Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in Cosmos: “As these ancient forests grew and died […] their remains transformed into coal. 300M years later, we humans are burning that coal to power – and imperil – our civilization.” [Fact Checking]

March 20, 2014 7:22 am1 comment

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“As these ancient forests grew and died and sank beneath the surface, their remains transformed into coal. Three hundred million years later, we humans are burning that coal to power — and imperil — our civilization.” — Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson references climate change in first episode of Cosmos and says the burning of coal "power[s] and "imperil[s]" our civilization.

Credit: “Standing Up in the Milky Way,”  first episode of the new “Cosmos” television series. The quote is at 34:18.

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  • There are a few facts which need to be checked here. (1) “Three hundred million years”? Yes. Although coal deposits have been found from a variety of time periods in Earth’s history, the king of the coal-forming periods was the Carboniferous, which ended just about 300 million years ago. (2) “grew and died and sank beneath the surface”? Yes. The Carboniferous was marked by extensive land vegetation and episodic inundations and retreats by varying sea levels, resulting today in layers of coal separated by layers of sedimentary rocks characteristic of marine environments, like limestone and shale. (3) “imperil”. Maybe. Imperil is a big word. Coal mining certainly is a perilous profession, with both short and long term health dangers for the miners. And, the smoke from coal burning is more perilous to air quality than other fossil fuels. On the other hand, the geographic distribution of coal on the Earth places much of it, coincidentally, in politically stable regions like the United States, leading to less chance of perilous political turmoil in pursuing it. But, of course, what Dr. Tyson is really getting at is that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is currently a significant factor in climate change. This claim is supported by many independent lines of evidence. OK: so far, so good. But, does it actually imperil civilization? Neils Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Predictions that the Earth’s ecosystems are being driven to a place very different from that which supported the enormous growth of economies and populations in the twentieth century seem robust to me. Making predictions of how those environmental changes will manifest in civilization is, well, “very difficult”. The most certain thing we can say is that there are risks, and risk must be managed responsibly. If risk is ignored rather than managed, then “imperil” is probably the right word here. (4) Is Dr. Tyson still a real-life science superhero? Yes. “Cosmos” is great television. I’m a big fan of the show and the host.

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  • http://web.mit.edu/spatrick/www/index.html Sean Robinson

    There are a few facts which need to be checked here. (1) “Three hundred million years”? Yes. Although coal deposits have been found from a variety of time periods in Earth’s history, the king of the coal-forming periods was the Carboniferous, which ended just about 300 million years ago. (2) “grew and died and sank beneath the surface”? Yes. The Carboniferous was marked by extensive land vegetation and episodic inundations and retreats by varying sea levels, resulting today in layers of coal separated by layers of sedimentary rocks characteristic of marine environments, like limestone and shale. (3) “imperil”. Maybe. Imperil is a big word. Coal mining certainly is a perilous profession, with both short and long term health dangers for the miners. And, the smoke from coal burning is more perilous to air quality than other fossil fuels. On the other hand, the geographic distribution of coal on the Earth places much of it, coincidentally, in politically stable regions like the United States, leading to less chance of perilous political turmoil in pursuing it. But, of course, what Dr. Tyson is really getting at is that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is currently a significant factor in climate change. This claim is supported by many independent lines of evidence. OK: so far, so good. But, does it actually imperil civilization? Neils Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Predictions that the Earth’s ecosystems are being driven to a place very different from that which supported the enormous growth of economies and populations in the twentieth century seem robust to me. Making predictions of how those environmental changes will manifest in civilization is, well, “very difficult”. The most certain thing we can say is that there are risks, and risk must be managed responsibly. If risk is ignored rather than managed, then “imperil” is probably the right word here. (4) Is Dr. Tyson still a real-life science superhero? Yes. “Cosmos” is great television. I’m a big fan of the show and the host.