I like and respect Bill Nye. But as a communications guy, I have to say: he did a lousy job in his interview on Fox this week about Hurricane Irene and climate change.
I don't mean to pick on the guy. Bill Nye rocks. My intent here is simply to help us elevate our game when we're dealing with climate change skeptics.
So let's look at the tape of his interview with Charles Payne, which includes a clip of Al Gore inexplicably talking about racism in an attempt to talk about climate change.
Unfortunately, I'm not figuring out how to embed a Fox video. For now, you can watch it here until some smart person helps me do this.
Nye starts out well. He calmly handles the question of whether or not Irene is proof of climate change by explaining how climate modelers do their work. It's terrific.
Payne, the Fox dude, then counters by saying, hey, we're not seeing the extreme weather that the climate freaks say we should be having. Nye answers this beautifully – even forcing Payne to admit that he has no idea what's happening with the earth's temperature but that, yeah, it probably is a degree warmer than it used to be.
Then Nye walks right into the trap that Fox had ready for him.
Here's how it goes: we can't beat this guy on the science. We know that. So what do we do? We bring in blustery Al Gore to personify the arrogant climate change crowd. It's a red herring aimed at the emotional brain, not the intellectual brain. But as Al knows from his infamous debate sighing, you can still lose a debate even when you're the smartest guy in the room.
The clip of Gore, by the way, shows why he is such a terrible spokesperson for action on climate. Because Al, he thinks the analogy that will help people understand climate change is….racism.
Really? You want to give the denial industry the gift of being able to say that Al Gore thinks climate skeptics are the moral equivalent of racists? I know: that's not at all the point Gore is trying to make. But why the hell is he using racism – one of the most sensitive hot buttons in American culture - to make any point about climate change? It's about as dumb as you can get if you're trying to win an argument.
"We have to win the conversation on climate," says Gore, the same way we won it on race.
This is dumber than dumb. Gore is turning climate skepticism into a moral issue. But the confusion among citizens is not a moral issue. (It is when you're talking about the corporate flacks deliberately spinning lies to sow confusion. But that's not the point here.)
As Nye said so well early in the interview, climate science is about: science. It's about hundreds of scientists collecting data, analyzing it, modeling feedback loops, and sharing and discussing and improving their models. And you do not, will not, cannot win any debate about it by framing it as a moral issue. (Make no mistake: inaction on climate change is a moral issue. A country that represents 5% of the world's population using 35% of its resources is a moral issue. But being confused is not. A much, much better analogy would have been public understanding of the dangers of cigarettes fifty years ago, when we were deliberately misled by paid flacks.)
But let's get back to the interview. Payne sets this trap, and Nye takes the bait. There is simply no way he was going to get anywhere with Gore's analogy. He should have said, "Look, Al Gore cares a lot about climate change, but this is not about any one person" and then pivoted right back to the points he wanted to make. But Nye keeps going, getting into world travel and canine sex – for two long minutes. And you can mock Fox viewers all you want, but Payne was right: Nye made a confusing mess of the issue. It in no way helped make a case about man-made climate change.
I get it. It's live TV. Stuff happens. But we on the side of reason are often too clever for our own good, and it makes us terrible debaters. We want to win every point, so we lose the game. As soon as Nye chose to engage with the Gore analogy, you could sense him sinking into quicksand he could have easily walked around.
We need to be better prepared for these predictable traps and attacks. When the other side brings up distractions, you bring it back to science and ask them to disprove the evidence. Every single time. Because most of their weapons are diversions and ad hominem attacks.
Here's how it could have gone.
"Charles," Nye might have said, "I'm not sure what point Mr. Gore was trying to make, but my point is that when the planet heats up, the oceans heat up. That makes more energy available for tropical storms. Warmer air, meanwhile, holds more water, which is why many parts of New York and New England got 8-10 inches of rain, leading to devastating floods."
"Someone is going to emerge the leader in solar panels and other green technologies, Charles, and right now China is way ahead of us. They're not debating. They're investing. We can debate well-established science or we can kick our oil addiction and invest in green technology that is good for our economy, creates millions of jobs, and reduces our dependance on oil from the Middle East. You're a business reporter. Which choice do you want us to make?"
That's how you win the conversation on climate.
UPDATED: to remove an irrelevant comment about my reaction to Gore in that video clip.