Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cosmos Review: The World Set Free - The Easy Way or the Hard Way

"Cosmos" gives us a glimpse inside a world with runaway global warming.

“Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.”

“The World Set Free” borrows liberally both in words and in theme from John F. Kennedy’s famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, delivered in September of 1962 at Rice University.  The episode closes with Kennedy’s words, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and Neil deGrasse Tyson repeatedly reminds us of the many times in our past that attempts at alternative energy sources have failed because we’ve chosen the easy paths of fossil fuels.  But it is the above quotation, from the same Kennedy speech, that has always intrigued me more.  While it’s true that part of why the United States was so eager to reach the moon was to prove its superiority over the Soviet Union, the greater reason, claimed Kennedy, was that somebody had to prove it could be done and nobody else could do it better or faster than we could.

It is perhaps fortuitous then, that “The World Set Free,” Cosmos’s endgame, its raison d’être, comes only two days after President Obama announced an ambitious new program to reduce carbon emissions from American power plants by thirty percent from their 2005 peaks by 2030.  This is a program bound to be opposed by conservative state governments (especially those that approved new coal plants three days before the announcement), but which is a huge first step in the United States taking leadership in combating the scientifically accepted scourge of man-made global climate change.

If it seems odd that I haven’t spoken much of the episode itself, it’s for the simple reason that this was the most straightforward hour of Cosmos yet.  From beginning to end, this was an exploration of global warming: A meticulous breakdown of its causes and its consequences.  The facts are largely agreed to.  The earth is warming.  We know this because long-term temperatures are rising both on land and sea.  We know these temperature increases are being caused by the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; that’s simple physics.  We know that the single largest source of unnatural greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuels. 

The consequences of a runaway greenhouse effect are similarly well-known.  We have Venus as the most extreme example, but even modest increases in global temperatures will cause sea levels to increase, likely flooding coasts and bringing regular droughts throughout the world.

The anticipated effects of global warming are not the most depressing aspect of “The World Set Free,” however; it’s the acknowledgment of how close we’ve come to embracing alternative fuel sources on so many occasions.  We first saw the power of the sun at the 1878 World’s Fair.  We even saw how solar power could transform the desert prior to World War I.  But each time, economic realities smacked alternative energy down.  Coal and oil are simply cheaper to turn into power than the energy from the sun or the wind.  It’s probably for this reason that Tyson chooses to focus on Kennedy’s proposition of “easy and hard” ways. 

The ugly truth is that fossil fuels are the easy way.  They’re cheaper to use even with the added costs of extraction.  Where fossil fuels lose their cost advantage, however is when you factor in the long-term negative impacts on the environment.  Economists call these negative impacts externalities, because their costs are borne not by their creators, but by others.  Governments have long recognized the need to minimize these externalities, from Clean Water and Clear Air Acts to anti-smog and acid rain legislation.  

For some reason, the world has thus far avoided addressing the externalities of global warming.  Perhaps there’s an unwillingness to admit the true nature of our predicament.  Perhaps, as Tyson suggests, we’re simply addicted to the “easy way.”  Whatever the reason, Tyson argues, the time is now to invest in alternative energy sources that utilize the immense power of the sun to generate power.  We’re already seeing the initial effects of a warming world and we’re largely doing nothing to abate further greenhouse gases.  Great change is needed, and it must come from somewhere.

“First in war, first in peace,” eulogized Henry Lee about our nation’s first president.  It was in this spirit that the United States first put a man on the moon and it is in this spirit that we must move forward in combating global warming.  As Tyson mentioned a few weeks ago, modern man is perhaps the only species in Earth’s history to have the ability not only to destroy its environment, but to rebuild it as well.  We met yet be the makers of our own undoing, but we also have the ability to be our own saviors, if only we have the will.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can contact him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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