Climate Change in the Vortex of America’s Bi-Polar Politics

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Conservative, liberal, and moderate editorial cartoonists’ biting takes on the early-January ‘polar vortex’ and the spectacle of a Russian research vessel ice-bound while researching climate change in Antarctica will make readers laugh…and also weep.

How cold was it in much of the eastern U.S. in that first full week of January? So cold, editorial cartoonist Robert Ariail joked, that the temperature numbers on temperature/time signs outside many banks were lower than the most recent approval numbers for Congress.

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That was one of the gentler jabs at the now seemingly unbreakable link between weather and politics in the U.S. Other cartoons and op-eds illustrated just how frozen positions in the debate over climate change have become.

But there were also some hopeful signs: moderates did not buy into the “global warming is dead” story (see below) and many outlets carefully explained the workings of the polar vortex and what we know and don’t know about links between climate change and extreme weather. Rather like the instant-replays and color commentary on display in NFL playoff games, news coverage of dramatic weather events now includes on-the-spot analysis and post-”game” reflections.

For this analysis of coverage of the new-year cold snap, The Yale Forum focused on editorial cartoons published since December 30th. Most were drawn from gocomics.com, a website that collects cartoons from a variety of sources and then sorts them by political leaning. The site includes the work of 25 editorial cartoonists “on the left,” 12 “in the middle,” and 14 “on the right.” The Yale Forum also reviewed cartoons posted since the start of the year at the website for the social-conservative aggregator, Townhall.com. This brought in work from four more cartoonists. From these two sources, The Forum gathered a total of 48 cartoons that addressed weather or climate in the first two weeks of January 2014. This total broke down as follows: on the left — 18 cartoons; in the middle — 8 cartoons; and on the right — 22 cartoons.

Climate Scientists On Ice

The first flurry of cartoons originated on the right, in response to news that a Russian research vessel* carrying approximately 50 scientists and volunteers, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, had become trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica. When conservatives learned that the group was also engaged in documenting changes in the region’s climate, they relished the irony.

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Eight conservative op-ed artists quickly released cartoons about the stranded ship. Some, like Mike Lester, commented on the episode with light-hearted humor. Others used the ship caught in the ice to represent “global warming theory” or “global warming science” brought to a standstill by cold “reality.”

Cartoonist Eric Allie thought the mainstream media were downplaying the climate connection. His cartoon for January 5th compared climate activists to radical Islamists who were prepared to attack those who questioned the truth of their faith — including the press.

In editorials and op-eds published over the same week, The Wall Street Journal highlighted the heroic role (login required) played by “fossil-fueled ingenuity” in rescuing the trapped climate scientists. In the visual meme constructed for his January 3rd editorial, Townhall finance editor John Ransom used the Shokalskiy to coin a new definition for irony: “when your global warming expedition gets stuck in the ice.”

Cartoonists in the middle and on the left largely ignored the episode — a television delivering news of “several ships . . . caught in Antarctic ice” appears only in the upper left corner of Signe Wilkinson’s January 4th cartoon of a woman trying to free her car from the snow. But the stranded Antarctic expedition generated so much controversy in other media that expedition leader Chris Turney felt compelled to defend it in the January 9th issue of Nature. Apart from the scientific data it had gathered, he concluded, the expedition had produced a “remarkable rekindling of public interest in science and exploration.” (Perhaps he was thinking of the showbiz truism: “All publicity is good publicity”?)

The Polar Vortex Strikes

Then came the polar vortex. The 40 cartoons drawn in response to the wave of cold air that froze the eastern United States in the first full week of January can be sorted into three groups: humorous illustrations of life in cold times, the cold as metaphor for other matters, and challenges to or defenses of the scientific consensus on global warming.

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The overall numbers are revealing. Those in the middle were least likely to make the cold wave into an issue — or an analogy for an issue. Of the moderate cartoonists, 63 percent took the illustrative approach — “How cold was it?” By contrast, only 25 percent of conservative cartoonists just joked about the cold; 65 percent saw the Shokalskiy episode and the polar vortex as opportunities to raise questions about the validity of climate change.

Liberal cartoonists fell in between these two groups: 35 percent simply found humor in the cold, while 41 percent rebutted conservative attempts to use the cold to discredit the consensus. And like conservative cartoonists, who used the cold snap to comment on an economy in “deep freeze,” liberal cartoonists drew analogies between the cold snap and Washington politics: the “paralyzing chill descend[ing] on Washington” with the return of Congress and the cold hearts of those voting against extending unemployment benefits.

On the whole, however, conservatives responded to the ice and the snow both more quickly and more aggressively.

How Stupid (Or Crazy) Can They Be?

Across all three groups, 30 cartoons, or 62 percent of the total, engaged the issue of climate change. Conservatives drew cartoons that mocked concern about climate change. Liberals and moderates drew cartoons that mocked efforts to use the cold to disprove climate change. (Note: none of the moderate cartoonists questioned the science of climate change.)

In the course of mocking the claims of the opposing sides of the debate, a third of these cartoons questioned the intelligence or sanity of their opponents.

Some conservatives, as noted earlier, saw climate change activists as irrational zealots. Or as irrationally alarmed Chicken-Littles urging action to keep the sky from falling: “Quick. Tax stuff. Regulate everything!

Others depicted animals, usually penguins, calling scientists’ attention to the facts, the math, or, more broadly, reality. But in a cartoon by Zeg, it is a polar bear that very bluntly gives “the small group of taxpayer funded climate scientists” an “F for intellect.” (How one should grade a cartoonist who depicts polar bears in Antarctica, where none live, is a separate question.)

