Tom Toles: Leading Editorial Cartoonist on Global Warming

Say the words “global warming” and “editorial cartoonist” in the same sentence, and most climate change wonks likely will conjure up the work of Tom Toles.

Since 2002 the successor and office holder to the legendary Herblock, Toles likely has penned more global warming editorial cartoons – and for that matter more environmental editorial cartoons – than any other editorial cartoonist.

The 56-year-old Toles draws and writes his take-no-prisoners commentaries from the amply windowed 15th Street fifth-floor office of The Washington Post, just off the main newsroom. His six-days-a-week work is syndicated by some 200 newspapers via United Press Syndicate.

Tom Toles
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In a Poynteronline 2002 profile of him in “the most powerful cartoonist’s podium in the country,” the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning described his cartoons as “quite sharp and quite blunt.” And he didn’t shy away from the dreaded “L” word.

“I am a liberal in that that tends to be my world view,” said Toles, describing himself as a child of the civil rights era. “I don’t consider myself a blind liberal,” but rather “a liberal tempered by time.” He described himself as “strongly pro-environment.”

The world of climate change skeptics and free-market advocates would hardly quibble with his characterization.

Sitting by the large drawing table where he works his magic and mischief, Toles told The Yale Forum in early December that his office work day starts at 6 a.m. with 90 minutes of intense reading of daily newspapers and a few other trusted sources. He next drafts four individual sketches, usually on different subjects, and seeks reactions from Post editorial page staffers. He then decides which will be published the next day.

“I’m of the editorial page, but not a Siamese twin of the editorial page,” Toles said in explaining that he has the option to take a different slant from the newspaper’s official voice. “I would say that on many to most areas, we share premises, and I do go to all of the editorial board meetings and try very hard to learn what they know and try very hard to be sympathetic to the world view that they generate. But the bottom line is that my cartoons are my own.”

Toles is quick to acknowledge that, with a scope that encompasses all of a newspaper’s coverage, he is by no means a specialist.

Toles’s Favorite Toles Global Warming Editorial Cartoon

“I understand the limits both of the specific things I’m reading,” he said, “and the limits of what audience the reporters are writing for.”

“It’s inherently a second-hand source of information, and I understand all those limits. To compensate, I try to work off multiple sources, and use my sense of how, historically, reporting gets things and misses things.” He said he relies on multiple sources of information to “get a fairly high comfort level that I understand where the reality is. And of course it’s hard to know for sure. I understand the knowledge constraints that I’m working under.”

Notwithstanding the limitations, Toles tries to have “a very distinct and clear sense of what I don’t know, so I don’t feel like I’m just blundering around blindly. I have a sense of what my degree of comfort with my knowledge is. And I try to stay within the parameters of what that allows.”

A native of Buffalo, Toles was an editorial cartoonist with the Buffalo News before being recruited by Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt when Herblock passed away. He initially got heavy into environmental editorial cartoons because environment “was just a subject that was of interest to me and was important to me, and partly because I felt that traditionally newspaper coverage of the subject was weak and I could provide a public service by amplifying and extending and bringing up some subjects that might not be covered at all.”

He figures that since his first global warming editorial cartoon some time in the 1980s – he doesn’t recall precisely when – he has averaged 12 to 15 a year on that subject. That puts it pretty near the top of his cartoon inventory, given the wide scope of issues he addresses.

“As best I can recall,” he said, “the fairly accepted facts were that CO2 was a heat-trapping gas, and concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere were increasing measurably and in significant fractions. And to me that’s a prima facie case that there is going to be some result.”

Over the years, he said, he has found climate contrarians’ counter-arguments “off base.”

“They didn’t challenge the main facts,” he said. Rather, it was “‘Well, you might get a negative feedback, and there might be offsetting factors, and it might be too economically disruptive.’ They weren’t telling arguments, especially since my feeling was that we had a flashing yellow light on this.”

Toles said he initially had been “astonished and alarmed” that policy makers were not taking the climate change issue seriously enough. “I sort of understood – there were obviously clear interest groups, generally on the other side. But the public was so sluggish to come to terms with this issue, even conceptually.”

