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Climate scientist Michael Mann’s new book says climate denial is ‘driving us crazy’

A renowned climate scientist and a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist teamed up on a new book about how climate denial is making us crazy.

Source: Tom Toles
Source: Tom Toles

In their new book, The Madhouse Effect, renowned climate scientist Michael Mann and Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles dive into the science and politics of global warming. The authors sat down with Nexus Media to share their insights. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Source: Columbia University Press
Source: Columbia University Press

How do you think cartoons can improve the conversation about climate change?

Tom Toles: Humor is certainly a part of it. One of the challenges in climate change is it’s not a funny subject. Humor tends to either be reassurance humor or attack humor — and political cartooning tends to be more along the attack lines. In that regard, there have certainly been a large number of targets, people who have been in the way of progress.

But the other thing a cartoon does is simplify and visualize and make the information a little more accessible. Climate is not as complicated a subject as everyone makes it out to be, and that’s one of the things a cartoonist can do is find the simple elements of it. There are many ways you can look at the problem, but they all can be simplified into imagery, or a few ideas that are helpful in explaining to a casual reader how the subject is constructed and why they should care about it.

Source: Tom Toles
Source: Tom Toles

Michael Mann: There’s so much layering of information and nuance in Tom’s cartoons. They get at the science, but at the same time they get at the politics and the hypocrisy of climate-change-denying politicians. Somehow he’s able to do in a single cartoon what takes me half a chapter to describe in words. Sometimes there’s a message that’s being delivered but it’s almost subliminal. In our book, the cartoons and the text compliment each other.

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For example, there’s a chapter in the book: “Hypocrisy, thy name is climate change denial.” In my view, there is no greater example of hypocrisy today than the hypocrisy of fossil-fuel funded politicians who are doing the bidding of fossil fuel interests. With Hurricane Matthew, we’ve actually had some figures from the right-wing extreme of the news media — Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh — accusing the National Hurricane Center of inflating their estimates of the intensity of this storm for some purported political agenda to somehow convey the effects of climate change.

Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post
Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post

For individuals who haven’t seen the raw data, it wouldn’t be a stretch for some to think of something as creative, and dishonest, as making up a data point.

Toles: This is why the argument has bogged down so badly. The point that I’m trying to get at in my cartoons is to, in simplified form, get at the actual facts and the actual truth. Now, the other side has engaged in a lot of data gathering and dispensing, but for exactly the opposite purpose: confusing the issue and confusing the public for the reason of preventing policy action.

So you could ask, “How does a general reader differentiate between the two apparent mirror image approaches that both claim to be true and both claim that the other side is lying?” That’s the reason the opposition has taken that tactic, because it is hard for a general reader, sometimes. The answer to that is 1) read the book, which explains the science and the reasoning behind the science in very plain, easy to understand terms, and 2) try to shed your preconceptions and ask yourself some basic questions such as, “If I’m not a climate scientist, who should I listen to?” The answer is you should probably listen to climate scientists.

Source: Tom Toles
Source: Tom Toles

For a long time, deniers or avoiders would say, “Well, there’s a lot of variation between scientists, they don’t all say the same thing.” And then when the data became so conclusive that essentially all climate scientists were saying the same thing, and saying the science is as solid as you’re ever going to see, the deniers turn around and say, “Well see, when you get unanimity, that’s when you have to be most suspicious of all.”

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My answer to that is you have to be most suspicious of all when one side of the argument keeps changing their reasons for a conclusion, a predetermined conclusion, i.e. “Don’t do anything.” The conclusion never changes, the reasons always do change — that’s a dead giveaway for poor reasoning, and probably the wrong side of the argument.

Mann: That’s what we call epistemic closure. More evidence and more consensus just proves that the conspiracy runs deeper and wider. There’s no way out of it, it’s an internally closed loop of bad logic and ideologically motivated belief.

I’m reminded of a common trope that we see in Hollywood and on TV: There’s the hero and then there’s the shape-shifting villain, and the villain shape-shifts to look just like the hero, and there’s a third party that has to figure out which of them is really the hero. That’s sort of what we’re asking the public to do.

Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post
Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post

A climate scientist and a cartoonist are an interesting pair — how did you come to collaborate?

Mann: In my previous book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, we used a couple of Tom’s cartoons. That ultimately led to our publisher suggesting we combine forces — use the knowledge base that I had as a scientist working in the field of climate change, and my experience as one type of communicator, and then have Tom come at it from a completely different direction, using art and satire.

In a sense, we’re combining our right and left brains. I’m the left-brain scientist and Tom is the right-brain artist — it’s a simplification of course — bringing our approaches and our methods and our expertise together and melding them to talk about this existential challenge, this crisis, and maybe break through the morass that still exists in the public discourse on climate change.

Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post
Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post

Toles: I approach climate a little differently from Michael. He came at it strictly through the science, and I approached it as a cartoonist, as a communicator, and my understanding of it came not out of the laboratory but out of the same news media that everyone else has access to.

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And one of the things I wanted to do as a cartoonist is make up for some of the deficit with which the national media was treating climate change. When I started reading about it, it sounded like a potentially immense problem and I was a little surprised and dismayed that the media treated it so casually — or not at all. To a certain extent, that’s still going on. The Paris Accord that just took effect got pretty scant coverage for such an important thing. I did a cartoon on that as yet another way to get coverage on such an important subject.

The opportunity to talk and interact with somebody who understands the subject at every level down has been a treat and an education for me.

Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post
Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post

Who are some of the cartoonists who have inspired you?

Toles: The foremost contender for that role is Gary Trudeau and [his strip] Doonesbury. He’s been pretty consistent on a lot of social issues, and some scientific issues. While Gary Larson, of The Far Side, was not exactly an advocate for anything in particular, he did seem to have a peculiar and consistent interest in scientific subjects. While he was often very absurdist in his cartoons, it was enjoyable and often he would be getting at a subtle scientific method or truth.

But, the environmental movement in political cartoons is very strong and longstanding. It went way back before Rachel Carson and the modern era of environmentalism to Teddy Roosevelt and the early 20th century idea of wilderness and the national parks. My predecessor at the Post, Herblock, who worked until he was 93 years old, went way back, and I think some of his earliest cartoons were environmental ones, all the way back to the 1920s.

Mann: Even though I’m a scientist, I’m also very passionate about communicating the science and its implications to the public, I’m always trying to learn new tools and new approaches, thinking outside the box a s a communicator. Satire and artistic approaches have so much to offer when it comes to breaking through to the public.

That’s the underlying inspiration for our book. I’ve been presenting facts and figures and data for years, as have many of my colleagues, such as those at the National Academy of Sciences, and somehow we haven’t broken through, because in the end the obstacle is less about scientific understanding than it is about politically motivated opposition and entrenched interests trying to prevent progress.

Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post
Source: Tom Toles/The Washington Post

One of the most powerful images in the book is of a penguin and a polar bear meeting on floating icebergs, their habitats erased. Your cartoon is pretty in-your-face with what’s at stake.

Toles: The penguin and the polar bear was yet another way to find an image to grab people’s attention. I took something that they know — that polar bears live at the north pole and penguins live at the south pole, and climate change is going to have an effect on both places — and brought in the plight of ecosystems and the unnatural meeting of these two species that wouldn’t normally be together, even though they both live in icy areas. It was one more way to bring the topic home to people, to bring two things together that don’t go together — but in a way they do now. The idea of trying to find ways to think about an issue other than as a muddle of indistinct data, then to bring it home visually, compellingly.

Mann: There is the danger that when we make the polar bear the sole poster child of climate change. It makes it seem like its this far-off, exotic threat. So we have to bring it home, how it is impacting us now, where we live, whether it’s food or water or national security or health or what have you.

But I also care about the sort of world we leave behind — for my daughter, for her children for her grandchildren — do we really want to leave a fundamentally degraded planet with major losses of animal species and ecosystems? Even if we could survive, even if we persist, we would persist in a world that lacks so much of the wonder and beauty of the world that we grew up in. We just don’t want that for our children and grandchildren. It’s about leaving this place better off than we found it.

The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy is published by Columbia University Press (2016).

This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. It first appeared at Nexus Media News.