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Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains How Republicans Blew It on Climate Change

According to the astrophysicist, denying science in the political sphere is just bad strategy.

LOS ANGELES - Jan 13: Neil deGrasse Tyson at the FOX TCA Winter 2014 Party at The Langham Huntington Hotel onJanuary 13, 2014 in Pasadena, CA
Photo Credit: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com


If you care about the place of science in our culture, then this has to be the best news in a very long time. Last Sunday night, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey—which airs on Fox and then the next day on the National Geographic Channel—actually tied ABC's "The Bachelorette" for the top ratings among young adult viewers, the "key demographic" coveted by advertisers. And it did so by—that's right—airing an episode about the reality of climate change.

Tuesday evening, I had the privilege of sitting down with the show's host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, to discuss this milestone, and how he feels generally as the 13-part series comes to a close. (The final episode, entitled " Unafraid of the Dark," airs this Sunday night.) "The ratings are exceeding our expectations," said Tyson, fresh off the climate episode triumph. But Tyson emphasized that to him, that's not the most important fact: Rather, it's that a science show aired at all in primetime on Sunday night.

"You had entertainment writers putting The Walking Dead in the same sentence as Cosmos," said Tyson. " Game of Thrones in the same sentence of Cosmos. 'How's Cosmos doing against Game of Thrones?' That is an extraordinary fact, no matter what ratings it earned."

I spoke with Tyson in the National Geographic Society's Hubbard Hall in DC, below a painting of the society's founders signing its charter in 1888. Tyson, wearing a glittering space-themed tie, sipped white wine before moving upstairs to a reception where he was destined for an hour of handshakes and selfies. Later that evening—after a special advance airing of the final episode of Cosmos—he would electrify a packed room by explaining to a young girl how solar flares work, a display that involved him sprawling across the stage (and his fellow panelists) as he contorted his body to mimic the dynamics of the sun's plasma. The show concluded with Tyson explaining how "plasma pies" (as he dubbed them), ejected towards us by our star, ultimately become the aurora borealis and the aurora australis.

There were other Cosmos luminaries on the stage—including executive producers Brannon Braga and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow—but Tyson won the room that night. Easily.

Overall, Tyson notes, Cosmos premiered not only on Fox but on National Geographic Channel and, globally, in 181 countries and 46 languages. "It tells you that science is trending in our culture," Tyson averred to me. "And if science is trending, that can only be good for the health, the wealth, and the security of our species, of our civilization."

And yet, many members of our species still deny that the globe is warming thanks to human activities—a point that Cosmos has not only made a centerpiece but that, the program has frankly argued, threatens civilization as we know it. Tyson is know for being fairly non-confrontational; for not wanting to directly argue with or debate those who deny science in various areas. He prefers to just tell it like it is, to educate. But when we talked he was, perhaps, a little more blunt than usual.

"At some point, I don't know how much energy they have to keep fighting it," he said of those who don't accept the science of climate change. "It's an emergent scientific truth." Tyson added that in the political sphere, denying the science is just a bad strategy. "The Republican Party, so many of its members are resistant to embracing the facts of climate change that the legislation that they should be eager to influence, they're left outside the door," said Tyson. "Because they think the debate is whether or not it's happening, rather than what policy and legislation can serve their interests going forward."