On Sunday's edition of Meet the Press, Bill "The Science Guy" Nye debated what David Gregory called "the politics of weather" with Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
This was Nye's second high-profile jousting match with a dissenter against the scientific community. Earlier this month, the former host of children's television show Bill Nye the Science Guy debated the Biblical creation story with Creation Museum founder Ken Ham. In both cases, Nye attempted to act as an ambassador on behalf of the scientific method, explaining how the preponderance of evidence leads one to a particular conclusion. And in both cases, his interlocutor fought him to a standstill by conjuring up the appearance of ambiguity.
"There is not consensus there," said Blackburn, who, as the current vice chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has influence over domestic environmental policy. Blackburn cited two climate scientists to make her point: One who has been "wrong about nearly every major climate argument he's made over the past two decades," according to fellow environmental scientist Dana Nuccitelli, and another who recently said, "it's clear that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will warm the planet." The scientific consensus on climate change is accepted by 97% of climate scientists.
Although the arguments marshalled in the Meet the Press debate were structurally similar to those used at the Creation Museum, the stakes differed considerably. The threat of natural selection is largely philosophical: It calls Biblical literalism into doubt and undermines the argument that humans are somehow distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. But the threat of climate change is corporeal. If left unchecked, rising global temperatures could lead to unpredictable extreme weather events, mass famine, pandemics, political instability, and resource wars.
When Gregory turned the discussion to the potential effects of climate change and ways to combat them, Blackburn insisted that all potential remedies must be subject to short-term cost-benefit analysis.
"When you look at the social cost of carbon, and there is a lot of ambiguity around that, what you also need to be doing is looking at the benefits of carbon," Blackburn said. Using that model, proposed environmental regulations such as cap-and-trade are unacceptable because of the potential short-term economic impact.
But cost-benefit analysis is ill-equipped to deal with existential threats. It is, after all, difficult to quantify the value of global human civilization. For Bill Nye, mitigating climate change means attempting to "do everything all at once," not dwelling on whether that will put a slight dent in the energy industry's profit margins.
In the context of a debate which inherently gave equal footing to scientific consensus and denialism, Nye said, "The more we mess around with this denial, the less we're going to get done."