A Review of David Lipsky’s The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial

Climate change has drawn the attention of sentences, pages, and books beyond counting. Perhaps still more literature is needed. After all, some people—even a few who not only know how to read but who do read—have yet to be convinced about the science.  Yet there remains for writers and publishers the challenge of word saturation and reader fatigue. Capture interest with yet another look at this graying topic? No easy task. But in The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial, David Lipsky has done the trick.

How? Partly by, as the book’s subtitle suggests, focusing on how the warnings of scientists have been repeatedly ignored.  Also through the use of a caffeinated, staccato, jump-and-cut style that keeps readers hooked through hundreds of pages of well researched detail.  And perhaps most importantly by broadening the story of denial beyond the realm of climate change.

This is a book that should be read by anyone working or intending to work in the sciences if for no other reason than its portrayal of the nasty drawn-out personal battles that often confront practitioners.  But more importantly, it is a book that should be read by just about everyone else.  Why?  Because, sadly, science illiteracy is a root cause of many of the world’s problems today, and this book can help set that straight.

Do not misunderstand. Lipsky has not compiled facts and formulas.  He does not lay out the scientific method.  He does not criticize the way in which the sciences are taught in our schools.  But he does show science as a search for truth based on the building up of bodies of evidence.  His examples illustrate how this is done with the aid of peer review, that is, by the assistance of colleagues and competitors who could be described as professional skeptics and experts of doubt.  Further, he portrays what happens when the skepticism so vital to science is highjacked by those whose interests do not include a search for truth.

This can be put another way.  Every professional scientist has read papers with deeply flawed statistical analyses, with conclusions that have more in common with speculation than fact, with ludicrously small sample sizes entirely unrepresentative of some larger whole, and with calls for further research when none can be reasonably justified.  And that is why scientists stand eternally vigilant with regard to findings that belong nowhere other than that legendary publication, The Journal of Irreplicable Results.  But despite the existence of such papers, regardless of the clunkiness with which the secrets of nature are teased apart, science works.  New knowledge comes to light.  As the scientific community works through its process of inspection and rejection, of data collection and experimentation, of number crunching and model building, truths emerge.  And sometimes—in fact surprisingly often—scientific findings are remarkably inconvenient.

In the case of climate change, the inconvenience of relevance applies of course to anyone in the business of finding, gathering, transporting, and burning fossil fuels.  But by extension it applies to just about everyone else, because, after all, fossil fuels seem to have made life easier for the vast majority of humans.  Except that the nagging truth about climate change, when realized, when internalized, turns the tables on the situation for all of us.

So on the one hand this is a book about climate change, but on the other equally important hand it is a book about conflict.  The Parrot and the Igloo describes the fights that inevitably ensue between those who are ready to embrace new information and those who are not, between those willing to change their ways and those addicted to the status quo.  Included are, for example, brief histories on the skirmishes over the chlorofluorocarbons that ate holes in the ozone layer and on cigarettes as a dangerous carcinogen.  But ultimately all of these accounts lead to the biggest story of the past hundred years, the one that pits people willing to let go of something that once brought great comfort against those who are not yet ready to admit the obvious.

By necessity, this book retells familiar stories.  Fourier makes his 1824 appearance with the discovery of greenhouse effect, Tyndall with his 1858 understanding of how carbon dioxide traps heat, and Keeling with the 1960s beginnings of his horrifying curve showing the buildup of atmospheric carbon.  But more importantly, anecdotes abound that have never before been artfully compiled in a single volume.  Some of them flesh out the depths of the denial movement while others suggest the complexity of its on-again, off-again history.  For instance, there is this: Rex Tillerson, the long-term head of ExxonMobil Corporation, well known lover of all things fossil fuel, and for a short but entertaining while the Secretary of State under Donald Trump, is quoted as saying, “The risks to society and ecosystems from climate change could prove to be significant.”  And this: The story of improved efficiency in lightbulbs shows how an everyday product suddenly became an exciting new profit center for a handful of companies while simultaneously allowing spineless politicians to claim progress on the climate front, even though that progress put no more than the smallest dimple of a dent in emissions realities.

It is hardly possible to read this book without a building sense of fury.  Sure, many of us have been angry about the collective failure to act on the facts of climate change for years, even for decades, but in The Parrot and the Igloo Lipsky lays bare the inner workings of the long-running countercurrent to commonsense.  Here a talented writer has painstakingly brought together facts, timelines, and personalities to portray a greater whole.  And he has done so in a way that can only leave readers seething, wrathful, and ready for action.  But this is also a sad book in that it highlights the stupidity of humans and the ease with which the few manipulate the many.  And in the end I am left fearing that several years from now, when far too little has changed, David Lipsky may have no choice but to start work on an updated next edition of this fine book.