Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined CNN’s Fareed Zakaria to discuss the massive, record-setting hurricanes that have been pummeling Texas, Florida and the Caribbean in recent weeks and he is sounding the alarm. All the climate change alarms, even wondering if we’ve reached the point now where we might not be able to recover.
It’s a sobering interview that all should see. The full interview and transcript are below. The time to act is right now.
ZAKARIA: So what role did climate change play in the ferocious strength of hurricane Irma and the intense flooding caused by Irma and Harvey? Well, on Monday, U.S. Homeland Security adviser refused to say whether climate change had been a factor or Irma's strength at all. The head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has told CNN in advance of Irma's landfall that it was insensitive to talk about climate change right now. How should we think about an event like this and the broader issue of science and public policy.
To help me understand the impact of all of this, Neil deGrasse Tyson joins me. He is, of course, the author of the best-seller Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and much, much more. Neil, you're not a climate scientist but you're a very distinguished scientist and astrophysicist. What do you think about when people say, look, this is not settled science, there are still questions. I sometimes think to myself, look, there are a lot of questions about Einstein's theories that led to nuclear fission but we still know that there are nuclear power plants do operate and they do provide electricity.
TYSON: There are people who have cultural, political, religious economic philosophies that they then invoke when they want to cherry pick one scientific result or another. You can find a scientific paper that says practically anything and the press, which I count you as part of, will sometimes find a single paper and say "Here's a new truth." But an emergent scientific truth, for it to become an objective truth, a truth that is true whether or not you believe in it, it requires more than one scientific paper. It requires a whole system of people's research all leaning in the same direction, all pointing to the same consequences. That's what we have with climate change as induced by human conduct. This is a known correspondence. If you want to find the 3 percent of the papers or the 1 percent of the papers that conflicted with this and build policy on that, that is simply irresponsible. How else do you establish a scientific truth if not by looking at the consensus of scientific experiments and scientific observations. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, signed into law in 1963--a year when he had important things to be thinking about--he signed into law the National Academy of Sciences. Because he knew that science mattered and should matter in governance.
ZAKARIA: And you know we build our cities on the basis of science. When we fall ill, we don't go to the local witch doctor, we go to a doctor even though all of that science is still-- there are advances going to be made, none of it is settled in the sense that--
TYSON: Well, you know what is settled? Settled science is the science that has come out of large bodies of research that all agree. When you see scientists arguing--and I said if you think scientists want to always agree with one another, you've never been to a scientific conference because people are duking it out. But what are they fighting over? Not the settled science that's been in the books. We're fighting over the bleeding edge of what is not yet known and that is the natural course of science. If you as a journalist want to eavesdrop on that meeting, you'll think scientists don't know anything about anything but it's the body of knowledge that accumulated over the decades that precedes this that becomes the canon that if you're going to base policy and legislation on, that's what you should be thinking about.
ZAKARIA: So you would say this is a moment to listen to climate scientists?
TYSON: I can't even picture--how many rain drops was that? Fifty inches of rain in Houston. This is a shot across our bow. A hurricane the width of Florida going up the center of Florida. These are shots across our bow. What will it take for people to recognize that a community of scientists are learning objective truths about the natural world and that you can benefit from knowing about it? Even news reports on this channel talked about the fact that we have fewer deaths per hurricane. Why? Because you now know weeks in advance. We have models that have draw trajectories of hurricanes. In decades gone by it was like there's hurricane there, I don't know, should I stay? Should I go? You stay and you die. So to cherry pick science is an odd thing for a scientist to observe and I didn't grow up in a country where that was a common phenomenon. We went to the moon and people knew science and technology fed those discoveries. And the day two politicians are arguing about whether science is true, it means nothing gets done, nothing. It's the beginning of the end of an informed democracy, as I've said many times. What I'd rather happen is you recognize what is scientifically truth then you have your political debate. So in the case of energy policy, whatever, you don't ask is the science right, you ask should we have carbon credits tariffs.
TYSON: … Right. The longer we delay, the more--I worry we might not be able to recover from this because our greatest cities are on the oceans and water's edges historically for commerce and transportation and as storms kick in, as water levels rise they are the first to go and we don't have a system, we don't have a civilization with the capacity to pick up a city and move it inland 20 miles. This is happening faster than our ability to respond. That could have huge economic consequences.
ZAKARIA: On that sobering note, Neil deGrasse Tyson, always a pleasure. We are in a hurry to read the book.