Monday, April 24, 2017

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 Crunch, 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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