Bill Nye demolishes climate deniers: "The single most important thing we can do now is talk about climate change."

In a Salon exclusive, the scientist discusses his new book, "Unstoppable," and the urgent need for climate action

Published November 6, 2015 11:00AM (EST)

Bill Nye (AP/Scott Roth)
Bill Nye (AP/Scott Roth)

“To confront climate change, we all have to embrace two ideas. They are simple and familiar ideas, but that does not make them any less true. First: We are all in this together. Second: The longest journey begins with a simple step.” – Bill Nye

On Nov. 10, Bill Nye will release a new book titled “Unstoppable." As only Bill Nye can, he uses the book to explain the science behind climate change, debunks popular myths, and asks readers to take action in their own lives to create a sustainable future. The book is shot through with optimism, but Nye has no illusions about what lies ahead. The message is simple: Climate change is real; humans are causing it; and we have no choice but to build a better and cleaner world.

Salon spoke with Nye about his new book and about his broader intentions. We asked him what he thought about climate deniers and the persistent anti-science demagoguery around this issue. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

So why did you write this book? Why now? And what’s your central message?

My goal is to change the world! Really, that’s what I’m trying to do. Obviously, this book isn’t going to change the world, but it is part of the bigger idea that we all have to think optimistically about this. We’ve got to go into this knowing we have a hard challenge but that we’re going to win this fight, and we’re going to save the earth for humanity.

As I like to say, you’re a human being no matter what you do. So we have to save the earth for us. Things are going to change; there’s going to be upheaval, but we have to deal with it as best we can. And that means getting to work!

Most people probably aren’t familiar with the latest climate science, and so I’ll just ask you: What do we really know about the causes of climate change and how troubling to you are the latest climate models?

Oh, it’s very troubling. My goodness – it’s apocalyptic if you let it get to you. Certainly the worst case scenarios are terrifying. But on the other hand, we’re at a point now where wind energy is an increasingly viable alternative. Now, I wrote this book a couple of months ago, but things are improving every day. When I wrote the book, fossil fuels were at 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour and now they’re at 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. But wind is now at 2.1 cents per kilowatt-hour, which mean they’re converging. Wind is now competitive with fossil fuels. Furthermore, if we were to charge a fee – oh, we must never call it a tax – on fossil fuels, wind would be way cheaper -- way cheaper. And wind is just one example. There are other affordable alternatives, like solar, which in many cases pay for themselves – if only we’d invest in them.

I just think of my grandfather who went into World War I on a horse – he rode a horse into battle. You’ll be shocked to learn he was a chemist, and his assignment was to put chlorine -- bleach essentially -- in the Lyster Bags, the canvas canteens. And he lived through it. But when that conflict continued under the heading “World War II,” nobody did anything like this – technologically it was a new world. No one who was serious went into battle on a freaking horse. And that changed in just 20 years! It wasn’t 10 centuries; it was a weekend. And so we can do the same thing! C’mon, everybody, let’s go!

Part of the problem, as you know, is that we’re not all dealing with the same facts. People love “truth” in the abstract, but they hate inconvenient facts. And there’s so much misinformation and propaganda out there, and there are monied interests working to muddy the waters at all times. This is a tremendous burden for those who want to solve this problem.

Yeah, you’re leading to my next point. Part of the solution to this problem or this set of problems associated with climate change is getting the deniers out of our discourse. You know, we can’t have these people – they’re absolutely toxic. And so part of the message in this book is to get the deniers out of the picture, and along that line – I’ve been saying this a lot the last few weeks as  I listen to the Republican debates – maybe one of these people will go out on his or her own, thinking for him or herself, and say, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this and climate change is a very serious problem. So if I’m president, we’re going to address climate change.”

First of all, politically, it would engage what everybody loves right now, the millennials. And then it would have some potential for influencing everybody, no matter who wins the presidential election, to address climate change. And the reason it’s so important for us in the United States is that we are the world leaders. You can hate the U.S., you can hate everything we do, but the U.S. still is the world leader in all sorts of policies, climate change being among them. So it’s all the more reason to get going!

How do you respond to the recalcitrant skeptics, the ones who say, “OK, I acknowledge that the earth is heating up, and I understand why that’s a bad thing. However, we don’t really know what’s causing that. And we don’t really know to what degree humans are responsible."

Yes, we do! It’s human activity. It’s the burning of fossil fuels and the release of methane, a natural gas mostly from agriculture, but to a lesser extent from leakage, so-called fugitive gas from an oil field. But these are solvable problems.

And the science is clear on that, right?

Absolutely. We know exactly why the climate is changing -- it’s human activity!

What do you think are the biggest myths and misunderstandings about climate change right now?

Well, there’s no question. The biggest myth is that scientific uncertainty, plus or minus so many percent, is the same as doubt about the whole thing. And that’s wrong; that’s patently wrong. And that’s a dangerous confusion. This is one of the big reasons I wrote the book.

Let me ask you about fracking, because I hear a lot about that, and it’s a big controversial issue and one a lot of people are concerned about. What’s your take on all this? And how does fracking factor into the climate crisis?

I don’t know if you read the details from my uncle who used to blow stuff up, but it’s in the book. He was quite a character. I mean, politically, we disagree about everything. But I love the guy. Anyway, he’s always worked with explosives. I’m told he fracks wells now and then by dropping explosives straight down – I mean, straight down. With modern drilling techniques, however, you can go sideways, almost horizontal. So this has done a few things.

