Long before wildfire-smog from a blaze in Quebec, before once-in-a-century hurricanes occurred every couple of years, before the Northwest Passage dreams of 16th-century Arctic explorers became 21st-century reality, before ski seasons were shortened and summertime temperatures were lengthened, there was a feverish debate about global warming. There were the believers, and the deniers, and then there was the evidence.
David Lipsky’s topic in “The Parrot and the Igloo” — his preoccupation, his obsession — is climate change. On page after page, in chapter after chapter, he sets out how the warming world came to know, and actually has known for decades, that the planet is on fire, that the implications are dire, that the timetable to fight climate change is finite.
Lipsky is a tour guide to the vicissitudes of climate change, telling us how scientists in the 1950s began to realize that automobiles were having an effect on the environment. Along the way we learn that in 1965 — long before Earth Day or the casual use of the word “environment” — President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale” because of “a steady increase in the amount of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.” The best and the brightest weren’t wrong about everything.
LBJ, early climate warrior! Lipsky tells us that the 36th president wasn’t the only one. “In the future,” Time Magazine cautioned in 1956, “if the blanket of CO2 produces a temperature rise of only one or two degrees, a chain of secondary effects may come into play.” There you have it: the warnings are two-thirds of a century old — older than most of the activists mobilizing to fight global warming.
In short: We knew. Even the deniers knew. We all did. (I learned of it in a college course on Elementary Meteorology in the winter of 1973. The professor in that Dartmouth College course plays a cameo role in this volume.)
There were, to be sure, obstacles to translating knowledge into action. An energy crisis struck, and Jimmy Carter, usually on the enlightened edge of the scale, urged the country to “switch to other fuels, especially coal.” The focus of the environmental crusaders moved from generic air pollution to chlorofluorocarbons to the ozone hole, with a side trip to secondhand smoke, but the broader threat was obscured, something to worry about another day. There was a glimmer of hope during the Clinton-Gore years, which were swiftly consumed by the president’s affair with a White House intern. That occurred during the warmest year on record. “Instead of Kyoto, emissions, ratification,” Lipsky reminds us, “the year’s words were Monica Lewinsky, blue dress, impeachment. Churchill would have called that period “the years the locusts ate.”
Over the years one delay, one set of denials, begat another delay, another set of denials. Ross Gelbspan of The Globe, among others, worked to rebut the deniers, but still they persisted, calling global warming a phony theory, a plot against capitalism, a “fraud,” in the term of Donald Trump. Just as the tobacco industry paid scientists and publicists to deny the dangers of secondhand smoke, the titans of manufacturing and the emperors of energy fought climate change. The common strategy of the two efforts: year after year, raise credibility questions about the evidence that was mounting, year after year.
Lipsky sets out how the opponents of measures to fight climate change took refuge in the sonorous term “Sound Science,” a supple locution employed as a shield against the growing consensus of the danger posed by the warming of the earth. “Sound Science is whatever somebody likes,” the Stanford biologist David Kennedy has said. “It doesn’t have any normative meaning whatsoever. My science is Sound Science, and the Science of my enemies is Junk.”
The tone and language of this book bounces between inviting (it is an excellent, approachable primer on the science of global warming) and irritating (the informality is at odds with the urgency of the argument). That almost certainly reflects how infuriating it must have been to trace the evolution of an idea that is a challenge to human survival.
“I became a very unpleasant person writing this book,” Lipsky admits. “There’s something about reading people who are lying that makes you suspicious and argumentative company. My back was always up. I was always starting fights, demanding agreement.”
But the virtue of this volume lies in Lipsky’s dizzying account of how long we have known so much about an issue that means so much, how long we have ignored a problem that has begged not to be ignored, how much time we have wasted when time was of the essence, how clear the danger was when the opponents repeatedly asked for further clarity, how undeniable and how urgent the threat is now due to the peregrinations of the deniers. Lipsky speaks of “smothering scientific fires under procedural blankets.” Now the earth is being smothered as fires rage across the planet. This no longer is the fire next time.
THE PARROT AND THE IGLOO: Climate and the Science of Denial
By David Lipsky
Norton, 496 pages, $32.50
David Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.