In 1895, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius spent the entire year obsessing over a seemingly simple question: Could heat-absorbing gases in the air influence the Earth's ground temperature? As bestselling author David Lipsky, A&S '88 (MA), describes in his latest book, The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial, Arrhenius' conclusion was both straightforward and staggering.
"Halve carbon dioxide, and temperatures would needle down toward the ice age," Lipsky writes. "Double it, and they'd rise between five and eight degrees." Arrhenius and his mathematical calculations had discovered global warming.
For the next century, scientists worldwide would validate Arrhenius' findings and publish reams of evidence confirming a warming planet, caused largely by CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. But, as Lipsky argues, 100- plus years of empirical science could not prevent self-interested politicians and fossil fuel industrialists in the United States from intentionally discrediting the research and slowing the move to renewable energy. And so we find ourselves today still driving gasguzzling SUVs and ordering Styrofoamclad takeout, as floods swamp cities, droughts wither farms, and wildfires burn homes. How did this happen?
Lipsky's answer, fleshed out across the book's nearly 500 pages, is a tale of how the fossil fuel industry, and the politicians and scientists aligned with it, manipulated the nation into wasting half a century debating the validity of climate change, instead of doing something about it.
Lipsky's story starts with Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and the dawn of electricity in the late 19th century, when growing use of oil and coal led to rising temperatures. But the crux of Lipsky's argument—that deceptive marketing and greed mired the U.S. in years of inaction—begins largely in the 1950s, when news of warming temperatures moved from academic journals to popular magazines and became fodder for policymakers and even families at the dinner table. In 1953, Johns Hopkins University physicist Gilbert Plass delivered a paper on how CO2 traps heat and makes the air warmer— "like glass in a greenhouse," he remarked, coining the famous "greenhouse effect" analogy.
Life magazine, "the absolute compass point of American middle opinion," Lipsky writes, presented the greenhouse effect not as theory but as fact. Writers opined of massive hurricanes, melting icebergs, and an Arctic with "tropical deserts and jungles, … and gaudy parrots squawking in the trees" (hence 'the Parrot' in Lipsky's title) unless industrialized nations cut back on fossil fuels.
Instead, climate change became a partisan issue. "If you tell me your politics, I can predict your thinking on global warming," Lipsky writes. "Which is a strange thing to say about science."
Politicians worried about losing support from fossil fuel industrialists (and the millions of people earning paychecks from these industries), and industrialists resorted to manipulative practices to grow their bottom line. In 1983, for example, with Ronald Reagan as president, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Academy of Sciences issued "bombshell" reports on global warming's disastrous consequences. But Reagan, concerned with polling numbers, installed his own ally, physicist William Nierenberg, as the White House's science translator. In that role, Nierenberg downplayed the reports, using "the potent word 'uncertainty' sixty-five times in seventy-eight pages," Lipsky writes, while telling policymakers that the single-best investment strategy for coping with the CO2 issue is more research.
The call for more research became a stalling tactic, a technique borrowed from the tobacco industry—"Cigarettes built the model of the denier," Lipsky writes. Sow doubt about the science and continue selling the product. With a similar intent to sell, coal company executives teamed up, in 1991, to form a Science Advisory Council and pay scientists for casting doubts about climate science. Four years later, atmospheric physicist S. Fred Singer pocketed $95,000 to produce, among other items, "a Statement of Support by a hundred or more climate scientists" questioning the existence of global warming. According to Lipsky, some of the scientists whose names appear on the statement knew nothing of the document; other names were fabricated, and still others were dentists, lab techs, and even a weather enthusiast.
It took time to discover the fraud, allowing seeds of doubt to germinate—and Singer and his colleagues to claim that the planet might not be warming after all.
And so it goes, year after year in Lipsky's history, with denialists calling for more research—and the U.S., in 2020, under the Trump administration, becoming the only country on Earth to reject the Paris Agreement and skirt its commitment to tackling climate change. Lipsky's book, by the end, feels like a frustrating bout of déjà vu. Gaslighting, deflecting, and lying are all tactics that work amazingly well. But since Earth is our home, we had better find ways to work together. "Because the climate doesn't care about politics, or experts, or warnings, and isn't even aware there are people," Lipsky writes. "We have our days and lists and hours, our schedules and emergencies; but the climate keeps its own time."