The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial

Image of The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial
Release Date: 
July 11, 2023
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“Lipsky’s dizzying no-brakes account of the progression to climate consensus—and of the dogged deniers-for-hire who have attacked it with relentless, reckless abandon—proves engaging and enraging in equal measure.”

Climate change and climate denial—the two most effective, human-engineered, world-ending accelerants ever devised—have shared the stage in a gripping tragicomic drama for nearly four decades. In The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial, David Lipsky brings that drama irresistibly to life in a narrative guaranteed to have readers alternately laughing at the headlong rush of human stupidity and cupidity and screaming helplessly into the void.

Lipsky doesn’t exactly make light of the rampant discharge of largely human-generated greenhouse gases that will render our planet increasingly inhospitable to human life in the coming years without a drastic global course correction.

Nor does Lipsky play for laughs the expensive, aggressive, relentless, reckless, and infuriatingly successful campaign to impeach the findings of climatologists who were far too busy accumulating data and testing hypotheses to engage in the culture war into which they’ve been drafted. The deniers aim to sweep a daunting preponderance of terrifying findings under the rug, as if what fossil fuel apologists can convince us we don’t know can’t possibly hurt us.

But Lipsky’s dizzying no-brakes account of the progression to climate consensus—and of the dogged deniers-for-hire who have attacked it with relentless, reckless abandon—proves engaging and enraging in equal measure. Lipsky reaches back so far in into the history of science and science denial, and seamlessly weaves together so many threads that one is tempted to liken what he achieves in this book for the decades-old warming wars to what Edmund Wilson did in To the Finland Station for the nearly-as-contentious rise of Bolshevism a century earlier.

But there’s way too much popular culture ingeniously and hilariously threaded into Lipsky’s narrative to make the Wilson comparison stick. The real “got to laugh to keep from crying” and “how the hell did we get here” antecedent to The Parrot and the Igloo is a vast socio-cultural-political narrative that features some of the same protagonists, which is to say many of the same politicos and pundits who peddled and promoted their lies: Rick Perlstein’s four-volume history of the New Right, which began in the 1950s with Before the Storm and concluded in 1980 with Reaganland.

Lipsky succinctly summarizes The Parrot and the Igloo as follows: “The story this book tells is about the people who made our world; then the people who realized there might be a problem; then the people who lied about that problem.”

The “people who made our world,” of course, are men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla, whose landmark discoveries in the harnessing and use of electricity set the stage for how we sourced, generated, and progressed toward our addiction to it. But part of the genius of The Parrot and the Igloo is how Lipsky demonstrates that even the dependency part, which we take for granted, required a sales pitch to jump-start it, a cleverly calibrated and insistent nudge in its direction fashioned by pioneering ad-men like Bruce Barton. Neither science nor its denial, Lipsky reveals, ever overcame popular inertia on its own merits; only the strongest and most ethically unmoored persuader emerged victorious.

Lipsky goes on to chart the ascent of climate science and the emergence of the climate consensus at multiple stages, dating back to pivotal figures in the science of global warming like Svante Arhennius, who began his greenhouse effect calculations in 1896; and Guy Stewart Callendar, the British climatologist who delivered a paper on “The Artificial Production of Carbon Dioxide and its Influence on Climate” at the Royal Meteorological Society in 1938, and in the same year assembled climate science’s “first how-much list: how much smoke, how much temperature rise.”

Not surprisingly, the most colorful figures in the book are its villains: the climate deniers, who invariably lack pertinent credentials in environmental or climate science, but far outstrip their opponents in marketing acumen, language manipulation, and chutzpah. (And longevity: Denier supreme S. Fred Singer outlasted nearly everyone on both sides of the climate divide.)

Their stateside ranks include a parade of presidents, including the virulently pro-market, anti-science Ronald Reagan, who famously dismissed woodlands preservation efforts as a California governor (“If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen ’em all!”) and removed solar panels from the White House as one of his first acts in office. In subsequent years he expertly delayed climate action through prolonged research, then repeatedly debunked and ignored said research and gutted the agencies who performed it when the findings didn’t square with his priorities. When Reagan’s Department of Energy pointed the wrong way (well, science’s right way, but Reagan’s wrong way), Lipsky writes, “It was like the Hollywood red pen, hovering over a script element. President Reagan decided to scratch out the entire department.”

Meanwhile, in the Thatcherite UK, which mostly moved in lockstep with Reagan-era America (like on propping up apartheid South Africa), the climate science “good guys” actually prevailed on progressing toward carbon neutrality, because they landed on the better sales pitch: If the nation didn’t act now, rising temperatures would drive Asians and Africans northward toward England’s milder climes, flooding the country with undesirables. It took no more dissemination of real climate science data to persuade the populace on global warming in 1990 than it took forthright discussion of macroeconomics to tilt the Brexit vote of 2016. The common thread, of course, was not education, but racism.

