The first part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, described by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as “code red for humanity,” was released August 9 amidst a  maelstrom of highly charged news stories.

Powered by the Delta variant, a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic was surging… Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, was forced to announce his resignation … The Taliban were taking provincial capitals in Afghanistan … And wildfires were terrifying parts of the U.S. West and of Europe. Partially offsetting all this bad news was a story of unusual and improbable bipartisan agreement in the U.S. Senate: passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill by a vote of 69-30.

Nevertheless, the IPCC report made news, front-page and opening segment broadcast and cable news. It also generated lots of commentary: long runs of interconnected analyses, editorials, and op-eds.

And it inspired cartoons.

Having observed liberal and centrist cartoonists flip the climate denialist script during the Texas freeze earlier this year, Yale Climate Connections set out to determine how cartoonists responded to the release of the new IPCC report.

To systematically examine the work of political cartoonists from across the political spectrum, the author of this piece gathered cartoons from four different venues between August 9 and August 15. The core collection came from Gocomics.com, which sorts artists by their political lean. Cartoons from unsorted collections at USA Today (liberal, centrist, and conservative), Townhall (conservative and centrist), and Cagle (liberal, centrist, conservative) filled out the final sample of 38 cartoons (21 liberal, 11 centrist, and 6 conservative).

This number (38) amounts to less than half the total number of cartoons YCC found for the two-weeks of the Texas Freeze, in part, perhaps, because of the several other major stories competing for the ever-shrinking “news hole” at many outlets.  In the days that followed, liberal and centrist cartoonists drew nearly four times as many cartoons about those other stories as they did about climate change.

In the four extensive collections reviewed by YCC, no conservative cartoonist directly addressed the IPCC report, turning instead to the scandals and resignation of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and on stories related to the pandemic (e.g. former President Obama’s 60th birthday party, statements by Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the moratorium on evictions). 

So, what patterns emerge from the more limited number of cartoons liberals and centrists did draw about the IPCC report?

Not surprisingly, the “code red” framing by the U.N. Secretary General prompted several cartoonists to respond with fiery imagery of their own. Three created images of Earth on fire. Another three depicted the report itself aflame. Others constructed scenes of global bad actors, like the oil industry, or TV news viewers threatened by flames. One used a fire-breathing dragon to depict global warming.

Few cartoonists got into the actual contents of the report. The exception was Steve Breen, whose August 12th cartoon for The San Diego Union Tribune, below, illustrated causes and consequences discussed by the IPCC.

Breen covered a lot of ground: Fossil-fuel burning vehicles and power plants emit greenhouse gases that warm the atmosphere, which results in rising sea levels and more extreme weather, including more intense and extensive wildfires. All in one cartoon. But by imagining the report as a pop-up book, Breen may have blunted the impact of his informative cartoon.  

Several liberal/centrist cartoonists approached the report by focusing on its likely impact on the “average” American or on representatives of different interest groups.

With dramatic flair and strong dynamic lines, Stuart Carlson’s August 13th cartoon, below, depicted an American (note the U.S. flag tie) blown back by the code red alarm of the IPCC report. One can almost hear it. Aooooooooooooga

By contrast, in his August 10th cartoon, also below, syndicated cartoonist Robert Ariail presented a concerned citizen checking the temperature on global warming. Starting with “HEAT WAVES” at the bottom and rising to “TOO LATE” at the top, with a dark cloud overhead, the image does convey the report’s message that we still have time, however limited, to act. But the blank expression on the man’s face does not inspire confidence.

Adam Zyglis’s much more dramatic cartoon for the August 13th edition of The Buffalo News, again below, was divided in half – with an angry, baseball-capped American and his social media influencers on one side pointing a finger at masked and lab-coated COVID and climate scientists on the other.  In the background, smokestacks emit carbon pollution; and green coronaviruses float in the in-between space.

The political division depicted by Zyglis is a reflection of the pessimism profanely conveyed by Nick Anderson’s August 13th cartoon for Counterpoint, also shown below. As if presenting to a very sparsely attended session of a conference, an experience with which academics are all too familiar, a mild-mannered speaker wraps up his harrowing report on climate change with a contingent note of hope. The candid response of one of the only two attendees suggests that the real problem isn’t scientific; it’s political. Because all Americans clearly don’t accept the same reality, we can’t work together for the common good.

Jack Ohman’s August 9th cartoon below for The Sacramento Bee brought a different character into the satirical discussion of the IPCC’s report on global climate change: the fossil fuel industry. An advancing wild fire in the upper right quadrant provides the code red signal. But it’s counterbalanced by sea waves cresting in the foreground. As if orchestrating the interaction of the two forces, an executive holding a copy of the report explains that we can continue to burn fossil fuels because the resulting disasters will cancel themselves out.

