In Defense of Sound Science, Bill Nye and Climate Change

bill_nye_selfie-with_NdGT_PresO_689ef6d2bc57cd042fb3d85d2922f3f9
From left to right, a “selfie” with Bill Nye, President Obama and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City.

This article is in response to a recent piece attacking leading planetary scientist and well known advocate for scientifically sound, sensible climate measures, Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”) that appeared in Watt’s Up With That, a well known climate skeptics blog maintained by Anthony Watts. By sounding the clarion call for more meaningful solutions to address the growing threat of irreversible climate change, Bill Nye is lending his credibility to the issue and, in doing so, is raising public awareness to what is one of the greatest existential threats to life on this planet that humanity has ever faced. Famously known as Bill Nye, The Science Guy, Bill is a world-renown planetary scientist, author and current CEO of the Planetary Society. His latest work, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, is available on Amazon.


Posting a cogent, reasoned and scientifically sound rebuttal to this piece would be like debating a spheroidal earth and Heliocentrism with FlatEarth-ers (www.theflatearthsociety.org); I know, I’ve tried. For every scientifically-sound point, they would counter with another ridiculous, scientifically unsound piece of pseudoscience, cooked up to support their truly indefensible position. No matter how sound the science or reasoning, they would come up with more nonsense and, with each iteration, the next becomes more absurd and ridiculous than the previous. In fact, the use of the word “Scientism” in this piece’s headline is quite similar to the use of that same word by FlatEarth-ers to discredit the “long-settled” science (in that case, that the Earth is not flat but spheroidal).

To expect a scientifically neutral article, in this case, ostensibly a critique of Bill Nye (current CEO of the Planetary Society), his articles and publications, from shills for the right-wing, conservative climate “skeptic” camp of Breitbart would be to expect advocacy for expanded social-welfare programs from Rupert Murdoch or the editor’s of his conservative tabloid, the Wall Street Journal.

It’s quite ironic that you quote Goenner as a means to support your proposition or to suggest that you are the aggrieved party and that those who advocate for a hasty abatement of carbon emissions are the loony fringe. History has vindicated Einstein and, in fact, ongoing science continues to do so. On the other hand, history has relegated his detractors (at least 100 of them) to her dustbin and, if I were to place a wager, history will vindicate Bill Nye and other like-minded scientists, sooner rather than later and we certainly won’t have to wait 85 years.

If you’re going to go on the offensive against a leading voice of and for authentic science and sound reasoning, someone like Bill Nye, you ought to get your science correct. Just as a reminder, Bill Nye is the CEO of The Planetary Society and one would think that he’d get the planetary science right, right? So, in that vein, after reading the “full article” on Breitbart news (http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/05/24/bill-nye-scientism), permit me to correct you and, in turn, Breitbart. The following full comment (from the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-nye/why-i-choose-to-challenge_b_10048224.html ) from which the WUWT piece takes its cue is Bill’s original comment in the HP, discussing his appearance on Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” Bill O’Reilly show six years ago:

Carbon dioxide has an enormous effect on planetary temperatures. Climate change was discovered in recent times by comparing the Earth to the planet Venus. When Mr. Bastardi and I appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show six years ago, Mr. Bastardi said, “[He doesn’t] believe we have the proper measurements of Venus from over 10 billion years ago. So [he] can’t tell the relationship with Earth.” In planetary science we can tell several important things. Venus is extremely hot because of the greenhouse effect (and it’s far less than 10 billion years old). The Earth is warm enough to have liquid water, because of the same greenhouse effect. I remind you that Mr. Bastardi’s apparent belief that carbon dioxide has nothing to do with the Earth’s global temperatures is absolutely wrong.”

Bill Nye is absolutely correct when he states that “Venus is extremely hot because of the greenhouse effect”. Context is very important here and you willfully omit those sections of Bill’s comments that were not so supportive [of your position]. Also, you go to great lengths to discredit him using the comments of Mr. Bastardi, a widely known climate skeptic. Bill Nye was spot on in calling out Bastardi when Bastardi tried to delink Earth’s atmospheric CO2 concentrations to global temperatures and his reference to a comparison window of 10 billion years for the Earth and Venus when the solar system is, at best, 4.6 billion years old. It should also be pointed out (and this should be self-evident) that Bill’s statement “The Earth is warm enough to have liquid water, because of the same greenhouse effect” was made within the context of the Greenhouse effect and CO2 and that this reality he describes is not mutually exclusive with solar irradiance, the Earth’s principal source of heat and light. Clearly, solar irradiance is the principal reason why “The Earth is warm enough to have liquid water”. Bill would certainly agree on this point and would need no reminders.

In the “full” Breitbart piece and in the same vein, they quip:

“Let us now have a look at the inter-planetary science argument put forth by Mr. Nye. Haven’t we been told repeatedly by the popular media, and in this case again by Mr. Nye himself, that if we do not stop releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, planet Earth may soon be doomed and became another Venus, an over-heated, barren, rocky, lifeless planet?”

