A Satirical Exit from the Madhouse

Posted by on Nov 8, 2016
A Satirical Exit from the Madhouse

“Changing public opinion and galvanizing political and market action is an art rather than a science” wrote two sustainability scholars in a paper on climate action in 2009. 1 Esteemed climate scientist Michael E. Mann and Pulitzer Prize winner editorial cartoonist Tom Toles make an attempt to create such a public-opinion-changing art in their recent book The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy published by Columbia University Press. 2mann17786_front

The book focuses on climate change denial, which still lingers on, and has for instance emerged in Donald Trump’s discourse in the 2016 presidential elections. Michael E. Mann has some first hand experience of climate change deniers and the “denial industry” 3 that targeted him specifically because of his famous hockey-stick graph. Mann has written a great book about his experience and climate science called The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. 4 In some ways, this new book, The Madhouse Effect, feels like a more layman’s version of that book, with a greater emphasis on the public communication of science, and of course with the great cartoons by Tom Toles from the Washington Post.

The title likens the world of climate change discourse to a madhouse within which we are all stuck, whether we like it or not. However, the book is framed as a way out of it:

Leave the madhouse. Stop equivocating when discussing the science. If you meet someone who says that there is no warming or that the facts are not known, don’t argue the point. Simply say politely that denial is no longer a respectable position because it’s not. If he asks for evidence, hand him this book.” 5

The Madhouse Effect presents a more ridiculing picture of denial than seen before, emphasizing the aspect of it being “no longer a respectable position”. It also gives good explanations of science in general, more specifically climate science, as well as the impacts of climate change. It traces the different versions of climate change denial and presents its US context with caricatures, both in the text and the cartoons, of the main lobbyists for denial. Finally, it looks at the most recent form of denial, a techno-optimism for solving the crisis, before offering “a path forward” in its final chapter.


I want to look here closely at aspects of the book where the connection between Mann and Toles, between the text and the cartoons, is particularly strong.

Mann uses metaphors and analogies to make it easier to understand the dynamics and current and future impacts of global warming, a phenomenon that Timothy Morton has defined as a hyperobject, a thing that is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” 6 Climate change policy is compared to basic fire insurance, something people get though it is statistically unlikely that their house will go up in flames. Tipping points (themselves a metaphor) become land mines, in order to explain the difficulty of knowing exactly where they are. And tons of emissions (numbers that are mere numerical abstractions for most) become elephants, with an elephant stepping in for 4 tons of CO2, the average carbon footprint of a human being. The emissions-as-elephants metaphor acquires an extended meaning in the juxtaposition to Toles’s cartoons which attribute tendencies of climate change denial to Republicans in their classic cartoon representation as their mascot, the elephant. In this interplay between Mann and Toles, carbon emissions become more tangible both in their physical materialization, as matter in the air, and in their political materialization as the weight on top of the viscous dynamics of the denial-implicated Republican side of US politics.

One of my favorite cartoons in the book ridicules the effect that climate change denial has had on media discourse and public opinion. The tendency to let the voices of a few denialists be heard evenly to the 97% of scientists that agree on global warming, or what Mann calls the Journalism 101 false ‘balance’ 7, gives people the feeling that the truth is on neither side, but somewhere in the middle. And Toles interprets brilliantly the consequences of deciding that the truth on climate change is somewhere in the middle, by visualizing a debate about the existence of an abyss.


But not all of the cartoons are political, one of the better ones explains in a simple manner the fact that emissions accumulate in the atmosphere over time, and exit it slowly, meaning that the sooner we act the lesser the impact of climate change will be. This cartoon shows simply the world as an hour glass, with emissions pouring up into the upper half, waiting for the moment when aggressive climate polices will make them start seeping down again. This picture also sheds light on Michael Mann’s frustration when he writes:

To formulate a policy response to climate change we didn’t have to be 100 percent certain. There were numerous policies we could have enacted to slow the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, and they would have been inexpensive compared with the cost of climate change damage. […] The costs of inaction were already far greater than the cost of taking action, and over the years they have become only greater. Decades ago, time was still on our side. Reductions then would have meant fewer reductions needed now. Well we ignored the science, and we avoided the sensible choices that were before us. And now we are already paying the price. Time is no longer on our side. Let’s use what time we have more wisely. 8

The frustration and cynicism that Mann slips into here gets rendered in an uncanny way in Toles’s cartoon parody of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory where a living – perhaps human – being is melting along with time in the Anthropocene, with the sun-shaped hyperobject of climate change filling half the horizon.


However, just as Mann’s paragraph here before ends on a realistic point – pushing cynicism aside in a call to act more wisely in “what time we have” – the last pages of the book also try to mobilize the reader, nevertheless dancing on an ever more blurred line between realism and cynicism in the discussion of climate change.

We will not, we cannot, wreck this planet. There is no Planet B. Earth is a rarity of literally cosmic proportions. It is an overflowing treasure chest of life-forms of unimaginable variety and beauty. It is perfectly fitted to us as humans because we evolved to fit it. It would amount to the gravest criminal act of irresponsibility in human history were we to throw it into fatal imbalance because of wanton addiction to carbon. 9

The Madhouse Effect is a last minute attempt to further the public communication on climate change. Through satire, both in the caricaturing text and cartoons, there is a sense of deep disappointment, but also hope that we may be at last reaching “a tipping point in the public consciousness.” 10 The book presents the case of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire in 1969 as such a tipping point for water pollution in the US, and asks whether we have not already had “our Cuyahuga moment” for climate change in Hurricane Katrina, the 2011 Texas draught, Superstorm Sandy or California’s drought? 11Whether that tipping point is close or not, the book serves the project of reaching it very well, through its clear and no-nonsense approach to the issue – in the spirit of the editorial cartoon genre that is a vital component of the book.


Magnús Örn Sigurðsson is a PhD student in the Rice Anthropology Department and a predoctoral fellow at CENHS. His research focuses on climate change mitigation discourse and practices, expertise knowledge, responsibilities of nation-states, and renewable energy.


  1. Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding, “The One Degree War Plan”, Journal of Global Responsibility, 1(1), 2010, pp. 170–188.
  2. Michael Mann and Tom Toles, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016.
  3. George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the from Burning, Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2007.
  4. Michael E. Mann, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2012.
  5. Michael Mann and Tom Toles, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 146
  6.  Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2013, p. 1.
  7. Michael Mann and Tom Toles, The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy,New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 9
  8. Ibid, pp. 12-13
  9. Ibid, p.150
  10. Ibid, p. 100
  11. Ibid.