Earth Deserves Better Than TV Coverage of Climate Change

As I write this, a day after Earth Day 2017, the memory of
hundreds of “Marches for Science” and in particular, a CNN report on
climate change makes me wonder whether the medium of television is more harmful
than helpful in bringing the attention of the general public to complex issues
of public interest.  These thoughts
are stimulated by an online article and video clip of the report, which
featured an exchange between famed popularizer of science Bill Nye the Science
Guy, and a man I have seen in person and exchanged emails with, one William
Happer, a longtime Princeton physicist who thinks concerns about climate change
are, to put it mildly, overblown.

An otherwise uninformed observer of the exchange saw two
older men, Nye wearing a bright-red bow tie and Happer dressed in muted grays,
in two panels of a four-screen split that included CNN anchors and a
representative of an environmental group. 
Nye was clearly upset at Happer’s mild-toned assertions that carbon
dioxide is something each of us produces two pounds of a day just by breathing,
and to treat it as a pollutant is going too far.  What really got Nye going was when Happer compared the Paris
climate accords recently signed by the Obama administration to Neville
Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler’s Germany prior to World War II.  This one stunned even the anchors, who
asked Happer to repeat himself, and he explained that the parallel was that
neither agreement was going to achieve its stated aim.  Chamberlain failed to stop Germany from
grabbing more territory in moves that led directly to World War II, and
according to Happer, the Paris accords won’t do anything significant to slow
down climate change.

What media experts call the “visuals” were all in
favor of Nye, a practiced TV performer who brought the right amount of passion
to be convincing without yelling or seeming to lose his cool.  But if you look at the academic
qualifications of these two parties, you might begin to change your mind.  Mr. Nye’s highest formal degree is a B.
S. in mechanical engineering, after which he started doing amateur comedy
routines and developed the on-air personality for which he is now famous.  William Happer holds a Ph. D. in atomic
physics from Princeton and is the Cyrus Fogg Bracket Professor of Physics at
that institution.

As encouraging as the Paris agreement was to many who
believe that the only moral thing to do with regard to climate change is to
stop burning fossil fuels yesterday and undertake a massive retooling to
renewable energy, hardly any of its terms are binding on the parties
involved.  Like many other such
agreements, it consists of hopeful statements of intentions, but if history is
any guide, the only countries that will fulfill their obligations under the
agreement are ones that were headed in that direction anyway. 

As University of Oxford professor of energy policy Dieter
Helm points out in his book The Carbon
, looking to international agreements as an effective means of
lowering carbon emissions is probably a fool’s errand.  Many European countries are currently
outsourcing carbon-intensive industries such as steelmaking and heavy
manufacturing to places like India and China, and so Europe can show a net
reduction in carbon footprints that is happening not only because of
high-minded dedication to the environment, but because of changes in the makeup
of their economies toward services and high-tech businesses that simply don’t
need as much energy. 

As for China and India, the future growth of their economies
depends vitally on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.  They are not about to put the economic
brakes on developments that have led millions of their people out of rural
subsistence-farming poverty to improved lives in manufacturing-intensive towns
and cities.  The Paris agreement
may look good on paper, but according to Helm, the chances of any significant
dent being made in the world’s carbon production by such an agreement roughly
equal a snowball’s chances in Hades (my metaphor, not his).

Since Helm has made his professional career out of taking
global warming seriously, and  spends the rest of the book describing real-world near-term
solutions to the problem of fossil-fuel emissions, I think we can count him as
a credible witness.  And his
conclusion is, leaving Hitler aside, that Happer’s opinion on the effects of
the Paris agreement is probably closer to the mark than Nye’s.

When I sat down to write this blog, I was all set to denounce
the politicization of science, and then I thought of another book I read
recently:  The Pope of Science, a biography of the famed Italian physicist
Enrico Fermi.  Fermi was a
scientist’s scientist, in that he lived, breathed, and slept science, taking
little or no interest in politics and dealing with it only when it directly
affected his livelihood (as when he and his partly-Jewish wife decided to flee
Fascist Italy as it turned toward Hitler’s Germany in its anti-Semitism), or
when politics made it necessary to pursue a particular line of inquiry so that
the Germans wouldn’t make a nuclear weapon before the Allies did and take over
the world.  For that reason, Fermi
willingly led a team funded by the U. S. government to build the world’s first
nuclear reactor in 1942, which was a necessary step in the development of nuclear
weapons.  But once the war was
over, he was glad to get back to basic physics, for the most part.

The fact is, science has always been political to some
degree, going all the way back to Francis Bacon, who took what passed for
science in the 1500s and put it to work for the betterment of mankind.  Some scientists who worked on the
nuclear bomb opposed its use in war, and some scientists today, such as Happer,
criticize the plans for gigantic economic disruptions that would take place if
the Bill Nyes of the world became dictators of our industrial and economic
policies.  At least today, the
debates are carried out in the open on widely accessible media.  It’s hard to believe, but the entire
nuclear-weapon development program in World War II was carried out in
near-total secrecy, in a fashion that would get witheringly criticized in view
of today’s standards of open debate about major publicly-funded projects.  And the outcome, namely nuclear
weaponry, has posed a moral quandary ever since. 

But the Nye-Happer confrontation is a reminder that visuals
can be deceptive, and there is always more to be learned about a technical
subject than you see on TV.

Sources:  The CNN report and video of the
Nye-Happer exchange can be viewed at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles
on Bill Nye, William Happer, and Enrico Fermi.  Dieter Helm’s The
Carbon Crunch:  How We’re Getting
Climate Change Wrong—and How To Fix It
was published in 2012 by Yale
University Press.  The Pope of Physics by Gino Segré and
Bettina Hoerlin was published in 2016 by Henry Holt & Co.  I blogged on my encounter with William
Happer and the dissing of his talk by a gathering of otherwise well-behaved
scientists on Oct. 7, 2013 in “When Scientists Aren’t Scientists.”

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