As a British diplomat explained, “You simply appeal to the self-interest, [and] tell him, ‘Well, dear friend, you are against anything being done about global warming. OK, but then your children and grandchildren will have to live with millions and millions of people moving up from Asia, moving up from Egypt, and so on.’” Thatcher assembled her cabinet brain trust to review the science and it took all of a day to turn the tide, Lipsky writes. “Before April, England had been known as the Dirty Man of Europe—the coughing island, with dusty clothes and flies in its hair. In the fifteen years after 1990, Britain’s economy grew by 40 percent; its carbon emissions decreased 14 percent.”

In the U.S., Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush set out to change course on climate, and proudly declared himself the “environmental president” after coasting to victory in 1988. But soon he deferred to his chief of staff John Sununu, who convinced him to leave global warming to presidents who would have to deal with it more imminently (through Bush’s inaction, of course, though perhaps that went without saying), and focus on issues that would win him re-election. Addressing future climate concerns clearly wouldn’t help. By 1992, the one-time environmental president was running against his warming-affirming opponents with the warning (awash in Bush’s trademark clumsy syntax) that if he lost, “We’ll be up to our neck in owls and out of work for every American.”

Lipsky goes on to chronicle the Clinton White House’s desultory dance with climate action, which included two years of strong and steadfast behind-closed-doors persuasion from Vice President Al Gore (a legitimate environmental vice president), followed by six years of presidential impotence brought on by the loss of the legislature in 1995 and coincidental scandal three years later.

By 2017, the United States no longer had a president who was simply lukewarm on global warming and its viability as a campaign issue; in Donald J. Trump, it had a mocking climate change denier who proudly withdrew the country from the global effort to address it.

Again and again, Lipsky notes—regardless of overwhelming scientific consensus—to a comically or cosmically devastating degree, timing always seemed to work in direct opposition to progress on climate change; the climate simply couldn’t catch a break.

Truth be told, it wasn’t the succession of presidential disappointments or the ascendant Republican War on Science that really made climate opposition so effective; it was the colorful characters that took center stage in the battle. They had the fun job, bound neither by ethics nor evidence. Confronted by images on statistics on mass melting opening up “shipping lanes” in the Arctic, Singer quipped, “We spent five hundred years looking for a Northwest Passage. And now we’ve got one.” Singer emerges as the book's most resilient anti-hero, at different times enjoying the patronage of DuPont (as a chlorofluorocarbon skeptic), the tobacco and fossil fuels industry, and even Reverend Sun Myong Moon at the same moment as the GOP's mortifying dalliance with the Unification Church Founder.

Lipsky explains, “This is why the fun lay all on the denier side. The scientists were bound by rules, starched by convention— peer review, observable reality. Skeptics said whatever. The climate scientists had to build roadworthy reports— vehicles that could endure the highway through splashes and years. Deniers made one day smash-’em-ups. And the track was cleared and the stands emptied before the next race.”

What’s more, the key players not only seemed to be the same aging bunch of quasi-science’y media personalities from decade to decade; they were also men who featured prominently and coincidentally in other campaigns that demanded the ready assistance of professional expert witnesses.

Perhaps the most brain-rattling parallel narrative in The Parrot and the Igloo involves the tobacco industry’s protracted battle against scientific findings on the adverse health effects of second-hand smoke. The cigarette companies who fought second-hand smoke warnings, and the fossil fuel profiteers who stood to benefit from denying climate change, were not, of course, the same corporations. Moreover, the scientific underpinnings of the two discrete health threats came from largely different fields of study. Yet many of the same avatars of pseudoscience who lined up to collect lucrative payoffs from the cigarette companies for pooh-poohing the impact of “environmental smoke” also showed up at new press conferences and witness stands a few years later to lend their “expertise” to the fallibility of “the least controversial theory in atmospheric science as well.”

The drama that unfolds in The Parrot and the Igloo is anything but a comedy of errors, because climate scientists have committed few actual errors (notwithstanding the adroitly manufactured and widely debunked “Climategate” controversy of 2009). Rather, it’s an endless series of unfortunate events in which climate action took a back seat again and again to concerns that seemed more pressing (or a fleeting cold snap convinced a fickle public that the scientists were the liars). It’s also the story of the dogged efforts of climate deniers to disseminate and promote bad information through the spread of terms like “junk science,” and the establishment of phony propagandist institutions with names deceptively similar to those practicing actual peer-reviewed scientific research.

Consider the aggressively anti-science, culture war-exploiting “Information Council for the Environment” (ICE), which the coal industry founded “to reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Such groups had far more interest in provoking the public than informing it; high-information voters were the last thing they wanted to contend with. Its target markets were found in “electoral districts with coal-burning power plants, representatives who served on the House Energy Committee.”

Most important of all, ICE’s president “cast the threat” that climate science posed “in existential terms, all or nothing. At issue was ‘the future of fossil fuels.’” If only the long-term profitability of Exxon and big coal were the only futures at stake here.