On this week's episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson explained the substantial evidence for climate change in what often felt like a direct address to those who deny that the phenomenon is happening. While the series has touched on climate change in several previous episodes, this week's penultimate episode was the one in which the show's writers made the case for enacting change to mitigate its effects. How successful was it? We discuss below.
Not too late?
Danielle: With only one episode of Cosmos left, it's clear that the show creators are using their last minutes on-air to drive home the importance of investing in science to cope with climate change. I thought that the episode we saw two weeks ago was a really effective way to warn of the horror — and reality — of our warming planet, but I feel like Tyson backed off on that message last night. Though I did think he started off strong, with the description of Venus as a planet overtaken by the runaway greenhouse effect. There’s no real threat that we will go the way of Venus, but it’s also hard not to draw similarities between the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet and those that tipped Venus over the edge, making it the hot, dense, uninhabitable place it is today.
Abby: Right. Venus is a good example of the extremes that are possible under the greenhouse effect, but Tyson makes a clear distinction between Venus's fate and our own — our planet will never be that extreme, in part because we are mostly ocean. While the previous episode of Cosmos was clearly about our possible future if we don't do something about emissions, this one was almost a direct address to people who have bought the argument that climate change isn't real, for a variety of familiar reasons. However, I think you have a point: this week's rebuttal to climate change denial could have benefitted from a stronger connection into the present and future effects of climate change.
Danielle: I did like the way he explained the Earth’s relationship with carbon dioxide. As a people, he said, we’re “exhaling carbon dioxide much faster than Earth can absorb it.” And that surplus of carbon dioxide can be connected directly to human production. The image of our planet choking to death on our pollution is a powerful one, and a rather elegant way to explain the damage we’re doing to the Earth.
Abby: In general, however, how do we feel about Tyson's straw-man rebuttal strategy? I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was glad to see a direct address in plain language of, for instance, the scientific evidence for the origins of our current rise in global temperature in man-made activities. Since climate change deniers are probably not watching this show receptively, I assumed he was attempting to provide answers to common points climate deniers bring up in debate, for the benefit of the audience who might then end up in a conversation about the phenomenon. Tyson repeatedly asked questions of himself that came straight from a Sen. Jim Inhofe floor speech on a cold day, and then proceeded to provide answers. But as we’ve learned from other, similar, controversial non-controversies, that doesn’t really work terribly well as a method to change minds.
Danielle: Yeah — this brings to mind Bill Nye’s creationist debate. Both Nye and Tyson seems to be coming from the perspective that if you present your case reasonably and comprehensively enough, science skeptics will change their beliefs.
Abby: Though, to be fair, Tyson and the writers don't explicitly advocate for that approach.
Danielle: Fair enough. Maybe I’m more of a pessimist, but I think that posing — even rhetorically, even sarcastically — facts like man-made climate change or the age of the Earth as questions up for debate gives some credence to those who ignore evidence-based analysis. I’m half expecting a clip of Tyson saying “Maybe it’s those damn volcanoes [emitting CO2],” to be picked up triumphantly by the climate-change denying members of the media.
Abby: My hope for this strategy harkens back to a standing theory I've had about the best audience for Cosmos's discussion of politically controversial, scientifically straightforward topics like climate change, evolution, and the origin of the universe: that, basically, it's for the children. It's a schlocky theory, for which I apologize, but it seems like kids are better than adults at being curious enough to challenge what they've been told is true. Adults, however, are really good at reshaping knowledge to fit an economic or political interest. We knew about the effects of man on our Earth's global temperature before such a phenomenon became controversial, as this week's episode did explain very well.
Danielle: True! I like that theory. And we know from the Internet that kids getting excited about Cosmos is one of the best things about Cosmos. There were also some cool historical nuggets in this episode, like the fact that Augustin Mouchot, who invented the earliest solar-powered engine, really did have a spectacular mustache. Speaking of solar power, I found Tyson’s solution the problem of climate change — using energy from the sun instead of harmful fossil fuels — to be weirdly tidy. We’ve already passed, or are on the very near verge of passing, some thresholds that make climate change irreversible. That means more extreme weather, which means more costly disaster cleanup, more lives lost and more social unrest caused by drought. Solar energy might have been a solution at some point, but now it feels like little more than a stopgap measure to prevent the planet from being unfit to support human life.
Abby: Yeah that’s curious. At this point we’re between two future climate change scenarios — one where we cut emissions and one where we don’t. One is less severe than the other, but climate change is already here. Personally, I saw the solar power suggestion fitting into that lower emissions model, the one where the present and future effects of climate change are less severe than they would be without. But I think this episode does demonstrate that it's easy, even for scientists, to fall into discussing climate change as a future problem with simple solutions — something that, perhaps, was true during the original Sagan Cosmos in 1980. At this point, the situation has shifted, albeit slightly. If we're just now putting solar panels back on the White House for the first time since the Carter administration, then the reality of enacting meaningful change to mitigate our worst case scenario is clearly more complicated.
Danielle: I did, however, find the episode’s message — “it all depends on what we truly value” — to be important. Tyson noted that fear has fuelled some of our greatest achievements, and seems to genuinely believe that we can solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves, but only if we choose to care about them. Which, practically speaking, means government investment in NASA and science more generally. Which is a good thing.
But what did the Internet think?
We know this episode was important to the creators of the series, if only because of the special live-tweeting guest:
Hi, it's Ann Druyan, proudly tweeting for the 1st time ever on June 1, 37th anniversary of when my life with Carl Sagan began. #Carl4ever— COSMOS (@COSMOSonTV) June 2, 2014
Some observant viewers noticed how real this episode was, in terms of original footage shown:
Most people realized what the episode was about, and thought Tyson did a good job explaining why we need to believe in — and care about — climate change:
GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING GLOBAL WARMING #Cosmos— Liza Sabater (@blogdiva) June 2, 2014
Best episode of #cosmos yet. Demonstrates irrifutible evidence for man made climate change, w/ concrete, hopeful challenge to solve.— Jim Witkins (@jimwitkins) June 2, 2014
Though some seemed confused as to why the show suddenly got so political:
I love @COSMOSonTV but I thought the point was to inspire interest in science. Why the sudden politcal message about Global Warming?— Mark S. Michaels (@TheMarkShannon) June 2, 2014
What we learned
Abby: Like you, I was really happy with how Tyson explained the planet's yearly respiration, as a way into understanding the evidence for climate change. Also, I love World's Fairs but didn't know very much about the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris, where Mouchot demonstrated his solar engines.
Danielle: Same, now I want to know so much more about that event. I also learned that Tyson walking a dog is a wonderful thing, but on some level I already knew that.
Check out our discussions of previous Cosmos episodes below: