A New Weapon in the War Against Climate Change Denial: Laughter

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann has teamed up with cartoonist Tom Toles on a book that takes a satirical look at the merchants of doubt.
(Photo: Courtesy Columbia University Press)
Sep 15, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

At first glance, Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles seem like an unlikely duo.

Mann is the climate scientist best known for the “hockey stick” graph that illustrates the rise in global temperatures over the past 150 years.

Toles is the Pulitzer Prize–winning editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post who frequently satirizes the dysfunctional world of politics.

Cartoonists and scientists tend to run in different circles, but Mann and Toles have teamed up for a new book, The Madhouse Effect. The engaging and often funny volume aims not only to clearly explain the science behind climate change but also to satirize the skeptics and deniers who have worked hard to delay political action for the past few decades.

“We wanted to both expose the hypocrisy of climate change denial but move beyond that and use the book as an opportunity to talk about the real challenges we face,” said Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.

Mann said the satirical nature of the book—which takes no prisoners in its descriptions of the denial machine and its key players—follows recent similar attempts by comedians such as Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Bill Maher. “The satirists and humorists have a certain license in our modern discourse to tackle topics and subject matter that are often too difficult or even off-limits to tackle head-on,” he said. “I think part of it has to do with the lowering of people’s defenses that comes with humor and satire.”

(Photo: Courtesy Columbia University Press)

Toles, who contributed dozens of new cartoons to the book, along with reprints of his Washington Post cartoons dating to 2003, said he leaped at the chance to work with Mann. “This seemed like an opportunity to get the message out, which is something I’ve been trying to do consistently for years now,” Toles said. He started drawing cartoons about global warming in the late 1980s. Many of the cartoons reprinted in The Madhouse Effect date back more than a decade but feel as fresh as if they had been drawn today, an indication of how slowly things have changed.

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Toles said the book comes at an opportune time, when change may finally be possible. “The science has solidified yet another level,” he said. “The politics of denial, which came somewhat late in the process, are starting to crumble now. It’s become a publicly disreputable position to hold. Serious people who take themselves seriously in the public discussion do not deny overtly anymore that there’s a problem.”

(Photo: Courtesy Columbia University Press)

That doesn’t mean the deniers aren’t active and effective at blocking change. “But still, we’re at the tail end of the denialist period,” Toles said. “To map that out and illustrate it and show people what’s been going on is another opportunity to move the debate one fuller step to public action. It’s under way in a small way now, but we need to get accelerated on it.”

Mann said the book is a necessary approach to the message of climate change. “We’ve tried for too long to sort of barge through the front door with information and facts,” he said. “That was the intent of An Inconvenient Truth. We’ve tried that approach, and while it will reach some people, there are others that just aren’t going to be reached.” He called satire the “side door” that may get the message into readers’ minds and hearts.

Both collaborators said that while we’re still learning details about climate change, the science is more than settled enough for us to take action. “I think more or less the scientific argument is fundamentally won,” Toles said. “Public policy, both in the United States and most of the world, is starting to move in the right direction.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not concerned, but the message of the book is one of hope. “I would say that we’re still worryingly behind, but as exasperating as public policy processes can be, they often come through at the last possible minute, when people start to really see a problem for what it is,” Toles said. “I think that’s what’s starting to happen.”

That, Mann said, is the theme of The Madhouse Effect. “There’s a message of cautious optimism and hope, which we really wanted to convey,” he said. “It’s the way we feel, and we also think that we’re at the point now where we’re ready for that more meaningful conversation.”