Steve Newton's picture

Cosmos, Episode XII: It’s the End of the World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine

The Cosmos series is drawing to a close, and in Sunday's penultimate episode, “The World Set Free,” Neil deGrasse Tyson delved deeply into a topic touched upon in almost every episode so far: climate change.

the world set free

Tyson did a spectacular job explaining the fundamentals of climate science, in a manner so clear and fact-rich that open minds cannot help but comprehend why this is such an urgent issue. From the coccolithophore cliffs of Dover to frosty ancient ice cores, from Keeling to Arrhenius, Tyson hit all the right notes. He even cleverly used a dog on a beach to illustrate the differences between weather and climate.

Of course many will continue in their dangerous denial of basic climate science. In fact, as more information is presented, the more entrenched that denial may become. 

This was the counterintuitive finding of researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in their brilliant 2010 paper “When Corrections Fail.” They found that when people who thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction were confronted with evidence that he had none at the time of the US invasion, these people become more certain that Saddam Hussein really had those WMDs after all. It’s a bit frightening that this is how human brains really work.

You try to correct a misconception, and people cling tighter to that misconception. It’s as if when adult brains are confronted with their own errors, they suddenly become possessed by an angry child screaming, “Nuh-uh! Says you!” Once people conclude a certain thing, they are loath—perhaps from stubbornness, perhaps from shame—to admit they were wrong, no matter how much evidence to the contrary emerges.

[I know how tough accepting error is; as a youth, I suffered from a certain idealism, imagining that the world could be made better in any way. Then I read Voltaire and was enlightened, understanding why things have to be as bad as they are. It wasn’t easy to discard this RFK-type of idealism—“I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”—but I did, and now I find Grumpy Cat too sanguine.]

The tendency of people to cling to incorrect ideas starkly illustrates the stakes involved in science education and the presentation of science to mass audiences; we have to get it right. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s presentation of climate issues in “The World Set Free” was spot on and will do much to improve general literacy surrounding climate. But in so many other instances—for instance, the Discovery Channel—television purporting to be about science veers toward gross inaccuracy and irrationality. Tyson got climate change right.

If there was anything I might have wished for, it would have been some way for Tyson to expand more fully upon how we know that the modern carbon dioxide rise is anthropogenic (caused by people). When I lecture on this topic to college freshmen, I am excited to demonstrate how the different carbon isotopes provide “smoking gun” evidence that the rise can only have come from the combustion of fossil fuels.

But this full, detailed explanation can take almost an hour—starting with the tricky issue of the nature of isotopes, a subject that sends most of the class reeling in confusion, despair, and horror. The payoff is that those students who really get it then understand deeply why climate change is not volcanic gas releases or sunspots or orbital variation, but is demonstrably us. A problem for science educators is that while the full scientific explanation takes an hour and much concentration from students, denying climate science takes only seconds and is intellectually lazy.

In any event, there was no way for Tyson to go into a deep explanation involving isotopes in this brief television format. But we can at least hope that some people watching Cosmos will be encouraged to explore this topic more deeply.

A high point of the episode for me was when Tyson directly expounded upon the theme that I had noticed right from the very start: climate change is the new nuclear winter.

I am old enough to remember Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series, and old enough to remember the feeling of waking in my bed in full panic attack, imagining that Russian nuclear bombs were at that moment flying toward the naval shipyard town where I grew up. Faulkner eloquently summarized the situation: “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

That pervasive dread—death with no warning, the pointless end of everything, our species going extinct today—permeated Sagan’s original Cosmos. In many moments in that series, Sagan waxed philosophically as he explained our impending nuclear destruction, as if speaking to a future species who, upon hearing his words, might then comprehend the catastrophe those strange apes brought upon themselves.

And here Tyson’s Cosmos shone—literally. Tyson explored solar energy as a feasible carbon-free alternative to our current energy rut. Tyson’s concluding vision of a large, green metropolis is not the give-up-civilization gloom so many climate deniers think their opponents want, but rather a vision of how we might continue civilization. No one wants to give up electricity; as J.K. Rowling points out, we hapless muggles are stuck with electricity because we can’t use magic.

Tyson emphasized that there is no scientific or technological barrier to switching from electricity produced by burning coal (still the largest source of US electrical production) to renewables. Germany recently generated almost 3/4ths of its electricity from renewables. And though chilly Iceland may find solar power less promising, they exploit their geology to produce most of their power from geothermal plants. These aren’t Panglossian dreams for the future; these countries are doing this right now. It’s just a question of the United States deciding to follow the path others have blazed. A political question, not a technological one.

Faulkner’s resounding words from his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech—“I decline to accept the end of man”—proved prescient. Despite the peril, we didn’t blow up the world. The two snarling superpowers avoided what seemed to be an inevitable showdown. We dodged that ICBM.

If we survived the instant annihilation of the Cold War, surely we can then—with so many years of warning, with so much scientific information on every aspect of the problem, with solutions available right now—dodge the climate changes coming at us with glacial speed.