A review of 500 editorial points to subtle but potentially significant differences between cartoonists on opposing ‘sides’ of the climate change debate.

Within decades of founding the first colony, political cartoonists began providing Americans with potent combinations of humor and commentary, often on serious issues.

According to communications professor Linus Abraham, in the “Effectiveness of Cartoons as a Uniquely Visual Medium for Orienting Social Issues,” cartoons can influence public perceptions because they offer “a chance for deep reflection in addition to a passing chuckle.”

As might be expected, cartoonists draw on “both sides” of most issues, including on controversial public policy issues related to global warming and climate change. But even more interesting than the politics are the different strategies used by cartoonists on the competing sides of the issue.

To articulate these differences, a sample of more than 500 climate change-related political cartoons, published between 2000 and 2010, was gathered from Townhall.com, PoliticalCartoons.com, and Google Images. These cartoons were sorted into two groups, based on the cartoonists’ political leanings on issues related to the economy and the war in Iraq. Then each group of cartoons was examined for possible differences in focus, style, and timing of publication.

Focus: Famous Faces … Or an Imperiled Planet?

The differences were subtle but significant.

Conservative cartoons typically appear to focus more often on people, who the cartoonists, true to editorial cartoon norms, then caricatured and lampooned to look unintelligent or untrustworthy. It’s not above editorial cartoonists, of course, to resort to what some might consider “ad hominem” criticisms to help get their points across. All’s fair in love and editorial cartooning, one might say.

As a leading voice of concern over climate change, former Vice President Al Gore is of course a favorite target of conservative cartoonists, often typecast as a charlatan or as an effeminate weakling. The conservative cartoonist perhaps best known for his scathing illustrations of the former Vice President is National Cartoonists Society two-time Cartoonist of the Year Glenn McCoy. As seen in his cartoons for February 4, 2011, January 2, 2009 (right), March 6, 2008, and October 26 2007, McCoy consistently portrays Gore as ill-proportioned, with scrawny limbs, and a mean-spirit. His cartoons attack Gore as messenger and thereby circumvent discussion of the message — the underlying science.

Liberal cartoons, by comparison, appear to more often substitute people for animals; penguins and polar bears are regularly depicted in these comics. A very small sample of this approach is seen in cartoons such as that shown (left), or in the December 11, 2009 cartoon by RJ Matson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. One can see in these cartoons that the focus on animals and the landscape makes the environment, rather than the messenger, the real issue.

Earth as a whole is often depicted in liberal cartoons. Sometimes it is humanized, but more often it is portrayed as being in some sort of peril. Even when people appear in these cartoons, they are almost always small or in the background. This approach can be seen in Tom Toles’ October 26, 2010, and February 20, 2008, cartoons in The Washington Post. Even though there are people in the cartoon, the focus is on the message rather than on the messenger. Toles long has been considered the major newspaper cartoonist most often addressing climate change, which he has taken on as a principal personal interest (see Yale Forum article).

Timing Is Everything … So … When to Editorialize?

In addition to the major differences in how these editorial cartoons are drawn, there are also noteworthy differences in when they are drawn. While cartoonists expressing support for action to manage climate change maintain a fairly frequent flow of illustrations, editorial cartoons from those supporting views of climate “skeptics” follow a much spikier path.

Those cartoonists supporting controls likely maintain a more steady flow of climate change cartoons for two reasons: scientific and policy studies are regularly being published, and they personally value the environment for itself and use their cartoons to broadcast their concerns.

Conversely, conservative cartoonists appear only rarely to draw cartoons about global warming when the issue isn’t prominent in the headlines; however, when a climate change-related event occurs, especially an event that raises questions about the efficacy of the science or the scientists, their output skyrockets.

Because research on climate change is ongoing and always evolving, the issue rarely makes major news headlines unless there is a scandal (“climategate”); a major political event (the December 2009 meeting in Copenhagen, or serious consideration of legislation on Capitol Hill); or an extreme weather event that supposedly calls into question the existence of global warming (think “snowmaggedon” and “snowpocalypse” here). Conservative cartoonists eagerly seize these events as opportunities.

Of the 500-cartoon sample, almost 10 percent were “skeptical” cartoons written in the months immediately after the November 2010 hacked e-mails scandal, compared to 1 percent expressing climate concerns during the same time period. Those supporting action maintain that this imbalance poses a problem to the overarching discussion of climate change because, as many studies already report, these episodes amount to distractions with little or no bearing on the scientific consensus that global warming is real and human-caused.

In their 2004 article “Making Climate Hot,” Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling describe some important steps in communicating climate change. Two are worth noting here: “Use opportunities well” and “Use trusted messengers.” Using major breaking news events to mount attacks on prominent and trusted messengers of climate change seems to be the strategy followed by “skeptical” or “contrarian” cartoonists.

And it appears to be effective. Their sympathetic audiences don’t need much to keep them skeptical of global warming, and the cartoons they are most likely to see and accept are ones that fit with their existing beliefs and values. By drawing at the most strategic times, and attacking the best-known climate change communicators, conservative cartoonists strive to convince audiences — including some “undecideds” — that global warming is a “hoax.”

Focus on People … or on Issues?

Indeed, the conservative strategy that centers on people instead of creatures can do more than merely solidify viewpoints. Ad hominem attacks may resonate with those undecided because those messages may be easier to relate to, and may offer a “zing” factor that the sympathetic cartoons just do not.

In other words, it’s entirely possible that an editorial cartoonist’s particular audience may find greater humor — a principal reason, after all, that one reads these cartoons in the first place — in a decrepit looking Al Gore up to his waist in snow than they do in an image of Earth with a thermometer in its mouth. Following the archetypal model of political cartooning, cartoonists opposing climate change science or regulatory efforts may simply have a leg up in caricaturing people and personalities, rather than portraying an ailing planet or polar bear left adrift.

Conversely, those “liberal” cartoonists may be somewhat hamstrung in taking on the substance of environmental challenges rather than the well-known faces involved with those issues, as the substantive issues may seem more remote or more challenging to illustrate.

Their focus on nature, by this rationale, while perhaps more grounded in news writing traditions, may face a steeper climb in capturing the public’s fancy and attention. And that can make it harder for their audiences to actually absorb the message being conveyed. Their focus may also fuel skeptics’ complaints that they worry more about places and “charismatic megafauna” than they do about people.

Read and Chuckle … With Caution

The resulting dialogue as illustrated by editorial cartoonists, along with a tendency to perhaps “preach to the choir,” in the end may further intensify, rather than meaningfully inform, an already highly polarized issue: Vehemently opposite “sides” find themselves reinforced in their existing perceptions and put off by their opponents’ perspectives, unwilling to listen let alone hear. No listening? No hearing? No compromise. And no compromise, no solutions.

Perhaps Professor Linus Abraham’s hope for editorial cartoons as an impetus for “deep reflection” is for now out-matched by the schism separating too many in the climate change dialogue.

Which does not mean editorial cartoons won’t continue to enjoy a valuable place in the public square. As New Yorker cartoons editor Robert Mankoff has noted: “Ninety-eight percent of our readers turn to them first. The other 2 percent are lying.”

The chance for deep reflection has not been lost altogether, but rather might better come with a caveat — “Read, and chuckle, with caution.”

Scott Traum is a sophomore at George Washington University majoring in Political Science and Economics, with a minor in American Studies.