streams. It dips, from time-to-time, south. There’s more heat energy in the atmosphere than there has been in the last several centuries, so you would expect weather patterns to be more energetic and to change more rapidly. As we say about climate change, it’s the speed of change that’s the problem, not just the change itself. It’s the rate at which it’s changing.
What do we know about how climate change relates to shifting seasonal weather patterns? Multiple times, Trump has used the fact that we’re seeing abnormal weather — like a cold day in the spring or a colder than usual day in late summer — as criticism that global warming does not exist. Does extreme weather, hot or cold, have to do with climate change?
Yes, this is consistent with our computer models. When you put more heat energy in the atmosphere, and especially in the ocean, weather systems become more energetic. Hurricanes become stronger or more frequent or both. And the jet stream would then shift more readily when there’s more heat energy. So, the big idea in science is — you’ve probably heard the expression, “hot air rises.” Well, hot air only rises when there’s cold air to squeeze it up. Without gravity, hot air would not rise. One of my favorite stories is… (thunder cracks in the background). Oh wow, can you hear the thunder? Understand that you generally don’t get a thunderstorm in the morning. Thunderstorms are generally driven by this phenomenon that I started to wander about, that cold air squeezes warm air up. As air gets pushed up into the sky, it expands. It’s like when there’s less pressure on your ears at the surface of a pool than at the bottom. As air is forced up and expands, it expands and water vapor comes out of solution and becomes liquid and it rains. When it rains, it also drives some air down mechanically and you get this big flow and circulation that we call a thunderstorm. It’s a symptom, or phenomenon, associated with more heat in the atmosphere and more heat in the ocean’s surface. You know, Sean, my esteemed colleague, the science of climate change is overwhelmingly established. The president’s tweets are in denial or are against or are ignorant of the science of climate change. The thing to wrestle with is he has surrounded himself with people who are climate-deniers or are contrarians, and this is the real problem. He’s surrounded himself with the B-team, basically.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen extreme weather — like last year’s California wildfires, for example — how do those instances relate to climate change?
When you dry out the West Coast of North America, the chance of a fire is much more likely. I was just referring to thunder and that means there was lightning somewhere. Lightning can start a fire, just like the infamous thing where somebody throws a lit cigarette out the window. Fires start naturally, but the problem now is that they’re starting in areas where there’s a lot of dry fuel. Then, here in California, if it rains a few weeks later like it did this year, there’s very little vegetation to hold the soil, and you have mud slides. I know two people I work pretty closely with who had to evacuate their houses because of the threat of fire and then they couldn’t get to work because of a mudslide.
There’s the science behind climate change, and then we have these major events — like the fires, mud slides or hurricanes — where there’s evidence of something happening. Is it frustrating for you to be on the side shouting in defense of facts while the president of the United States is still denying it?
Oh yeah, it’s very frustrating. It’s not just the president of the United States that’s denying it. He’s nominated these people to run NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who are undermining the weather service and undermining anything we might do to address climate change. If you like to worry about things, you’re living at a great time. We’re really in an amazing situation with regard to the denial of climate change, and the irony is that if we were to take this seriously, the United States could be the world leader in the technologies that we’d need to develop to address it and to mitigate the effects. Here’s a cool and interesting thing: What if all this stuff were going on — the fires, mud slides, hurricanes, the extreme cold, or the extreme heat in Australia — what if all this were going on and we had no idea why and we had no idea what was causing it? That would really be troubling. But instead, we know exactly what’s causing it and it’s us and our proclivities.
Trump has said that human beings haven’t caused climate change and cannot change it. How damaging is that to public opinion for the president of the United States to be saying that?
Well, it’s irresponsible and very troubling. You know, people talk about this all the time. It would be silly and laughable if it weren’t so serious. We in the science education hope that cooler heads prevail sooner than later. I read Fear by [Bob] Woodward. The president apparently chooses not to absorb information. He believes that he’s an expert on everything and it’s reflected in his public statements. It’s not controversial to say he’s just wrong about that. He’s not an expert on climate. He’s certainly not an expert on cyber-security. I don’t think he’s an expert on nuclear policy, and so on and so on.
President Trump has passed along the conspiracy that the term “climate change” was created by scientists after they couldn’t prove “global warming” exists, and he’s said that’s because it’s a hoax and a scam for money. If you could explain “climate change” and “global warming” to him, what would you say?
Well, those are the same thing. The world is getting warmer and it’s changing the climates. The conservative media have seized on the idea that global warming means that it’s getting warmer everywhere every day, but that’s not accurate. The world is getting warmer and there’s more heat energy in the atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean the polar vortex won’t dip pretty far south once in a while. This gets into the old thing, “weather vs. climate.”
President Trump has ambiguously said that polar ice caps are “setting records” and he’s — again ambiguously — used that phrase as a reason for why he believes global warming does not exist. What do we know about the current state of polar ice caps and how their state relates to global warming?
In the Arctic, we’re losing ice like crazy. There’s an area in the Antarctic where snow is building up, because when the sea surface is warmer, you get more moisture in the air and you get more precipitation. It’s the lake effect. What makes lake effect is all the moisture in the air, where it snows like crazy — like in Buffalo, New York. Overall, the world is getting warmer and we’re losing ice. There’s an area in Antarctica where it’s snowing more, but that doesn’t mean the world is not getting warmer. This gets into the old problem with all climate contrarians and climate deniers, which is their tendency to cherry-pick data.
What is it like to be a scientist right now, when researched facts have become politicized and debated openly?
It’s very frustrating. But I remind us all that Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution refers to the progress of science and useful arts. It’s in the Constitution. It’s generally there and nominally there to protect patents and copyrights, but it indicates to me that the founding fathers appreciated the great value of science to the economy. To me, “useful arts” is sort of an 18th-century expression for engineering and using science to make things — like architects, bridge builders, and so on. There’s just this tremendous irony in people denying science. The Earth is not flat. What would make anybody think that the Earth might be flat except profound failure of our education system? If you’re native to the U.S., as I am, this is all the more troubling because the U.S. is renowned for its technology and its innovation. If we raise a generation of people who don’t believe in the fundamental ideas of science, then that’s a formula for disaster.
How do you go about reversing everything that’s been done in terms of the public discourse over climate change over the past couple of years, especially since 2016? What’s the next step?
I’m going to chip away, if you’re asking what I’m going to do. When people ask me to be on television, I’ll do it. I will continue to fight the fight. In my first kids book that I published in 1993 (Big Blast of Science), I have a demonstration in there about the greenhouse effect and I was — I’m not joking — I was trying not to scare the kids. But we’ve done hardly anything at all to address climate change and our effect on intensifying the greenhouse effect. What’s it been? Twenty-five going on 26 years? It’s really heartbreaking. In the same way, our other technology — our electronics and our infrastructure for the Internet — is so cool now and so sophisticated that we will be able to make radical changes very quickly. The example I give to everybody is that both of my parents were veterans of World War II and they were part of what people call the “Greatest Generation” and they solved a global problem within five years. They got it done. So, let us be optimistic. We can do this. We can solve these enormous problems if we just get to work. I encourage everybody to check out thesolutionsproject.org — these are civil engineers who have done an analysis of the electrical grid and they’ve shown that we can power the United States and 130 countries around the world renewably right now if we decided to do it. We can get 80 percent renewable in 15 years and we can get 100 percent renewable 115 years after that. In two or three decades, we could change everything. So, let’s change everything.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.