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Bill Nye answers climate change, global warming questions – USA TODAY


Bill Nye has been the go-to science guy for teachers and students for decades, most notably with his PBS show, “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

In recent years, he has been vocal advocate for battling climate change. That will be a featured topic in his new show, “The End is Nye,” which is scheduled to air later this year on Peacock.

Nye spoke to USA TODAY this week to answer some of the most commonly Googled questions about climate change and global warming.

What is global warming? When did it start? How does climate change affect humans, animals and the ocean?

The “science guy” himself has answers to those questions and more. Here’s what he had to say.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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What is climate change?

Nye: So global warming is causing climate change. By holding this extra heat in the atmosphere, we are changing the world’s climate faster than ever in recorded history, but faster than ever in Earth’s history with the exception of when asteroids hit the Earth.

What is global warming?

Nye: Humans are adding an extraordinary amount of extra greenhouse gases; the biggest one is carbon dioxide, and then methane. We’re adding these gases to the atmosphere so fast that the world has never gotten this warm this fast.

Visible light comes through past these molecules, like carbon dioxide, hits the Earth’s surface where it goes to a longer wavelength, to infrared. These gases hold in a lot of that infrared, that heat.

The world is getting warmer, and with a warmer world, we have more heat energy in the ocean and storms are bigger and stick around longer. We’re changing global weather patterns where it’s getting to be this huge drought out West and very rainy out East.

Downpour:People haven’t just made the planet hotter. We’ve changed the way it rains.

Is global warming real? Do you have any response to people who say it’s not real?

Nye: Well, to the people who say it’s not real, you’re wrong. The scientific consensus on human-caused climate change is overwhelming. People who are in denial have been influenced too strongly by the fossil fuel industry. (The fossil fuel industry) has been able to introduce the idea that plus or minus 2% is the same as plus or minus 100%.

For example, this ice sheet in Antarctica, this huge slab of ice is going to break off of Antarctica and fall into the sea. Antarctica is the only continent under water; it’s under ice. When a big piece of this ice falls into the ocean, we’re going to add a lot more freshwater to the ocean, and a lot more water to the ocean. Sea levels are going to rise and the salinity of the ocean, especially in the south, is going to change very fast.

People say, “Well, when is that going to be? Is it going to be tomorrow or 10 years from now?” When it comes to geological processes, plus or minus 10 years is extraordinarily accurate. Some people, they say “Well, then that’s too much uncertainty. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s wrong. The uncertainty of climate change is very small. Humans are causing it. It’s global. It’s changing climates around the world.

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When did global warming start?

Nye: People like to say around the year 1750; this is when James Watt, who was a mechanical engineer, got a steam engine that worked very well. A lot of people had been messing around with making steam engines for decades. The middle of the 18th century is when steam engines really got to be practical and ended up everywhere. When that happened, people started burning coal and digging up ancient plants and ancient swamps which had turned to coal. (People were) burning the coal and ancient swamps, adding carbon dioxide, which had been buried when these plants were alive, and putting that carbon back in the atmosphere very, very fast. We’re talking about the last 2½ centuries. Compare 250 years with 2½ million years and that’s very fast. We’re adding carbon dioxide faster and faster and faster, and it’s warming the world faster.

How can we stop global warming?

Nye: You probably cannot stop global warming in anybody’s lifetime that’s alive now.

What we can do is address it and deal with it, get ready for it, and reduce the rate at which it’s happening.

We can do that by stopping the addition of carbon monoxide, especially, and then methane into the atmosphere; stop that as soon as we can. The way to stop that is to stop burning fossil fuels. The way to stop that is to provide alternative sources of electricity. This is where we get into wind, solar, geothermal, and perhaps one day nuclear fusion, where we’d have virtually unlimited supplies of electricity distributed around the world. We can stop burning fossil fuels. We could then slowly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using the same unlimited amount of electricity.

To do all this, we’ve got to get started. Let’s go. Let’s get going!

How does climate change affect people?

