The BookBrowse Review

Published August 2, 2023

ISSN: 1930-0018

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History, Current Affairs and Religion

The Parrot and the Igloo
The Parrot and the Igloo
Climate and the Science of Denial
by David Lipsky

Hardcover (11 Jul 2023), 496 pages.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 9780393866704

The New York Times best-selling author explores how "anti-science" became so virulent in American life—through a history of climate denial and its consequences.

In 1956, the New York Times prophesied that once global warming really kicked in, we could see parrots in the Antarctic. In 2010, when science deniers had control of the climate story, Senator James Inhofe and his family built an igloo on the Washington Mall and plunked a sign on top: AL GORE'S NEW HOME: HONK IF YOU LOVE CLIMATE CHANGE. In The Parrot and the Igloo, best-selling author David Lipsky tells the astonishing story of how we moved from one extreme (the correct one) to the other.

With narrative sweep and a superb eye for character, Lipsky unfolds the dramatic narrative of the long, strange march of climate science. The story begins with a tale of three inventors—Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla—who made our technological world, not knowing what they had set into motion. Then there are the scientists who sounded the alarm once they identified carbon dioxide as the culprit of our warming planet. And we meet the hucksters, zealots, and crackpots who lied about that science and misled the public in ever more outrageous ways. Lipsky masterfully traces the evolution of climate denial, exposing how it grew out of early efforts to build a network of untruth about products like aspirin and cigarettes.

Featuring an indelible cast of heroes and villains, mavericks and swindlers, The Parrot and the Igloo delivers a real-life tragicomedy—one that captures the extraordinary dance of science, money, and the American character.

The Message

Technologies are like stars: they hang around the lot waiting for the right story, the proper vehicle. Electricity became a star with the telegraph. The telegraph needed a crime.

On New Year's Day in 1845, a sixty-year-old Quaker named John Tawell caught the Paddington train for Slough. (Slough, twenty miles from London, is one of those in-between places people like to make fun of. It's where the Ricky Gervais version of The Office is set.) John Tawell had been a chemist, a forger, a deportee to Australia; in 1841, he'd romanced and wed the dream bride of every reformed criminal: a prosperous widow. He also maintained a former mistress, Sarah Hart. They'd arrived at an informal palimony scheme. Fifty-two pounds a year, so long as Hart didn't spill the beans and ruin everything. Tawell was now running short of cash. Sarah Hart had a solution: Tawell could murder his wife. Instead, he bought a bottle of prussic acid and boarded the train for Slough.

Tawell poured the poison into a mug of beer, watched in Hart's kitchen as she drank it. Then he left. A neighbor—recognizing Tawell by his Quaker coat but not by name—saw a man so agitated he couldn't unlatch the front gate. The neighbor found Hart on the kitchen floor, foam around her lips. A second neighbor trailed Tawell to Slough station. Tawell was in time to catch the seven-forty for London—where he would melt into a world of coats and commuters. The business settled, Tawell had treated himself to a first-class ticket.

Tawell's misfortune was to have selected the one British rail line with a working telegraph. In the 1840s, the telegraph had been used as a royal novelty: to announce the birth of Queen Victoria's son and to fetch the Duke of Wellington some clothes he'd forgotten for a party. It had not caught on—made much imaginative headway—among nonroyals. By 1843, its British introducers were broke. They'd fallen to their "lowest point of depression."

The station manager sat down at the telegraph, wired a description to London. Tawell was shadowed from the station, then apprehended, then charged. He was tried—a tabloid bonanza, a dress rehearsal for our own podcasts and Datelines—convicted and executed. Here was a detective story with technology as the hero. Poles, wires, operators, and offices rose over the landscape. People would point and explain, "Them's the cords that hung John Tawell."

It took one train ride to demonstrate all the virtues scientists had been compiling for twenty-four centuries. Electricity was powerful, it was portable. It was life-altering at a dash.

