I’m a big fan of the Cosmos reboot series, just as I was of the Carl Sagan original. But the host Neil deGrasse Tyson recently stumbled very unscientifically when discussing climate change.
In the recent Episode 11, entitled “ The Immortals ,” Tyson muses about a better human future. One highlight: “The last internal combustion engine is placed in a museum as the effects of climate change reverse and diminish.” He adds that, in this better future, “The polar ice caps are restored to the way they were in the nineteenth century.”
Climates always change
The problem starts with the words “climate change” itself. Until recent years, the concern of Al Gore and the environmental establishment was “global warming.” Their scenario, whether mistaken or not, was that human activities were producing extreme climatic warming that would cause very serious damage to human well-being. Tough government action could slow or even stop that warming.
But the Earth’s climate has been changing on its own since the Earth has had an atmosphere, with extreme swings over periods of millennia and even millions of years. The notion of stopping the climate from changing at all is, frankly, ludicrous. There is not even rudimentary thinking about how to stop the climate in its tracks, even if it were considered desirable.
Why does Tyson love the cold?
Further, Tyson’s suggestion that having the ice caps—and presumably the climate—in their nineteenth century state would be optimal for human life and well-being is as arbitrary an assumption as one will find. Why? The early part of that century was part of the “ Little Ice Age. ” Many considered it too cold. And into the 1980s, the concern of many scientists was that another ice age could plague the planet.
If we want to freeze the climate—no pun intended—into some ideal state, why not aim for the warming period in the early Middle Ages, when wine grapes were grown in usually too-chilly England and Greenland was actually green enough to grow crops?
Commanding the tides
King Cnut of England, during that period, is said to have taken his courtiers to the shore and commanded the tide not to come in. It did come in, of course, allowing King Cnut to make his point that there are limits to the power of secular rulers in the face of nature.
It might well be possible for humans to do seemingly superhuman things in the future, for example, giving the planet Mars a breathable atmosphere. But there are forces of nature that humans will likely never control. Tyson must know, as many scientists have pointed out, that solar activity has a major effect on the Earth’s climate. Perhaps some super-evolved creatures in the future will be able to engineer whole stars. But while such creatures might arise from us, they will not be human.
And Tyson is not speaking about some distant science fiction future. He speaks of the “scientific consensus that we’re destabilizing our climate” and says “Our civilization seems to be in the grip of denial, a kind of paralysis. There’s a disconnect between what we know and what we do.”
Meaning that we should all follow the Al Gore action plan of abandoning our fossil fuels, the basis of our civilization and prosperity, in the name of a hopeless effort to create a climate future that might not even be desirable.
Tyson rightly tries to project a human future of limitless possibilities. But he could better advance that future by bringing critical thinking rather than fuzzy assumptions to the global warming/climate change issue.