The early years cartooning on global warming were not without their frustrations, Toles recalled, as he didn’t see his work having any real impact.

“I came at it every way that I could think of, trying not to be too preachy about it and trying to be interesting. With my usual take on things, trying to be engaging and humorous, but still pointed and serious.”

His global warming cartoons for years “were never popular,” generating little positive feedback and some reader complaints that he was “obsessively interested in the subject and people were tired of hearing about it.”

“That’s not what a cartoonist wants to hear,” Toles continued. “A cartoonist wants to connect with an audience and get a positive response, and I did too. But on certain subjects, and this is one of them, it just seemed too darned important to let go.”

Year after year, “I would do dozens of cartoons on the subject, and I would tell myself that I’m helping to lay the foundation for public understanding of the subject when that day eventually comes. And I knew that it would come some time, where it started to get taken seriously.”

“I would be very happy to take some credit for that, but I don’t in good conscience have any reason to.”

Asked how the increased media and public concern over global warming over the past few years might affect his work, Toles said, “I still don’t know that my cartoons are having any effect.” But he said, “I hear continuously that it’s a morale booster, that it hits people hard, and it makes them happy and excited that somebody else ‘gets it.’”

“The U.S. has gotten so far out of the habit, if it was ever in the habit, of assessing personal actions in terms of public policy consequences that a lot of people have difficulty focusing on it,” he said. “The biggest change is that reasonably intelligent policy makers now can no longer overlook the terrifying dangers that this presents. And policy makers may even have gotten a little ahead of the public” in some ways.

“The issue is different than others because there’s a segment of the population, definitely much larger now, that understands it and understands its seriousness. But for the rest of the population, it’s obviously unreal for them.”

He says he is reminded of the apocryphal island, totally devoid of technology, over which an airplane flies: Because its population has no way of understanding a metal flying object piloted by human beings, they simply don’t see it at all. “It just vanishes for them. It’s probably not anthropologically true in any way, but it’s a great illustration” of the difficulty in getting people to think about global warming.

Toles said he sees “a built-in advantage” to editorial cartoons in a newspaper. “It contrasts very much to the vast bulk of the paper, which is all text. So you’ve got the advantage that it stands apart, that it’s quicker to read, and that it’s got a visual element that attracts readers. So if you do it well, you can make a point not only as well, but sometimes more effectively than just about any other way of doing it in a newspaper.”

“The thing it most often does best is when it crystallizes someone’s thinking that they’ve done half-way. They’ve had an impression of an issue, but they haven’t drawn a conclusion yet. And a cartoon can jump ahead to the proper conclusion, and bring it home with a spark of recognition.”

“Even with the light, satirical and sometimes even frivolous tone, regular readers understand that I take the issues I’m writing about very seriously. And I think I have a reasonable track record of not being radically off-base on most things most of the time.”

Asked about other editorial cartoonists working on climate change, Toles said, “I’m not a huge reader of other peoples’ cartoons” in part because he thinks “there’s a bit of a disease of inbreeding among editorial cartoonists” given the small fraternity of fewer than 100 among the nation’s some 1,400 daily newspapers.

“My sense it that too many cartoonists are spending too much time studying other cartoonists’ work.”

Asked how he feels about speakers’ using his editorial cartoons to augment their own presentations before audiences, Toles said, “I’m supposed to feel bad, but mostly I feel good.” He said he prefers to see copyright restrictions applied in cases where abuse is systematic and for other than educational purposes. He said he thinks the digital age likely is more a boom than a bust for his kind of work.

In the age of digital information, those interested in seeing Toles’ cartoons have options going far beyond subscribing to the Post or one of the 200 newspapers carrying his work. Toles cartoons dating back to March 2003 are online by date (not searchable by subject) at the Post site, and Slate magazine carries a collection of global warming cartoons, including Toles’ work. Inexpensive fee services like mycomicspage.com and cartoonbank.com also provide electronic access to cartoons on global warming and a wide range of other issues.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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