From the beginning, electricity dawned as a sort of foggy new world—a coastline to be explored, mapped, then settled. As with lots of other things, the Greeks landed first. A sixth century BCE philosopher named Thales made the initial approach. The focus of his experiments was amber. Amber is fossilized tree resin, ancient sap. Thales discovered that when you rubbed a block of amber with cat fur—it's fun to imagine early experiments: different fur, fancier grips—the amber would attract light objects like feathers and straw. They'd slither across a table and stick.

What Thales was doing, of course, was generating static electricity. William Gilbert, Queen Elizabeth's physician—in portraits, he wears one of those Jurassic Park ruffs and a Brooklyn brunch stubble—reproduced Thales' experiments for the English court of 1600: the same time that Shakespeare was plotting sad ends for Hamlet and Othello. Gilbert roughed out the basic principles. He also gave the property a name. He took the Greek for "amber"—electron. That's what electric means, basically: having the properties of amber.

Exploration stalled. Electricity became a stunt, a prank, a hobby for tinkering men of science and leisure worldwide. Hosts arranged dinner parties with sparking forks; men surprised women with electrified kisses. The 1730 ...

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Parrot and the Igloo by David Lipsky. Copyright © 2023 by David Lipsky. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

An incisive history of climate change denial, profiling the inventors who expanded fossil fuel usage, the scientists who discovered the consequences, and the deniers who blatantly deceived the public.

Print Article Publisher's View   

David Lipsky's nonfiction book The Parrot and the Igloo is an in-depth look at the development of climate change denial and the deliberate erosion of public trust in science. The book is divided into three sections: inventors, scientists, and deniers. Through these, Lipsky traces first the rise in use of fossil fuels, then the hard work and dedication that allowed scientists to understand climate change and its causes, and finally, the development of denial strategies to protect harmful industries such as tobacco and the refinement of those strategies for use in climate change denial.

The first section, which covers the development of technology that led to widespread use of electricity, is both the shortest and the weakest. It is well-written, but I found it frustrating to pick up a book about the politics of climate change and find myself reading about Samuel Morse's financial troubles and Thomas Edison's work as a telegraph operator. While the connection between the inventions discussed and the increase in fossil fuel usage is clear, this section doesn't add much to the main arguments of the book.

The second section takes us back to the end of the 18th century, when French scientist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier traveled with Napoleon to Egypt. This trip inspired him to investigate how the Earth retains heat and led to the first iteration of the greenhouse theory, wherein the atmosphere traps heat much like the glass of a greenhouse. From there, Lipsky traces the steady development of the science of climate and climate change. This section is not, however, purely focused on scientific discovery—from the start, Lipsky includes public and governmental response, or lack thereof, to expanding knowledge.

In the final and longest section, Lipsky examines the development of the climate change denial movement. He demonstrates how the tobacco industry's fight to deny the health effects of smoking acted as a trial run for the methods climate change deniers have perfected today. This includes such tactics as preventing legislation by insisting more research is still needed, recruiting spokespeople who have (or appear to have) trustworthy credentials, and discrediting the scientific method. These strategies, which bought the industry "an extra twenty or thirty years" according to tobacco lawyer Dave Hardy, were applied directly to climate change. Over and over again, calls for climate action have been put off with urging for more research. Some industry-sponsored scientists, such as Dr. Fred Singer, moved directly from one denial cause to the other.

Lipsky's writing is quick-witted and highly entertaining. He expertly manages the tone—moments of humor balance out the often-grim subject matter without trivializing it. His depiction of the people involved is personal and vivid, full of funny descriptions and insightful commentary. He also knows when to stand back and let people speak for themselves, from climate scientist Dr. Jim Hansen's moving declaration, "I don't want to be in a position where a few decades from now, my grandchildren say 'Opa understood what was going to happen, but he never tried to make it clear,'" to former Pentagon official and current lobbyist Jim Tozzi's frank admission, "Environmentalists said I operated in the back room and listened to lobbyists who told me to water down environmental regulations. I sure as hell did."

