Netflix has revived a lot of pop culture from our past: Arrested Development, Wet Hot American Summer, Full House, Gilmore Girls. But while some may view Netflix’s newest series, Bill Nye Saves the World, as the platform’s latest attempt to play off our nostalgia, there are a few differences from his original ’90s PBS series Bill Nye the Science Guy.
Back to the Future
While in many ways the original show’s spiritual successor, as Nye explains in the opening moments of the first episode, Saves the World is less of a kids show and more for “you grown up kids,” meaning he’ll be delving into more controversial issues. And Nye doesn’t waste any time, focusing the first episode entirely on climate change, probably the most politically-charged scientific issue in the United States, currently.
But perhaps to smooth the transition a bit, the first segment gives us some classic Nye, as he dons his classic lab coat and performs a simple experiment before a live studio audience. It’s probably a compliment to say my least favorite element of the new series is the campy way the audience is constantly prompted in the lab segments to deliver loud “oohs” and “ahhs.” In later segments as well, Nye delivers a few dad jokes that fall flat.
Nye’s first experiment demonstrates how heat causes liquid to expand as the audience is shown water rise in a heated flask. He explains the experiment is just a microcosm of what happens to the Earth’s oceans as temperatures rise. High temperatures speed up and spread out molecules, consequently expanding the oceans, which in turn leads to disastrous floods.
This is followed by a fun comedic sketch starring fashion model Karlie Kloss that hits close to home, as she illustrates how many of the crops responsible for things we love are suffering because of climate change, leading to shortages in chocolate, fish, coffee and even cute pandas(!), due to bamboo shortages. Regions where cacao used to make chocolate are getting too hot. Warming waters, overfishing, and carbon dioxide making oceans more acidic are wiping out fish populations. And coffee is endangered by higher temperatures and wild fluctuations in precipitation where long droughts are then followed by extreme rainfall, which also adds to the problems of more resilient pests and plant diseases.
The segment finds a creative and entertaining way to further Nye’s central theme, that effects of climate change aren’t all things that might happen one day in a distant future — there is an observable negative impact right now. And this is a scary thought because chocolate and coffee … kinda popular products among humans. This is a particular standout segment because of Kloss’ great comedic delivery, especially when she clarifies to the hapless consumer she keeps pestering, “Like, all the fish.”
In a later segment, Nye sends Kloss to Venice to learn about the MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) Project, deliberately named to resemble the biblical Moses, who parted the Red Sea. In yet another example of climate change affecting the here and now, Venice suffers the problem of sea level rise from expanding oceans. In an effort to become more resilient, construction is currently underway to build a massive and complex 5.5 billion euro gate system. Back at the studio, Kloss reports that sea level rise is such a huge part of everyday life in Venice, that locals check daily tide information on an app the way Americans just check the weather.
Nye sums up the role carbon dioxide plays in global warming by describing how basic garden greenhouses work, using their glass domes to simultaneously let light in while also keeping the heat from that light from escaping. Similarly, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere acts like the dome of a greenhouse, letting solar rays in but keeping the heat from escaping the Earth below, hence, the “greenhouse effect.” It’s an incredibly basic explanation but, in a country where most people don’t know a thing about climate science, it’s a good foundation to build from.
Nye lists a number of observable facts we’re seeing right now: oceans are warming; sea levels are rising, which is what we’d expect to see if the water were heated; polar ice is melting; carbon dioxide mixing into the ocean is making the ocean acidic; ocean life is dying; and more heat in the air makes more energy resulting in more extreme weather events like storms, droughts, fires, and floods. Ideally, a longer format could have allowed Nye to demonstrate each of these points like he did with water expansion earlier.
The Science Guy ends a monologue with a prediction — that 2010-2020 will be hottest decade on record. He’s made this prediction before. At last year’s annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), Nye referenced two recent bets he made with climate change deniers Marc Morano and Joe Bastardi. No, I’m not mocking them. Their names really are Morano and Bastardi. You can’t make this stuff up. Nye bet $60,000 that 2016 would be among the top ten hottest years on record and that this decade will be the hottest on record. He was right about the former. Will he be right about the latter?
Let’s Get Serious
In the “Bill Needs a Minute” segment, the gloves come off as he criticizes U.S. public policy for not sufficiently addressing climate change. He singles out one particular dishonest tactic of the anti-Athropogenic Global Warming (AGW) movement of exploiting small pockets of scientific uncertainty to create the false impression there’s complete uncertainty. This is the logical fallacy of the hasty generalization, wherein you draw a larger conclusion than is warranted from a small sample size. In other words, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
A short panel discussion on renewable energy moderated by Nye features Dr. Mark Jacobson (civil engineer), Richard Martin (journalist and author), and Taryn O’Neill (writer and co-founder of thescience advocacy group Scirens). Jacobson advocates conversion to 100% renewable energy and says it’s technologically and financially possible with enough social and political will. Much of the debate centers around the viability of nuclear power, which is relatively safe, clean and produces zero-carbon energy. One major problem, Jacobson says, is that it takes too long to go through all the legal regulations required to build even one nuclear plant, let alone the many needed to sufficiently combat climate change.
O’Neill asks what average people can do. Nye shouts, “Vote!” Martin says be aware of where our energy comes from. He envisions a future where people are as informed about where their energy comes from as we are where our food comes from.
Will it change any minds?
It’s a tough question. Few of us have the scientific expertise to evaluate the science of climate change on our own, and we tend to form our political opinions based on trusting the sources most favorable to our ideologies. I’m often reminded of the apocryphal quote often ascribed to Jonathan Swift, “You cannot reason someone out of positions he or she was not reasoned into.”
I honestly don’t know if this episode will make a big impact or not. I think Nye does make some strong points that (wisely) pivot the discussion away from the distant future and to observable impacts affecting our lives right now. Shortages in cacao and coffee crops are real, and if you’re someone who needs your daily grande sugar-free, half-caff, no-foam vanilla latte with soy milk, this might soon have a real impact on you personally, as shortages lead to higher prices and smaller shipments.
And while you may not have to think about sea level rise in your fifth floor apartment, it’s a real, practical concern for citizens of Venice and, say, Staten Island, New York, which was so decimated by Superstorm Sandy that new pilot government buyout programs were employed to relocate whole communities, like Oakwood Beach. Through one such program, the government is required to return the land to nature and is legally forbidden from building on it, or selling the land to others who would, because it’s become too unsafe. In other sections of Staten Island — as with Venice — large barriers like the Staten Island Bluebelt Program are being constructed for stormwater management.
Ultimately, I suspect the dyed-in-the-wool climate change deniers will not be moved by Nye’s arguments. But perhaps there’s a chance with those on the fence.