Jerry Holbert could not resist the opportunity afforded by the aptly titled animated feature in movie theatres during the week of the polar vortex. “I think it’s a new film from Al Gore on global warming,” says a husband to his tightly bundled wife about the “Frozen” on the marque. Nearly eight years after An Inconvenient Truth, Gore is still a prime target for climate skeptics.

Liberals and moderates responded in kind.

“All across America, low intelligence records are being broken,” says the reporter in Mike Luckovich’s cartoon for January 8th.

And after listening to a skeptic explain how “the polar vortex proves global warming is a hoax,” the woman in Jim Morin’s four panel cartoon for January 10th responds with exasperation: “I think I see why the U.S. is globally ranked 23rd in science education.”

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Two “in the middle” cartoonists, Nick Anderson and Steve Breen, questioned the intelligence of skeptics by suggesting their heads were empty or numb.

Weather vs. Climate

In this sample of cartoons, liberals and moderates did not argue that the polar vortex was evidence of climate change — only that it did not disprove climate change.

One cartoon by “on the left” cartoonist Tim Eagan, however, contrasted the warm temperatures in parts of the Arctic with news of the freeze in the Northeast.

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Two conservative cartoonists seemed to agree that the weather was becoming disconcertingly weird. One, Chip Bok, described the polar vortex as “like a Derecho, but cold.” The other, Gary Varvel, illustrated a week of remarkably varied weather.

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But Varvel’s point may have been the same one made by many columnists across the political spectrum who corrected their more excitable readers (and colleagues). For the Politico’s Matt Daily (“Polar Freeze: It’s Weather, Not Climate“), and perhaps for the editors at The Wall Street Journal (“It Isn’t Climate Change” — login required), these op-eds were necessary efforts to re-draw an important distinction.

Into the Bi-Polar Vortex

For Townhall’s John Ransom, however, it was “Time to Call Climate Change for What It Is: The Weather.” All the talk about climate change presumes a level of stability that never existed, he argued: “So here too, on the weather, liberals aren’t just wrong, but once-in-a-lifetime, historically and stupendously wrong: wrong in a way that only liberals could be while still remaining smug.”

Ransom penned two other op-eds for Townhall that cold week: “2013 Reveals Global Warmists’ Favorite Alternative Fuel: BS” and “Warmers Use Magic to Create the Illusion of Science.”

His efforts were then complemented by two other op-ed contributors to Townhall. On January 10th, Michael Schaus, who has “worked in fields ranging from construction to financial investment,” published “The Cult of Global Warming Is Grasping at Straws.” And earlier this week, Kurt Schlicter, “a veteran with a masters in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army College” who is now a “successful Los Angeles trial lawyer,” contributed “Climate Change Scammers’ Worst Week Ever.”

Of the conservative cartoonists sampled for this study, only Eric Allie and Glenn McCoy seem willing to venture this far into climate denialism. McCoy’s cartoon for January 6th offers a prime example — and highlights one of two numbers now circulating in the conservative mediasphere.

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Conservatives have long trumpeted the fact that average annual global temperatures have not exceeded the high reached in 1998, when an exceptionally strong El Niño produced a striking spike in the trend line. And even those who might point out that 2010 and 2005 did, in fact, have higher annual averages would acknowledge that they were only marginally higher. But this does not add up to “no warming”; the average global temperature for the decade 2000-2009 was higher than the average global temperature for the previous decade.

The more surprising error is a simple mathematical one. One gets to 17 years only by including 1998 and 2014 in the count. If 1998 is the point of comparison and 2014 has barely started, then, even exempting the anomalies noted above, only 15 years have passed with no significant increase over the exceptional high reached in 1998.

Nevertheless, one cannot dispute the conservatives’ main point: average annual global temperatures have thus far not exceeded the high reached in 1998 by any significant amount. Observed temperatures and model predictions have begun to diverge, a problem regularly addressed in the scientific literature.

This leads to the second number now being circulated: 97 percent. This can be traced back to FoxNews coverage of a study published in Nature Climate Change in September 2013. The authors reported that 114 of 117 models, 97 percent, had predicted higher annual average temperatures for the period since 1993 than has been observed. In the 2013 op-eds published at Townhall, this limited claim about the performance of models over a particular period of time has been transformed into much broader claims:

  • “Remember when 114 of 117 Doomsday predictions about climate change didn’t come true? Yeah, it was in 2013.”
  • “Despite the alarmists waxing poetic about climatological Armageddon, almost 98 percent of their predictions have proven to be false.”

Both of these statements assess climate science on an all-or-nothing basis. And one loses the opportunity to make corrections if, when predictions begin to diverge from observations, one scraps the entire model — or 114 models.

Nonetheless, these two numbers, 17 years and 97 percent, will likely be seen many more times in 2014. Climate change communicators may have to learn how to deal with them.

Public Perceptions of Cold Weather

Or not. A just-released study suggests that the influence of cold weather on public opinion about climate change is limited. The authors, Stuart Capstick and Nicholas Pidgeon, found that only those highly skeptical about climate change to begin with perceive cold weather events as evidence against climate change.

The analysis of editorial cartoons and op-eds completed here has yielded results in line with Capstick and Pidgeon’s findings. Although some left-leaning news sources did draw connections between the polar vortex and climate change, most moderate and liberal sources of news and opinion, including editorial cartoonists, maintained the distinction between weather and climate.

It was conservative cartoonists, and not even all of these, who tried to use the MV Akademic Shokalskiy episode and the polar vortex to discredit the science on climate change. The effects of their efforts, too, may well prove to be limited — at least beyond  the conservative mediasphere.

*Editor’s Note: This sentence edited 1/16 at suggestion of, and thanks to, a close reader’s correcting the previous term “icebreaker.” We appreciate the close read and timely correction.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimateconnections.org)
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