Lipsky reveals not only the mechanics of denial, but also its horrifying effects—in 2016, the most-shared climate information on Facebook was a petition against emission limits signed by such experts as "Dr. Red Wine" and "W.C. Lust." The most-clicked YouTube video on climate change is a speech by denier Christopher Monckton in which "nearly every point" is incorrect. Meanwhile, as of 2021, 19 of the 20 hottest years on record have been in the 21st century. The Parrot and the Igloo is a disturbing breakdown of how anti-science rhetoric gained first a foothold, and then a major following in American politics. Well-researched and captivatingly written, it's a must-read for people seeking to understand how climate change became the subject of such vicious denial.

Reviewed by Katharine Blatchford

Boston Globe
An excellent, approachable primer on the science of global warming…[A] dizzying account.

New York Times Book Review
David Lipsky spins top-flight climate literature into cliffhanger entertainment…[P]age turning and appropriately infuriating…[A] thriller of deceptions, side deals and close calls.

USA Today
Lipsky offers a history of climate science—and with it, climate denial—starring a large cast of swindlers, zealots, politicians and hucksters to get to the heart of virulent anti-science ideologies in America.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Captivating and disturbing.… An important book that will leave your head shaking.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Humor accompanies horrific truths in this vital look at the rise of climate change denial. With dry wit and novelistic flair, National Magazine Award winner Lipsky chronicles how harnessing electricity changed the world.…[R]evelatory…sobering and incisive. Buoyed by thorough historical research, this is a first-rate entry.

Award-winning author Lipsky takes the reader on a journey through the evolution of climate change denial…With the amount of research that went into this book, this can be considered the historical record to date.

Library Journal
A National Magazine Award-winning, New York Times best-selling author, Lipsky explains how antiscience sentiment became so strong in the United States by focusing on climate change denial. He lays bare the science of climate change, understood decades ago, then shows how fake news about products like aspirin created the tools for denier ideas to take hold.

Author Blurb Darin Strauss, National Book Critics Circle Award–winning author of Half a Life
The best nonfiction book I've read in decades. And the best book of its kind I've ever read.

Author Blurb Rich Cohen, New York Times best-selling author of Sweet and Low and Monsters
Where can a person living on a melting planet turn, at least before the spaceship fleet is ready, for enlightenment? I'd start, and finish, with David Lipsky's brilliant epic The Parrot and the Igloo, which I devoured in a single, feverish, page-turning sitting, a perspective-altering dream, a story told in language as sharp and clear as the spring air we knew before all the carbon was released.… You will stare out the same windows when you've finished, but nothing will look the same.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by prem singh
The Parrot and the Igloo Climate and the Science of Denial
In the fascinating weaving of Climate and the Investigation of Refusal, renowned NYU educator and Renowned Public Magazine Award winner David Lipsky brilliantly twists a narrative that describes not only verifiable visions. The anomaly of natural change still looms as a perforated reflection on the overall human psyche.

Lipsky's investigation of the starting points of a natural crisis is akin to following the mystery strings of a great weave. Through Lipsky's powerful creation, we make a statement about the charge of the experts who raised the alarm, uncovering the elusive workings of carbon dioxide in this spreading experience.

What sets this book apart is its fearless portrayal of the disheveled hair of denial. Lipsky made important discoveries in the change of conversation in the pages of The New York Times during the middle of the 20th century, from a discreet and scholarly pursuit to murky waters of skepticism and denial in later years. It is a demonstration of the ease with which a lack of concern can eclipse our commitment to the planet and individuals in the future.

Watching the energy field work, Lipsky's careful probing keeps touching the hazy layers. With meticulous precision, he exposed the modus operandi of the underprivileged, raising some serious doubts about verifiable science. The record presents a sobering turn of events as Lipsky reveals the mosaic of political schemes that have achieved the centrality of the climate movement.

Lipsky's arrangement is both torturous and mournful, creating stunning harmonies that resonate long after the final page. His statement that "climate sets its time" remains a poignant allusion to the steady rhythm of nature amidst the hustle and bustle of human development. A disturbing estimate is that 19 of the 20 warmest years on record occurred after 2000, a clear demonstration of our planet's cry for help.

