Bill Nye’s Book on the Science of Climate Change Solutions

Science Guy Bill Nye’s new book on climate change, Unstoppable, is an outstanding and (I’m fairly certain) unique book about climate change, focusing on the science behind the many solutions available to us. With a friendly, down-to-earth, entertaining delivery, Nye provides clear and useful explanations of both current and just-over-the-horizon technologies and related scientfic phenomena. The result is a book that will appeal both to science enthusiasts and to anyone interested in a constructive, hopeful, extremely well-informed book about the science of fighting climate change.

Unstoppable

Nye for the most part takes no sides except that of the science, so that when discussing controversial topics (like nuclear energy, for instance), he provides not a prebaked opinion, but rather a careful description of pros, cons, and unintended consequences. Because he focuses on the scientific realities and near-term possibilities, his perspective is as refreshing as it is informative.

Some of the solutions Nye describes are available right now, like home energy efficiency improvements and solar power generation. Others should emerge in the next few years, like self-driving cars and widespread use of home power battery packs, which still others are only hopes for the future, like entirely new kinds of power transmission lines made from carbon fiber and truly sustainable biofuels.

One shortcoming I see in the book is an incomplete treatment of carbon footprints–although to be fair, few sources I’ve seen take an in-depth approach in calculating carbon footprints (Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas? is a stand-out exception). For example, Nye more than once refers to nuclear power as carbon-free, which may be true if all you’re looking at is direct emissions from the power plant itself, but which fails to take into account the carbon footprint from construction of these extremely resource-intensive facilities or of mining their fuel (and later handling the resulting nuclear waste). As another example, when discussing self-driving taxipods, Nye doesn’t examine the extra impact of these vehicles having to drive to where their are passengers in the first place, which is probably a negligible concern in urban areas but much more significant elsewhere.

The Nye Home in Studio City, CA

The Nye Home in Studio City, CA

Another problem with the book is Nye’s multi-chapter discussion toward the end of the book about space exploration, a section has virtually nothing to do with climate change. Nye being the C.E.O. of the Planetary Exploration Society, I can well understand his support, but rocket launches (which are required even for, to give an example, the solar-powered spacecraft he discusses) are among the very worst offenders in terms of greenhouse gas emissions of any human activity. Climate impact expert Mike Berners-Lee estimates a space shuttle launch emits at least 4,600,000 kilograms CO2 equivalent, roughly similar to 200 years of emissions for an average American, 1,500 years of emissions for an average citizen of China, or 46,000 years of emissions for the average Malawian.

Space boosterism emphatically doesn’t belong in a book on climate change, but you can safely skip chapters 31 to 33 without missing anything important climate change information, or read them if you are curious about space travel (though I’d encourage everyone to think of that as something to explore further after we’ve dealt with climate change). Either way, those chapters don’t much detract from what otherwise, on the whole, is an excellent set of insights into climate change and its solutions.

Fluffy William and the Threat of Global Climate Change

Once there was an adorable little chipmunk named Fluffy William, who for whatever reason could understand English. It was just one of those things.

chipmunk

Fluffy William was so wee and cute that he charmed everyone he met, except for gardeners, from whose strawberry patches he had a habit of selecting a strawberry, eating just one bite, and then moving on–though in Fluffy William’s defense, his wee stomach was so small that one bite of strawberry filled him right up.

Fluffy William lived an unusually happy chimpmunk life, with cool leaves to rustle under in hot weather and a warm nest to bed down in when it turned cold, until he chanced to be sitting by an open window during a ninety-minute documentary on climate change. Climate change, it turned out, was weather and temperatures and reliable natural cycles all going haywire. Climate change was floods in the Spring and droughts in the Summer and hurricanes in the Fall and God only knows what kind of trouble in the winter. Climate change would make it harder for people to grow food, which would make for more desperate people, which would make for more disasters and refugees and wars. It rapidly became clear to Fluffy William, understanding English as he did, that somebody needed to do something about this climate change problem, and quick.

So Fluffy William ventured deep into the woods until he came to the burrow of Elder Stern Wanda, the wisest and most respected chipmunk anywhere thereabouts. There, breathlessly, he explained about climate change.

“We have to do something about this terrible problem, Elder Stern Wanda!” cried Fluffy William. “But what can I do? I’m just one little chipmunk.”

“You can’t do anything,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Anything you might try to do would be totally useless. It’s the humans who have to do something about it, and everybody knows you can’t make a human do something they haven’t chosen to do on their own without a gun or a fistful of money.” Elder Stern Wanda picked up an old, chewed-up acorn and gnawed at it gingerly with her one remaining front tooth. The effort seemed to exhaust her after a few gnaws, and she put it back down. Age has its compensations, but it’s still a pain in the neck.

“So humans have to each decide to change their habits on their own?” said Fluffy William.

“Don’t hold your breath for it,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Now scamper along home.”

So Fluffy William scampered along home and did nothing. That next spring there was a terrible flood, and in the summer there was a terrible drought. Regrettably, Fluffy William could not compete with the other chipmunks for the scarce food available, as he was so wee and cute, so he died of starvation.

He never did find out whether the humans did anything about climate change.

Photo by Gilles Gonthier