Many young people are passionate about fighting global warming and climate change, but they might find themselves overwhelmed trying to understand the science of it and also feel unsure of what to do to help. No worries — Bill is here to explain all that. He spoke to me about the science behind global warming, why this past winter was so cold, and what we can all do to save the earth. Okay, now you can start chanting, “Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!” while you read on.
+ How the Science Works
“The reason Mars is cold is because it has hardly any atmosphere compared to the earth, less than 1% of the atmospheric pressure,” Bill said. “The reason the earth, Mars and Venus have atmospheres is because of gravity. Venus’s atmosphere is 90 times thicker than the earth’s, and most of what’s in it is a gas called carbon dioxide. It has the remarkable property of letting visible light pass through it, but not letting a slightly longer wavelength pass through. Light comes from the sun, hits the earth’s surface, changes the visible light to heat. And then carbon dioxide pulls in heat. And that’s a good thing — without it, it would be too cold to live here.”
So Venus is too hot to live on and Mars is too cold. “So the greenhouse affect – that’s what this is called – is a good thing. But we’re getting too much of it. The reason is we’re putting an extraordinary amount of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere. There’s another gas called methane, and methane unburned is a very powerful greenhouse gas. So the methane, water vapor and carbon dioxide are holding in a lot of heat and making the world get warmer faster than ever before. The problem is the rate at which the world is getting warmer.”
+ The Evidence is Everywhere
There’s a ton of evidence for all this, and Bill spoke about some of it. “When we drill with a hollow drill bit into the ice in Antarctica and Greenland, the ice has trapped bubbles of the ancient atmosphere. Then by assessing the composition of the ancient atmosphere, and by counting neutrons and oxygen atoms of water that’s in the ice, we can determine very accurately the temperature of the surface of the sea. People look at the ice carefully and see that the ocean is warming and more neutrons are evaporating and different oxygen atoms are evaporating.”
If you’re feeling a little over your head, Bill has an image for you: “Imagine a hockey stick sitting on the floor with the blade pointing up. The world’s temperature has gone along constantly the last 10,000 years, but then near the end it goes up very steeply.”
And there’s way more evidence than just what we find in ice. “Then you count pollen grains and the sediment of lakes. You look at width of tree limbs. In warm seasons, trees grow faster than cold seasons. By integrating all this data, people have determined the world is getting warmer faster than ever.”
+ Why Did It Get So Cold This Winter?
Have you heard some people snark, “Well, if global warming’s happening, why was this winter so cold?” Bill’s got an answer for that.
“You’ll hear climate change along with global warming,” he said. “They’re both happening. By having the earth’s atmosphere trap more heat energy, it’s changing weather patterns. One of the things it did was allow this West to East flow that occurs naturally in the Northern Hemisphere to go farther South.”
+ Global Warming Deniers
Despite the fact that science is . . . well, science, and therefore based entirely on evidence, some people still deny climate change and global warming. “It’s very dangerous for everybody in the near future,” Bill said about climate change deniers. “They claim that there’s a conspiracy, and that’s really appealing for them to say, because then it’s nobody’s fault.”
He continued, “We all share the air, so everyone is responsible. You can make an argument that the United States is more responsible than any other country because we use so much more energy per person than anyone else in the world. We’ve exported the culture of getting in the car to go everywhere.” He pointed out how some people will basically say, “Well, China and India aren’t working aggressively against climate chance, so why should we?” “That for me is no reason for the United States to not be the world leader in this,” he said. “The United States does not wait for other people to do things.”
+ What Are Steps People Can Take To Help the Earth?
“You can do the little things, which involve not throwing away plastic bottles, not using more than you need. The biggest decision we all make as consumers that affects the world’s climate is the car we drive.”
He continued, “The real things we need are big, new ideas. The one I cite all the time is a better electric battery. Better batteries could make our transportation systems a lot more efficient. The propulsion system of an electric car is over 90% efficient. The propulsion of a conventional gas powered car is less than 30. If we had a way to build enormous wind turbines, enormous arrays of solar panels that are much more efficient than the ones we have now, that would get us a long way to providing energy for everyone. But more important is a way to store that energy. What we need to do as science students (who I hope will become engineers) is invent a better battery. What we need to do as voters and taxpayers is support investment in that. Another example is if the roofs on buildings were light colors, we would save an enormous amount of energy. Hard to believe, but it’s true.”
He stressed the importance of not just picking one of these things to do. “We need to do everything all at once. We need to convince the naysayers to come around or we need to establish a big enough voting bloc to make them not as effective. We need to come up with new technologies that save energy, doing more with less.”
+ Young People Can Save the Earth
If you’re a young person feeling angry about the state of the earth, he totally gets you. “Promote your anger,” he said, meaning channel it into doing social good. “If young people get motivated, we can turn this around. Everybody, you have to vote. We all can change the world. Believe you can do it so you can do it. Let’s get going.”
Photo: BillNye.com, Getty
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