All the cartoons discussed thus far are, again, the work of artists GoComics.com would classify as liberal or centrist. In the four extensive collections reviewed for this analysis, no conservative cartoonists addressed the IPCC report in a clearly identifiable way.*

But on Wednesday, August 11, two days after the IPCC released its report, Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor for President Biden, provided conservative cartoonists with a satirical opportunity they couldn’t resist. In the statement released by the White House, Sullivan made the case for increased oil production.  

Higher gasoline costs, if left unchecked, risk harming the ongoing global recovery. The price of crude oil has been higher than it was at the end of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic. While OPEC+ recently agreed to production increases, these increases will not fully offset previous production cuts that OPEC+ imposed during the pandemic until well into 2022. At a critical moment in the global recovery, this is simply not enough. 

Within hours, the first of six conservative cartoonists pounced. (The other five posted their responses over the next four days. Five of the six cartoons are archived at GoComics.com.** The sixth, by Margolis and Cox, can be found at Townhall.com.)

In her August 14th cartoon for Counterpoint, below, Lisa Benson explicitly linked the Biden administration’s plea for cheap gas with its larger, and more distant, “climate agenda.”

One could read this image as leveling a charge of hypocrisy.  But one might also see in Benson’s cartoon subtle support for the oil industry’s own claims – claims repeated in TV ads produced by the American Petroleum Institute – that fossil fuels, especially natural gas, have a critical role to play in America’s climate agenda.

Mike Lester’s August 14th cartoon changed the charge against Biden from hypocrisy to elitism – and globalism. Here it is:

The high pour is more typical of swanky cocktail bars than local beer pubs. And once upon a time the upper classes did have a preference for foreign wines and spirits. (Not so much today.) In these ways, the cartoon turns the Biden administration’s interest in oil prices – avoiding additional burdens for those still struggling in a recovering economy – on its head. Lester made Biden seem out-of-touch, even un-American.

However, it wasn’t only conservative cartoonists who spotted the irony in the Biden administration’s decision to appeal for lower energy prices two days after the IPCC issued its code-red warning.

In his August 13th cartoon for Newsday, liberal cartoonist Matt Davies insinuated that a true price for gas would incorporate the costs of dealing with the impacts of climate change, including droughts, wildfires, extreme weather, and flooding. There is no such thing as cheap gas. Have a look…

Two days later, an article in Politico cited unnamed environmentalists and energy experts who explained Jake Sullivan’s OPEC statement as “being practical about what it will take to transition to cleaner energy. Losing the House or Senate in 2022 because of consumer anger about gasoline prices would be a huge blow to Biden’s climate agenda”

In other words, the administration appealed to OPEC to increase oil production so that energy prices would stay low while Democrats attempt to pass legislation that will significantly reduce the production and consumption of oil. Got that?

Now the August 10th cartoon Mike Luckovich drew for The Atlanta Journal Constitution does not seem so surreal. Or rather, the surrealism of Luckovich’s cartoon seems appropriate, even necessary. In it, Luckovich deftly links three very different moments in American and world history. See below.

The first is the period between World War I and World War II when surrealism emerged in response to the explosive growth of technology and the fossil fuels that powered it. It was in the middle of this period (1931) that Salvador Dali produced one of his most famous paintings, The Persistence of Memory.

Photo of ‘The Persistence of Memory’ painting by Salvador Dalí. 1931. (Photo: Wikimedia)

In his cartoon, Luckovich takes the watch from the lower left quadrant of Dali’s painting, shown here, and gives it a new label. The “Doomsday Clock” was created by members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947, the second historical moment, as a way to call attention to the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.

The every-couple*** (as opposed to everyman) in the cartoon makes the link to the third moment, the IPCC’s release of the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report, by offering a thermal, climatic explanation for Dali’s disorienting image.

Over the past nine months, Americans have witnessed several instances of political and climatic surrealism, including the fall of Afghanistan just six days after the IPCC report was released. “Get used to it,” Luckovich’s cartoon seems to conclude. To even get on a path to successful action on climate change may require even more surreal moments.

But there is one positive takeaway from the overall analysis: conservative cartoonists, professional satirists all, now seem to find climate change too real to dismiss entirely as hoax.

* By contrast, many op-ed writers did not hesitate to address, and belittle, the IPCC report. Some of these pieces cited the recent book by Steven Koonin, including an op-ed by Koonin himself. In their Climate Feedback rebuttal of a Wall Street Journal review of Koonin’s book, twelve scientists highlighted the cherry-picked evidence and the invalid conclusions drawn from it. See also the review by Mark Boslough for Yale Climate Connections.

** The cartoons by Lisa Benson and Mike Lester are included in the main text. See also the cartoons by Chip Bok, Steve Kelley, and Henry Payne.

*** This couple appears in many of Luckovich’s cartoons, including his very clever response to the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which pays homage to a cartoonist of a different sort.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...