Winter may still have a surprise or two in store for us, like the four feet of snow that fell in the Rockies last week. Odds are, however, that the polar vortex of 2021* – or the “Texas Freeze” as it has been dubbed – will still hold the title for the extreme weather event of the season when the last snowflake falls.
Political cartoonists have already taken these odds. Extreme weather events can serve as useful visual metaphors for other concerns. And when they also provide vivid examples of corporate greed or government incompetence, they can command the public stage for days or even weeks. The Texas Freeze has already done both. News of the freeze has included touching human interest stories and compelling accounts of things gone wrong. But the morals of these stories and accounts shift with one’s political vantage point. So what have America’s political cartoonists been saying about the Texas Freeze?
To systematically examine how political cartoonists across the political spectrum responded to the Texas Freeze, Yale Climate Connections gathered cartoons from three different venues over a roughly two week period (Feb. 15 – Feb. 26). The core collection came from Gocomics.com, which sorts artists by their political lean and provides separate galleries of their cartoons. Cartoons from unsorted collections at Townhall (conservative) and USA Today (liberal, centrist, and conservative) filled out the final sample of 92 cartoons (40 liberal, 31 centrist, and 21 conservative).
Dividing the number of cartoons by the number of artists in each group (25, 18, and 16 respectively) reveals that centrist cartoonists were the most eager to seize the satirical opportunities created by the Texas Freeze, averaging 1.72 cartoons per cartoonist. Next in this line were liberals (1.6 cartoons/cartoonists). Conservatives averaged only 1.3 cartoons/cartoonists.
These cartoons fell into five groups. The sharpest differences between liberals and conservatives (moderates generally took the same approaches as liberals) appeared in the third and fourth groups, when cartoonists depicted the causes and consequences of the power failures and of the frozen and broken water pipes that resulted.
Cruz crashes in Cancun
Nearly a third of the cartoons – left (37%), right (23%), and center (32%) – depicted Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s misguided attempt to escape the Texas Freeze for the warmth and comforts of Cancun. Most are merciless. A fat and furry Cruz tugs his luggage through the airport. Cruz lounges with a drink by a pool or on a beach. Cruz on Mars. (The scandal overlapped with the Mars landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover.) Cruz at the bottom of the ocean. (One cartoonist apparently heard that a “submersible soft robot” would soon be tested in the Marianas Trench.)
Only two cartoonists offer a “defense” of Cruz – by comparing him with embattled New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Hey, it’s not like I killed anybody,” Cruz sniffs in one.
In Tim Campbell‘s Washington Post cartoon, a COVID-masked Texan offers a different take to a similarly masked reporter: “Frankly, ma’am. I think Texas needed the vacation from Ted Cruz.”
The best of this lot, by liberal cartoonist Dave Whamond, also scored a policy point in the immigration debate now (re)heating up, reversing the spin on one of Trump’s lines from his presidential announcement speech: “Si. They’re not sending their best.”
The remaining two-thirds of the cartoons depicted conditions during the freeze. These ran the gamut from gentle expressions of human interest to fiercely partisan attacks.
How cold is it?
Several cartoonists made light of the stresses and strains the sudden cold snap imposed on our fellow humans – and creatures. Birds wonder why they flew South. A family of humans asks a family of bears if they can co-hibernate with them. Panic-attacks about panic shopping and the panic charging of phones and laptops. Long-horns shivering in their fields. And gentle pokes at red states turning blue – with the cold.
Perhaps the sweetest of this lot, Steve Breen‘s “Texas Hold’Em,” uses a poker pun to sum up his touching drawing of a family bundled together, in winter clothes and under covers, in a house that has lost its heat.
A little global warming, please
After Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” put climate change on the national agenda in 2006, every cold snap since has prompted its own string of snickering cartoons – as if climate change meant the end of all cold weather. A majority of the conservative cartoons penned after the 2014 polar vortex, for example, exhibited this tendency.
Michael Ramirez‘s cartoon takes the first step down this path in 2021. The extreme cold offers a reason to doubt global warming – or at least its unequivocal condemnation.
In his three response to the Texas Freeze, conservative cartoonist Henry Payne takes the skepticism further. The frozen wind turbines in all three of his images challenge both climate science and the solutions scientists offer.
Five other conservative cartoonists take this same tack, giving frozen wind turbines prominent places in their frames. In his cartoon for Townhall, for example, A.F. Branco depicts a snow-covered landscape, dotted with frozen wind turbines. A block of ice in the foreground includes a frozen Biden-Harris voter holding a sign with a climate slogan: “Stop Global Warming! Build More Windmills.”
No conservative cartoonist depicted the freezing or breakdown of power plants fueled by coal, oil, or natural gas, and none pointed to the failure of the power grid itself. In conservative political cartoons, only renewables are to blame.
Who’s deluding whom?
In sharp contrast with the conservative cartoons, the non-Cruz images drawn by liberal and centrist cartoonists include only one wind turbine. (Jeff Danziger depicts Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbot, seated in his wheel chair and holding a lance, rolling down a snow-covered hill toward a wind turbine, a turbine free of ice.)