"The Parrot and the Igloo" is not just a book, it is a mirror reflecting the true essence of our humanity. It takes care as an urge to resist extraordinary experiences, transcend the shackles of abandonment, and reclaim our possession as stewards of this fragile planet. Lipsky appeals to us not to be unappreciated spectators, but to be powerful individuals in the business of squeezing inside an ongoing memory. As you turn the last page, you close a book and at the same time pave the way for a re-energized commitment to protect our shared future..

Print Article Publisher's View  

Keep America Beautiful and the "Crying Indian" Ad

Black and white photo of Iron Eyes Cody in Native American headdressDavid Lipsky's history of climate change denial, The Parrot and the Igloo, exposes many of the strategies deniers have used to prevent governmental action on environmental issues. One of the key approaches has been to shift responsibility for pollution off of industries and onto individuals. An excellent example of this strategy in action is the famous 1971 public service announcement produced by anti-litter nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. First aired on Earth Day, the ad showed an ostensibly Native American man steering a canoe down a river covered in floating trash, with industrial smokestacks puffing away on the banks. The ad has a brief voiceover: "Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don't. People start pollution. People can stop it." It ends with a closeup of the actor's face, where a single tear falls.

For many Americans, the ad was a defining moment of the environmental movement. It won two Clio Awards and made the actor Iron Eyes Cody famous. It was aired countless times throughout the '70s and early '80s, was adapted into billboard and print ads, and was even parodied on The Simpsons and other popular shows. Despite its success, the ad was deceptive on multiple levels. Though he claimed to have a Cherokee mother and Cree father and took dozens of roles portraying Native Americans, in truth Iron Eyes Cody was Italian American. In addition to the appropriation involved in this casting choice, the ad is also a prime example of the "noble savage" and "ecological Indian" stereotypes. These frame Indigenous societies as "part" of nature, while white societies are considered "separate from" or even "above" nature. These ideas have been used to justify theft of Indigenous lands (if Indigenous societies are part of nature, then their settlement and management of the land can be dismissed and the land classified as "untouched" and open for colonization) and, more recently, to put a disproportionate amount of responsibility for ecological conservation onto Indigenous communities while denying them resources.

The ad's sponsor was as misleading as its star. Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953 by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. Other packaging and soft drink companies, including major names such as Coca-Cola, soon joined. Keep America Beautiful's links to these industries were not publicized, allowing the organization to maintain a higher level of credibility. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society were on its advisory council.

In the late '60s and early '70s, many environmental protests focused on the shift from reusable to single-use packaging. This change saved companies money, but also resulted in a sharp increase in waste. Environmentalists advocated for "bottle laws" requiring reusable packaging. Keep America Beautiful strongly opposed these laws, and the "Crying Indian" ad campaign was part of their response. It was aimed at provoking individual guilt and responsibility, promoting a narrative wherein the problem was not the industrial production of single-use packaging, but poorly-behaved "litterbugs" who threw said packaging in the street instead of a trash can. As Lipsky puts it in The Parrot and the Igloo, "It was the gentlest way of saying, 'Handle this yourself, you're on your own.'"

As Keep America Beautiful's true connections and priorities became known, environmental groups withdrew their support. Nevertheless, the ad had a massive impact, and today we still regularly see environmental issues portrayed as a matter of individual behavior rather than systemic problems. A more recent example that follows the same strategy is the concept of the "carbon footprint." This is a way of measuring a person's impact on the climate by assessing the carbon emissions created by their lifestyle. The concept was devised by an advertising firm working for British Petroleum (BP) in the early 2000s. Like Keep America Beautiful's littering campaigns, its purpose was to shift attention away from industrial activity, which is responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, and onto individuals.

In February of 2023, Keep America Beautiful transferred the rights for the PSA to the National Congress of American Indians Fund. Executive Director Larry Wright Jr. stated that "N.C.A.I. looks forward to putting this advertisement to bed for good."

Iron Eyes Cody, courtesy of UCLA Library Digital Collections

Filed under Nature and the Environment

By Katharine Blatchford

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