Nye: If you live out West in California, there are water restrictions. I have a garden where I raise a lot of food; I can only water it on Thursdays and Sundays.

And there is not (the same amount of) snow in the mountains in California that would normally or used to be there. Because the world is getting warmer, the weather patterns over the Pacific Ocean are changing. It’s not snowing as much as it used to, so we’re not storing water as snow in the mountains the way we used to. The reason you and I are able to eat lunch and dinner today is because of food grown out West, food grown in Mexico. Those crops depend on rainfall and water stored as snow.

As we stop having water stored in reservoirs, we’re not going to be able to grow as much food, and that will lead to trouble. People are going to go looking for food. They’re going to move around. Food prices are going to go up, and this is one more thing that affects poor people more quickly than wealthy people. People who can’t afford to get the scarcer food are going to be affected more strongly. 

How does climate change affect animals?

Nye: Animals are changing where they live; they’re moving.

Animals that are really moving are insects. There’s this infamous beetle that attacks trees out West. As the world has gotten warmer and the winters are more mild, these beetles that have been able to attack more trees and kill them. When the occasional lightning storm does come through, it starts fires and we can’t put the fires out because the trees are dead and the wind’s blowing and the fires spread, which by the way, adds more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, destroys the ecosystem and chases all the wildlife away and kills everything.

It’s bad, bad, bad.

You did talk about the ocean and salinity changing. How else does climate change affect the ocean?

Nye: Greenland is a very large island with a lot of ice on top of it; that ice is sloughing off into the sea, changing the ocean’s saltiness. When you change that part of the ocean’s saltiness, you change the way the currents flow.

You’ve probably heard of this famous current called the Gulf Stream. The reason we have ice-free harbors in Norway is because the Gulf Stream keeps it a little bit warm. The reason there’s all this wonderful agriculture in Europe – French wines, Italian wines – is because the Gulf Stream keeps that part of Eurasia somewhat warmer than it would be otherwise. By making this central part of the Gulf Stream fresher, less salty, the saltwater doesn’t sink as fast; this layer of freshwater stays on top, and this is slowing the clockwise circulation of the Gulf Stream. That will affect the climate in Europe, and that will affect the ability of people to raise food in Europe, and that will affect the economies of Europe, and that will affect everybody in the world.

How does climate change affect biodiversity?

Nye: In the case of the forest and the beetles, when you kill a bunch of trees, the ecosystem is damaged very fast; only certain species can hang in there. When you lose diversity in the ecosystem, the ecosystem becomes less resilient, less flexible, less able to tolerate changes.

This is very well-documented over the last 60 or 70 years; as you destroy diversity in ecosystems, things just get worse and worse in ecosystems. This is true in forests. It’s true in the ocean. Carbon dioxide is in the air; it gets dissolved into seawater because the air is touching the ocean. The ocean becomes slightly more acidic. This slight, slight change in the free protons floating around in the ocean makes it impossible for (animals that make coral reefs) to live. When you lose the coral in the ocean, you lose the nooks and crannies for many, many, many other species and organisms to live. When you do that, you have less diversity in the ocean.

How does recycling help climate change?

Nye: Almost all the clothes almost all of us wear have some plastic in them. These materials are amazing, but they have an affect on the ecosystem. We don’t want to throw this plastic away. We want to recover it and reuse it.

Especially in the case of aluminum. Aluminum takes so much energy to produce. It takes a lot of electricity to produce that from rocks. Recycling it is fantastic. We want to get everybody in the habit of not throwing this stuff away.

The other problems, with the example of plastic, we can address those problems in the coming years. But right now let’s start with not throwing it away. The way we handle trash, a lot of the stuff ends up in the ocean. How does it get from the land to the ocean? We throw it away and it rolls downhill. So everybody, let’s cut it out. There’s all kinds of ways to incentivize to get people to do the right thing with materials. Let’s start with recycling!

Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas and food.

Saleen Martin, sdmartin@usatoday.com, Twitter: @Saleen_Martin

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