First of all, in the notorious cases, it’s put natural gas in people’s sinks, which is horrible and lawsuits ensue, and it’s thoughtless and mean-spirited and all these things. But in the bigger picture, fracking has driven down the price of natural gas by making it abundant, especially in the U.S., which is the largest user of all this stuff. But it has slowed the development of renewables, like wind and solar, because gas is so cheap. And it has caused an increase in fugitive natural gas, which is bad for the atmosphere. The costs, in other words, clearly outweigh the benefits. Most of the confusion on fracking has to do with economics and the mean-spirited callous attitude of certain oil companies.

Let’s talk a bit about anti-science demagoguery. You have a charming way of cutting people down when they're talking nonsense and, I think you’ll agree, there are a lot of people who simply refuse to believe in what is, in what the data tells us. What do you say to those who insist that climate change is a hoax or some grand liberal phantasm?

Well, I just chip away. Here’s a recent example I can cite. I spoke with a guy the other day whom I’ve known for about five years, and we’re like-minded on many issues, but he decided to go fire-walking. He was very excited; he was going to have this empowering experience and walk on hot coals, because he believes strongly that this will only be possible if he mentally prepares himself. And he got into some pseudoscience stuff about an energy field that comes out of your feet, that allows you to do this stuff. Well, it turns out, walking on hot coals is possible because of nature, or science, or physics -- whatever you want to call it. It turns out that you can walk on hot coals for a dozen steps or so – for most people – without burning your feet; it’s just the way it works– coals on fire don’t conduct heat that well. I started explaining to this guy that he’s been fooling himself all these years. It is not spiritual enablement; it is physics. But the first time he hears this, he’s not going to change his mind. He’s not going to change his mind the second or third time, in fact. But after two years of people pointing out to him that he’s not doing this because he’s magical but rather because of the world, because of the structure of the universe, he will give in; he will change his mind. For similar reasons, I believe that if we just chip away at the science-deniers, they will come around – they have to.

Climate change is often discussed as though it were merely an environmental issue. But it’s clearly a lot more than that. If climate trends continue, there will be dire political and economic consequences, many of which you address in your book. What worries you the most when you’re thinking about our reluctance to deal with this problem?

What worries me the most are the social effects, and by that I mean people are going to have to move. They’re going to have to be displaced, and I’m talking about the United States, the developed world. But in the bigger picture, there are people all over the world who are not going to be able to move fast enough. They’re going to have to abandon their material possessions; they’re going to have to abandon their farms, and they’re not going to be able to get clean water for agriculture in general. And so we have to – this is why I’m so passionate about this – take steps right now. The sooner, the better.

And that’s why my current spout is that the 2016 election is the biggest election in your lifetime, if you’re a millennial. The millennials are in power – they have a vote and they can swing the election. And that’s what we need them to do. The U.S. is so important to the way the world works. That means we’re an opportunity and a threat. We need a culture of renewable energy. We need a culture of environmental stewardship. We need a culture of recycling goods and manufacturing goods from materials that can be recycled, we can change the world.

Cynics complain about the practicality of resisting climate change. I’m thinking of the crowd who acknowledges everything you’re saying about climate but says, nevertheless, that we shouldn’t make sweeping changes if we can’t get the rest of the world to act in concert with us, particularly if those changes involve sacrifices. How do you respond to that?

If we were leading, everything would be different. If we’re dragging our feet and being scientific dingbats, no one is going to follow us. If the United States were leading, it would change the world. If the United States is screwing around, being divisive and self-defeating, or being terrorized by self-doubt, then no one is going to follow us. So much of this defeatism is pure whining – India is doing this, China is doing that, etc. If the United States were manufacturing the best solar panels, if the United States were exploring the best solar hot water systems, if the United States were exporting the service to erect wind turbines, if the United States were leading the way in getting birds or bats to avoid wind turbines, which has to be a solvable problem, then everybody would buy that technology and things would change.

Buried in the broader conversation about climate change is the assumption that we have to save the planet. I’m not opposed to saving the planet, of course, but isn’t it true that the planet will happily survive climate change – it’s people who will die. This seems like a non-trivial distinction – what do you think?

Oh, that’s the key. The evidence now is that at one time there were about a hundred humans, a tribe or a large group of tribes, but we squeezed through the evolutionary sieve and here we all are. But somebody will live through all of this, even if it’s the apocalyptic vision that you see in "Road Warrior." But I would like a lot of people to live through it, like me and you! We have to get to the point where everyone understands what we’re facing, where one of our politicians can stand up and think for him or herself without listening to the polls.

At the end of your book, you write that you don’t want to scare people or blame people or give readers a sense of despair. But you also write that you have no illusions about what lies ahead. Climate change is an immensely difficult challenge, and it’s not clear that we have the will to deal with it. How optimistic are you that we will do what’s necessary?

Sooner or later, we’re going to do what we have to do. And I have to believe that.

I think a lot of us are looking for ways to make a difference on the climate front, but don’t necessarily know how. What advice do you give to people who want to apply your ideas or other eco-friendly practices in their daily lives?

There are plenty of things you can do – some are easy and others are hard. Don't waste water bottles. Get in the habit of not wasting our resources. Don’t waste food in the restaurant where you eat. Don’t bring home extra napkins or extra French fries. Don’t waste. Insulate your house. If you haven’t insulated the ceiling, insulate it – it makes a real difference. If you want to go wild, invest and do the windows. The single most important thing we can do now, however, is talk about climate change. My claim is that if we were talking about climate change the way we’re talking about Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore or other important issues, we would be getting these things done. We would be solving this problem together. And, look, it’s hard. You’re going to meet people who don’t want to talk about it. You’re going to meet people in denial. You’re going to hear people say, “I’m not a scientist, therefore I am not going to use my brain.”

But if we continue to talk about it, things will get done. If you want to make a difference, these next few months and the election in general have the potential to become a huge turning point. Not just for the U.S., but for humankind.

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By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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