Bill Nye on global warming: “You can change the world!”

May 16, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

Mechanical engineer and kids-show host Bill Nye the Science Guy spoke to about 1,500 Columbus-area students this Monday. I attended his talk, and found that the peppy, brilliant man who preached the fun of science during my childhood had come bearing a hopeful message of the earth’s future.

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has helped to make climate change an enormous hot-button issue, and as the “future owners of the planet”, we college students hear about it a lot. Five separate school organizations have hosted five separate on-campus showings of An Inconvenient Truth in the past three months. The intent to inform and warn has gotten a little out of control.

With the media coverage of climate change in addition to this campus onslaught, most students get it. The close-minded may stick to their guns, but those moveable students understand. Yes, climate change occurs, yes, it will have grave consequences, yes, something desperately needs to change. Now what? The constant reiteration of Gore’s warning leaves all too many jaded and bored with the message.

Bill Nye, in his classically playful-yet-educational way, reframed the issues at the heart of global warming. He dispensed no Gore-like nay saying, he made no threats of the doom to come. Instead, he said this:

“People talk about how we have to ‘Save Planet Earth!’ But the Earth will be fine. The cockroaches will keep living; life on the planet will go on. It’s the humans I worry about.”

So, no forthcoming apocalypse after all. Just a human problem, caused by us humans. Nye also dispensed even more useful information: rather than focusing on the problem of climate change, he outlined one way to help. Nye’s goal aims to reduce energy expenditure in the US 80% by 2050. We can achieve Nye’s “.80 by ‘50” goal in a surprisingly simple way. Nye explains:

“We can reduce energy expenditure by 30% in a weekend, just by replacing every light bulb in the US with a more energy-efficient version. If we replace every car that only gets 12 miles a gallon with a hybrid or a car that gets 46 miles per gallon, which should only take about 15 years, we’ll be up to 50%.”

In recent years, the former children’s show host has become an outspoken proponent of sound energy policy, and even owned one of the now-destroyed EV1 electric cars. Bill faced off with Jerry Falwell earlier this year, discussing matters such as energy efficiency and which came first, the chicken or the egg. I can’t track down a video of the debate, but you can see many of Nye’s recent media appearances on Youtube.

Nye’s message ultimately has a much greater persuasive effect than Gore’s. Contemporary communications theories hold that in order to change your audience’s behavior, you must demonstrate a pressing need for change, but also present a course of action that will work and that the audience can realistically take part in. An Inconvenient Truth highlights just one of those crucial elements, by railing on the presence and consequences of climate change. But of all the time Gore takes to remind us of the problem, he waits until the tail-end of the presentation to share viable solutions. Communications theory says this makes the average audience member numb to the threat, paralyzed by a feeling of powerlessness, and unlikely to do what the persuader wants. To read an in-depth explaination of the prevaling communications theory on fear and persuasion, see here.

Nye may have an overly optimistic view, in line with his childlike enthusiasm and trust in the power of scientific invention. But his hopeful cries that “You can, dare I say it? Change the world!” have the power to inspire those desensitized to take action, where scare tactics have previously failed.


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Category: Communication, Current Events, Energy, Environment, global warming, Science

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: I agree with you on the effect of Inconvenient Truth. The solutions part of the movie was a mere footnote. It sounded like pie in the sky compared to the well documented threat.

    Even a Republican should be able to follow the effects of reducing gas usage dramatically by converting from 12 mpg cars to 46 mpg. It will clean up the air, it will reduce the cost of gas (you know, the supply/demand curve) and it will give hope to future generations that we haven't used up their gas.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    "Contemporary communications theories hold that in order to change your audience’s behavior, you must demonstrate a pressing need for change, but also present a course of action that will work and that the audience can realistically take part in…To read an in-depth explaination of the prevaling communications theory on fear and persuasion, see here."

    Reading the referenced article about fear and persuasion, I cannot help but think of Bush and his "mushroom cloud" lies to motivate America (or, at least, Congress) to support his invasion of Iraq. Bush and his Administration hit all the right buttons to get what they wanted. All, that is, except the truth button.

    As regards global warming, one of the main problems with using the fear approach is that while there is scientific consensus that global warming is happening, there is little consensus about the consequences. This is not only because it is hard to predict exactly what will happen, but also because global warming will likely be bad for some people (and species), but good for others. Thus, trying to terrorize people with apocalyptic predictions about global warming just doesn't have the impact as, say, terrorizing them with nightmare stories about WMDs. Still, I wonder where we might be today if Bush had been inclined to give the same sort of sales pitch about global warming that he gave about Iraq. A one trillion dollar attack on global warming would certainly have done a lot more good for our planet than spending it to build a slaughterhouse for American troops.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    True, improving fuel economy in cars in America would have an impact (at least in the short term), but America is not the only nation of people who desire an affluent lifestyle, nor are cars the only source of greenhouse gases: real estate accounts for half the energy use in America, and that's not going to drop by 80% anytime soon.

    Also, I must take exception to Erich's comment about how reducing gas usage (by switching to hybrid cars) will reduce the cost of gas. What he doesn't mention is the flip side of this equation: if the cost of gas goes down, then what happens to demand? It will increase. Lower gas prices will cause people to stop buying hybrid cars or to drive more miles, until the price of gas goes back up to compensate.

    This is why there is no silver bullet. We have discussed this problem before: it is called system dynamics — the insidious tendency for seemingly obvious solutions to worsen the very same problems they are intended to solve. See, for example, this post:

  4. Ben says:

    This guy James Hyrnyshyn (yes quite a name) is an "Inconvenient Truth" slideshow presenter and blogs about it frequently…


  5. Erika Price says:

    Erich: Exactly. I cannot understand why a rational economic conservative would not adhere to the suggestions Nye makes. More energy-efficient lightbulbs may cost more, sure, but they last approximately five times as long, and reduce generation costs on your electric bill, ultimately saving you money. And energy-efficient cars seem like a no-brainer, with such an immediate reduction in fuel cost, as well as its overall economic benefit.

    Even those that do not see climate change as a primary concern should want to take these steps, since it benefits them so directly. I don't think the message of climate change should focus so intently on proving that it exists and repeating its consequences- those that still refuse to believe probably won't budge any time soon. Instead, we should focus on what we can do to better the situation, and then do it!

    Grumpy: I don't think anyone believes in a "silver bullet" to combat climate change. But making possible courses of action that will at least lessen matters more attractive makes it far more likely that people will feel motivated to at least try. At the same time, we probably won't reach Nye's goal in a long, long time, if ever. We'll ultimately have to invest in adaptation to climate change, as well. I should mention, though, that Nye cited many other additional courses of action, just less attractive ones- harnessing wind power, using more solar panels, and researching ways to make technology even more energy-efficient. However, that message appeals a lot less to the average listener, who doesn't want to go to the trouble of installing solar panels or doesn't work in a research lab. But anyone can replace a lightbulb or buy a less wasteful car.

  6. Ben says:

    This guy James Hyrnyshyn (yes quite a name) is an “Inconvenient Truth” slideshow presenter and blogs about it frequently…

  7. Ben says:

    Climate Change Myths Debunked!

    "So for those who are not sure what to believe, here is our round-up of the 26 most common climate myths and misconceptions."

  8. Rene says:

    We have one planet. If there is even the smallest/slightest chance that global warming is real (which I believe the evidence is sound). We should do what we can today to save our planet for our children tomorrow (or dogs, cats, and other loved ones). I don't think it is a matter of being panicked with fear. If that were the case, we have too many Politicians doing a fine job at setting the panic spin on a daily basis. Can we send them to mars?

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