Instead, eleven centrist and liberal cartoons mock the fragility of Texas’s unregulated and jury-rigged power grid. Another three depict Texans improvising other ways to keep warm: capturing the hot air generated by their legislators, dismantling and burning the “Energy Superpower” signs with which they welcome visitors to their state, and burning mounds of “right-wing propaganda” that “blame[s] the windmills.”
Perhaps the coldest, hardest, but funniest look at the danger of believing one’s own propaganda is centrist Nick Anderson‘s cartoon, “The Kool-Aid Is Frozen Solid!” His caption implies that the hard freeze might force Texans, even conservative Texans, to come to terms with the collective demands climate change will ultimately make on all states.
Which brings us to the most surprising responses to the Texas Freeze.
Two cartoons depict two very different Southern settings – one with palm trees and a mailbox labeled “The Sun Belt,” and the other with a Saguaro cactus in the background. Strangely, both settings are covered in snow.
In the first, a Mike Thompson cartoon for USA Today, a very plump couple stares out the front window of their small home. The T-shirt that covers the man’s belly carries a message about climate change. In the second, by Matt Davies, signage on the snow-covered building indicates that it belongs to the Southern Texas Chapter of a climate organization.
In previous cold snaps, conservative cartoonists would have combined these elements into cynical messages about climate change: “Better get out there and shovel those 10 inches of global warming!” Or “February meeting of Sierra Club’s Climate Action Group canceled due to snow.”
But as they worked up these two images, both liberal cartoonists assumed that their readers would understand and accept extreme weather, even extreme winter weather in the Southwest, as evidence for climate change rather than evidence against.
“Better get out there and shovel all that climate conspiracy” reads the actual caption for the Thompson cartoon. And “Climate Change Skeptics” tops the sign for the Southern Texas Chapter headquarters depicted in Davies’ cartoon.
The climate for climate change cartoons has changed.
The Greed New Deal
But the ordeal of the Texas Freeze was not yet over.
After they had survived cold days and colder nights, often without heat or lights or water, Texans experienced another shock: sky-high bills for the little power they did receive during the freeze.
The floating rates most Texans agreed to pay in their annual contracts meant that they were liable for extraordinarily high spot prices when demand for power far outstripped supply. Per watt rates rose 10,000 percent in some areas; at the end of the billing period, residents faced charges for thousands of dollars instead of hundreds or even just tens of dollars.
Liberals and centrists, including Jack Ohman, responded with another wave of cartoons; conservative cartoonists looked for other topics to cover.
A postscript: Taking off the gloves—and the masks
Roughly a week after residents had absorbed the financial shock of the freeze, Gov. Abbot announced his intention to lift all COVID restrictions statewide. Cities that still wanted to mandate mask wearing, social distancing, and limitations on occupancy would be forbidden to do so.
In a new set of eight cartoons, conservative editorial artists hailed the decision as a long overdue release from what they deemed onerous – and only marginally effective – restrictions. (Several cartoonists also referenced Biden’s “Neanderthal” comment in route to that point.) Pat Cross’s cartoon, with light pouring through a break in dark clouds of COVID-19 masks, was particularly evocative.
But in another sharp contrast, four liberal and centrist cartoonists viewed Abbot’s decision as evidence that the Texas GOP, and conservatives in general, were again imbibing the deregulation Kool-Aid. These cartoonists, including Nick Anderson, explicitly linked Texas Republicans’ responses to COVID-19 with their responses to the freeze. Clay Jones made a further connection with climate change.
A cartoonish conclusion
This examination of over 100 cartoons (92 about the freeze, another 13 about the lifting of COVID restrictions) revealed that the 25 liberal and 18 centrist artists are on the same page, more or less, when it comes to climate change.
The 16 conservative cartoonists still portray themselves at odds with the consensus but not as sharply as in years past. Although none challenged Texas GOP claims that renewable energies were to blame for the Texas Freeze, not every conservative cartoonist voiced them.
In fact, the same cartoonist who depicted Texas longhorns pleading for a little global warming wondered, via a middle-aged woman rancher in another of his cartoons, why “we can send a rover 300 million miles to Mars, but we can’t send electricity down the street.”
Has rising public support for climate action actually moved the ball closer to the goal post?
Consider that most political cartoonists, even conservative political cartoonists, work for established news organizations, like newspapers. Where do they really lie now on a political spectrum defined as much by Twitter, Tik-Tok, Instagram, and Facebook as by the mainstream media?
After the cartoonish Trump, and after the attack on Capitol Hill by cartoonish figures like the Q’Anon shaman, the renewable-energy skepticism voiced by conservative cartoonists seems rational by comparison.
How will the next polar vortex be debated? By editorial cartoonists? Or by cartoonish policymakers who head for balmy tourist traps while their constituents shiver in the dark.
*Editor’s note: A polar vortex occurs when the atmospheric jet stream weakens, allowing frigid air normally confined to the Arctic to dip down into lower latitudes. Some researchers think rising average annual temperatures in the Arctic, due to global warming, may result in more frequent and intense destabilizations of the jet stream. The polar vortex of 2021 resulted in temperatures in the single digits over much of Texas and Oklahoma.