We have broken Bill Nye the Science Guy. The science educator/TV presenter dropped by Last Week Tonight to underscore the grim reality of global warming during a segment on the Green New Deal, the economic stimulus plan proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward J. Markey.
“By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees,” Nye said. “What I’m saying is the planet’s on fucking fire. There are a lot of things we could do to put it out — are any of them free? No, of course not. Nothing’s free, you idiots. Grow the fuck up. You’re not children anymore. I didn’t mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were 12. But you’re adults now, and this is an actually crisis, got it? Safety glasses off, motherfuckers.”
Despite failing to pass the U.S. Senate in March, the Green New Deal remains the most popular proposal to address that “fire.” Many Democratic presidential candidates have sponsored it, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand. But conservative politicians and media pundits have made criticizing the plan a regular pastime, blasting supposed provisions like getting rid of airplanes and “farting cows.”
But as Oliver highlighted, most of the negative coverage around the Green New Deal is built on myth. He devoted the 20-minute segment to outlining “what it is, what it isn’t and, most importantly, where we should maybe go from here.” For one, he said, the proposal “doesn’t even mention the word ‘cows’ or ‘airplanes'” — because it doesn’t even include specific programs to fight climate change.
Instead, he said, “it is a non-binding resolution that very briefly sets out some extremely aggressive goals, including achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, meeting 100 percent of the country’s power demand through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources and creating millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States … The whole Green New Deal is just 14 pages long. That is seven pages shorter than the menu for the Cheesecake Factory.”
The Green New Deal doesn’t contain any detailed specifics on achieving its goals, and that was never the intention. “The plan’s backers, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said repeatedly, right from the outset, that the Green New Deal was merely meant to kick-start a conversation, set some aggressive targets so that we could then figure out how to hit them,” Oliver said. “Unless you like bad-faith conversations about farting cows, that conversation has not gone well so far.”
Speaking of which, the entire “farting cow” bit dates back to February, when Ocasio-Cortez’s office mistakenly sent an early draft of an FAQ to reporters that included the line, “We set a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, in 10 years … because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.”
While Oliver argues that cow reference was “clearly supposed to be a joke,” he admits it “wasn’t a great time to attempt one.” As a result, that “cow” bit has contributed to negative media coverage spinning the proposal as a joke itself.
But for all the conservative takedown attempts, the Green New Deal hasn’t withered. It just needs tangible ideas to support its goals — and Oliver devoted much of his segment to one potentially major policy: carbon pricing.
“Carbon emissions are by far the largest source of greenhouse gases, yet right now it’s basically free to pollute the air with carbon dioxide, which is a little bit weird when you think about it,” he said. “Because we’ve universally agreed that polluting is bad, and yet it’s free to do it. When you litter, you pay a fine. When you drive above the speed limit, you pay a fine. When you steal 400 hamsters from PetSmart, tie them to a sled and race through the streets on a hamster sleigh, you pay a fine. Is that fine worth it? Yes, of course it is, but you do pay it.”
The show recruited Nye to explain the “complicated logic behind carbon pricing” — no Science Guy-styled visual stunts or gags required. “When something costs more,” he said, “people buy less of it.”
“When we release carbon, say, by burning coal or driving an SUV, all of us pay for that in the form of things like fires, floods and crop failures,” he continued. “Putting a fee on carbon creates incentives to emit less carbon, and, more importantly, it also incentivizes the development of low-carbon technology, which is huge, because that’s vital to reducing emissions globally. And because for some reason, John, you’re a 42-year-old man who needs his attention sustained by tricks, here’s some fucking Mentos and a bottle of Diet Coke. Happy now?”
Oliver, giddy after the Coke explosion, concurred. “Putting a price on carbon makes complete sense, and you should know that there is absolutely nothing extreme about this idea,” he said. “Economists across the political spectrum support it, and more than 40 governments worldwide have done it, including the UK, where carbon pricing has contributed to CO2 emissions falling to their lowest level since 1890.”
While the U.S. hasn’t adopted such a policy, Oliver pointed to several “encouraging” signs — including a December 2018 study from Yale and George Mason Universities that found “the percentage of conservative Republicans who say they are very or somewhat worried by global warming has more than doubled in the last five years.”
“However bumpy its rollout was, to its eternal credit, the Green New Deal has succeeded in getting people talking,” Oliver said. “But that won’t mean anything unless that talk now turns to actions. And putting a price on carbon could potentially be one of them, although let me reiterate: It will not be enough on its own by a long-shot. We’re gonna need a lot of different policies working in tandem, and we have to take action right now.”