Quirks & Quarks

Bill Nye on marching for science: 'science is political!'

Bill Nye says when it comes to climate change, 'we're all in this together.'
'Bill Nye Saves The World' comes out on Netflix on April 21, 2017. (Eddy Chen/Netflix)

From New Zealand to Norway, Vancouver to Halifax - people have pledged that on Saturday, they will March for Science. And while marches are common on Earth Day, this year things are different. Many feel a sense of urgency about climate change. And many are worried about what they see as an anti-science bias in U.S. President Donald Trump.

So in response, Marches for Science have popped up all over the world with Washington, D.C. hosting the main march. Bill Nye, "The Science Guy", is an honourary co-chair of the event. He's got a new show on Netflix called Bill Nye Saves The World. In it, he tries to do just that by tackling all the hot topics in science, from climate change to vaccinations to artificial intelligence. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Bob McDonald: Now, your science show is called Bill Nye Saves the World, which kind of gives you super-hero status. Why do you think science is the answer to saving the world?

Bill Nye: Well, we have a lot of problems that can only be addressed with science. We have, right now, almost 7.4 billion people in the world. Pretty soon we're going to have nine or even 10 billion people in the world and we will have less arable land, less farmland available. So that's going to take some improvements or innovations in agriculture. What we have is increasing disparity between wealthy and not wealthy, rich and poor. To redistribute wealth that's going to almost certainly require providing the internet to everyone in the world. And that's going to be a technical challenge.

And the big, big thing is climate change, which is caused by the way we produce energy, by burning fossil fuels. So we've got to stop that. It's going to take innovations in capturing renewable energy from wind, solar, tidal energy and some geothermal. And we can do this if we just get to work. Let's go!

Bill Nye is one of three honorary co-chairs in the April 22, 2017, March for Science in Washington, D.C. (Eddy Chen/Netflix)

BM: Now we're nearing the first 100 days of Donald Trump's presidency, and around the inauguration there was a lot of anxiety about what he'd mean for science and the environment. How would you assess his first period?

BN: The people he's hired are awful for the environment. We have a guy now working as an advisor to the president, Stephen Bannon, who has claimed that he feels that any government is inherently bad and he wants to dismantle the government.

So, apparently he's advised the president to hire people who are singularly unqualified to run the agencies they've been placed in charge of. The Department of Education here in the U.S. and the Department of Energy, which not only does research in renewable energy, in a very small way, it is in charge of our nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons. That's serious business. And then the head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the States is now a guy who has sued the Environmental Protection Agency over oil drilling and mineral rights. He's not an environmentalist the way you would expect the head of the EPA to be.

The question is: will these bureaucracies, which were established over centuries, essentially ignore the boss and just carry on as they always have, or will they be influenced by these nominally misguided or unqualified people. -Bill Nye

BM: Trump isn't the first president to target the Environmental Protection Agency. Why do you think it comes under such scrutiny?

BN: Well, it's powerful in the sense that the regulations it passes become law. The Environmental Protection Agency can influence other organizations, which are required to enforce the regulations through the judicial system. So it's serious business.

But we're always hoping to reach these people. We're always hoping to get them to acknowledge the proven science and change their minds. The president changes his mind regularly, so perhaps we can get him to change his mind about the environment.

BM: Well, here's a quote from a press release after he appointed Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the quote is this: "For too long, the EPA has spent taxpayer dollars on an out-of-control anti-energy agenda that has destroyed millions of jobs, while also undermining our incredible farmers and many other businesses and industries at every turn." Now, this is a common sentiment: the environmental regulations kill jobs. You've got the environment and the economy competing with each other. How do we balance these two interests?

BN: Well, the example I give you, as always, is my grandfather. He went into World War One on a horse and apparently he was a skilled enough horseman to live through it. He rode around at night, around trenches, putting chlorine in the lister bags, in the canteens to keep people from getting dysentery. But he didn't get killed.

Twenty years later, when the extended version of World War One became World War Two, nobody rode a horse, not anybody who was serious about conducting warfare. Everything was mechanized by then. Everything changed in 20 years. There used to be people employed in the horse business in Toronto or New York City. Horses did everything. The horse manure had to be shoveled and removed. There were livery, there were stables, mews where horses were kept, a whole industry to create saddles and harnesses and yokes. That all went away in two decades. It all disappeared. So the same is going to happen with other industries and technologies. People didn't evaporate. They didn't instantly become poor. They just started doing something else. And so to the tar sands people, I say, 'Let's go do something else! You are construction workers, you have skills, let's go! Apply your skills to putting wind turbines up in Alberta and Saskatchewan.' 

Canada could be energy independent in 15 years relying entirely on renewable sources, if you all chose to go that route.- Bill Nye

BM: The fossil fuel industry is a huge elephant in the room here. It is the foundation of the world economy and so many people depend on it, from the automotive industry down to the people drilling for gas. That's going to be hard for them to change. How do you think that can happen?

BN: The argument that it can't be done is pessimistic and unsuited to solving the problem. Analyses have been done. If you're looking for something to do check out thesolutionsproject.org. It's civil engineers at Stanford University here in the States and they've done an analysis showing how you would power Canada, the United States, Mexico renewably right now with the wind and sun, geothermal and tidal energy that's available right now. So the energy sector is going to change from burning ancient swamp lands into capturing the wind and the sun. Let's get to work. Let's go!

BM: So today people are marching—in Washington, across the United States, across Canada, and around the world—marching for science. What can scientists do right now to stand up for evidence based policy decisions?

BN: I like to remind everybody science is political. This idea that scientists are above the fray, they're neutral and so on, is not the whole story. We want our regulations and our laws to be consistent with the discoveries we found about nature through the process of science. And in the U.S. Constitution, in article 1 section 8, it refers to "the progress of science and the useful arts." Useful arts, I think, is what you would call engineering now. And so that's in the Constitution.

We want our laws to be shaped by science. Built into that is change, that's what science is all about.- Bill Nye

You make an observation, you design a test, you test it. You compare what happened to what you thought would happen and then you move forward and start over. So that's built in. And we want that to be built into our climate policies as well. So it is to me the most important thing in the world, climate change. And the sooner we get to work innovating and doing things in new ways, the better.

BM: As one of the honourary co-chairs of this weekend's march for science in Washington D.C., why are you participating in the march?

BN: So what I just tell everybody science is political. It's not partisan, but it's political. It's not red or blue. It just is. But when you find things that are true, when is means is, then that's what you want to respect. That's what you want to use to make policies. Not some policy that's inconsistent with science.

BM: But when you do go political it starts getting really mushy and you get you get infighting, you get different agendas at work. And even this march itself has had a little bit of infighting. I mean some have claimed, like Steven Pinker said it was being compromised by, "anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric." What what do you think about that?

BN: Well there was some stuff about diversity, and people wanted this march to be all things to all people. It's not really about diversity in science or among scientists. The big thing is you want girls to become women scientists. That's of course important.

 What we want first and foremost is what has been discovered is respected. - Bill Nye

Climate change, evolution. How much air pollution you want at street level, how would that restrict bus traffic, where would they drive? On the lane? Or would they take an alternative route in order to preserve, let's say, air quality at street level? These ideas are all based on the facts discovered through the process of science.

BM: So what should people keep in mind when they march for science?

BN: That we're all in this together! Everybody, we have more in common than we have different. So let us work together to get science back in informing public policy.

BM: Well, Bill Nye, thank you for this. Good luck with your show.

BN: Thank you. Let's save the world!

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