Further along in that same piece:

“To get a clear understanding that the last point is utter nonsense, we only need to read the recent exchange between Professor Freeman Dyson of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study and his colleague Professor Will Happer:

Thank you [Will] for this very clear account of the reason why Earth and Venus are different. This is something that every school-child should learn.

Another interesting fact is that if we put a sunshade shielding Venus from sunlight, it would only take 500 years for the surface of Venus to be cool and the atmosphere to condense into a carbon dioxide ocean. It is the lack of water rather than the high temperature that makes Venus permanently unfriendly to life.

We can also add that the popular and erroneous over-use of Venus as a doomed Earth is highlighted by the fact that, like Venus, the atmosphere of Mars is also significantly enriched in CO2 (about 95 percent by volume). However, because of its relatively farther orbital position from the Sun, the average temperature of Mars is only about minus 60 degrees Celsius (or minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit).

Now, for some basic astronomy and astrophysics: the nominal surface temperature of Venus is over 800 K (~500 C or 1000 F – Russian Venera probes place it above 800 K), the nominal surface temperature of Mercury is 635 K. But wait, Mercury is closer to the sun and only has a microatmosphere so, What’s Up With That?! Of Venus’ 800 K surface temperature, 470 is attributable to solar irradiance, the remaining 330 is due to the greenhouse effect brought on by the tremendous concentration of CO2 in the Venusian atmosphere. Ergo, the comparison of Earth to Venus, vis-a-vie, Climate Change. Regarding the comment that the absence of water on Venus makes it permanently unfriendly to life, that is the effect, not the cause! Early on, both planets are thought to have had water; both planets also exhibit no appreciable magnetosphere, a shield against the solar wind. The solar wind destroys Ozone which, in turn, shields against solar UV. Shortwave solar UV photo-disassociates water into its constituent components of 2 H and 1 O (as well as CO2 into 1 C and 2 O – this later photochemical reaction is an aspect of new atmospheric models of both planets). Both planets lack the mass to hold the free hydrogen combined with Venus’ proximity to the sun and they, thus, lose the hydrogen to space. The free oxygen combines with existing carbon (the source of this carbon as well as some of the primordial atmospheric CO2 is due, in part, to early active volcanism and is a whole lecture in and of itself) and we thus have conditions for the formation of the Venusian and Martian CO2 we observe today. Newer models of Mars’ atmosphere are emerging and provide a rather compelling explanation for current atmospheric conditions on Mars. Regarding the “water” comment, Venus is well inside the sun’s habitable zone, the region around every star where the prevailing temperature due to solar irradiance is such that water can exist in a liquid state. It IS the high temperature on Venus along with the lack of any effective magnetosphere that is the cause for the lack of water. It also happens that Mars is right, smack-dab in the middle of the sun’s habitable zone with Earth just inside the inner boundary.

The second paragraph in the Happer-Dyson exchange is a non-sequitur and demonstrates nothing more than what would happen and what would be expected if the energy source is eliminated.

In discussing temperatures on Mars within the context of distance from the sun, it should be pointed out that the prevailing temperature due to solar irradiance at the Martian equator is above 300 K (80 F, 27 C; 319 K is the theoretical value). The “average” temperature considers the temperature at the poles and the equatorial regions; within a similar context we could speak of Earth’s average temperature as being [(130 F + -80 F)/2] = 25 (130 F as the hottest temperature in the equatorial deserts of Africa and -80 as the lowest average temperature for the third quarter in Antarctica, although the lowest temperature there has been recorded as -129 F). No one would speak of Earth’s average temperature as 25 and it is disingenuous to speak of Mars similarly. Your sentence “However, because of its relatively farther orbital position from the Sun, the average temperature of Mars is only about minus 60 degrees Celsius (or minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit” is outright wrong, at the worst and misleading at the least.

dyson_sphere_by_capnhack-sq-e1445371238701
An artists rendering of a hypothetical “Dyson Sphere” or “Alien MegaStructure” enclosing an advanced civilization’s host star

Regarding Freeman Dyson, you really have to be kidding, right? Dyson is a widely known climate skeptic (and, I might add, a lonely soul since he’s among a rather small minority of scientists who hold similar positions on Climate Change). He is also the originator of what some have referred to as a “Dyson Sphere”, an “Alien Mega-Structure” either fully or partially enclosing an advanced civilization’s host star designed to more fully harness the energy of the star! Please read my piece here regarding the (absurd) claim that the observed peculiar light curves of a particular star are attributed to such a structure. Regardless, what did Happer actually say to Dyson, for which Dyson thanks him? They never clarify that and to include that exchange incompletely and out of context does nothing.

There’s an old and valuable idiom that comes to mind here, when judging someone else by a seemingly superior and oft-self-aggrandized, inflated or perhaps even a narcissistic view of your own position, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”.

Bill Nye may have his faults as we all do but getting the science wrong on Climate Change isn’t one of them.

Imagination is more important than knowledge 585px-Albert_Einstein_signature_1934(invert)
An index of all articles in this blog can be found here.

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