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Climate Change

Published on February 16th, 2019 | by Michael Barnard


Climate Change & Metaphors: A Primer

February 16th, 2019 by  

Evocative language such as the use of metaphors is a key mechanism in helping people to understand climate science and move beyond denialist memes. But it’s difficult for multiple reasons. If you want to up your climate change argument game, here are some suggestions.

There are a few challenges in the space. The first is that climate change denial is a moving target. The second is that PR for denial is much better funded than PR for climate change acceptance, so we have some challenges. The third is that it takes virtually no time to make up bullshit to spread FUD and a minimum of ten times the effort to counter it, so those dark money PR dollars go a long way. Motivated thinkers — which all deniers are, although the motivations vary — will reject almost anything, so it takes a person inside their tribe who is an authority and incredibly patient to get through to them. Finally, in the USA as in the rest of the world, there is a large majority acceptance of the reality of global warming and climate change, but there’s a much lower acceptance of the need to do anything about it. What’s more required is shifting the needle on the degree of the problem than on the existence of the problem.

That all said, let’s look at a continuum of climate change denial positions I created a couple of years ago.

One of the amusing things about climate change deniers is that they deny that anyone holds many of these positions, while examples of people denying them pop up constantly. This is most evident in the denial that any warming is occurring at all. There is a constant string of deniers claiming that we are actually experiencing global cooling, or that there has been no warming at all.

A big problem with global warming is that in order to measure it you have to calculate temperatures globally, using global data sets. And then you have to infer historical temperatures from proxies. Explaining any of that to motivated thinkers won’t work.

Metaphors have to be simple and evocative, which also means that they are incredibly imprecise and easy to pick apart. You have to be careful in their use, but not too careful. And they have to be grounded in experiences and things that the people you are talking to can actually relate to, which makes effective communication harder.

One that might work with some people who don’t accept that there is any warming is the overheating house analogy.

Well, you know that if you turn your gas furnace up too high, your house will overheat. You’ll have to turn the furnace down and maybe open the windows to deal with it. We’ve been running our gas and coal furnaces too high, so the planet is overheating. Time to turn them down, switch to other sources and find ways to open the windows.

Moving on, there’s the denial that CO2 causes warming. This comes in various not-so-nuanced flavors. The biggies are that it literally doesn’t cause warming at all — complete rejection of empirical reality —, that non-human sources swamp human sources of CO2 and that it’s a tiny trace element swamped by the effects of other things like water vapor. That’s why there are three positions on my spectrum.

But simple metaphors should be less rather than more numerous, so let’s just go with one for all three positions.

You know really thin, light, silver space blankets? They use them in rescue situations? What they do is keep all the heat inside with your body. They were invented by NASA for the space program in the 1960s, that’s why we call them space blankets, by the way. Anyway, CO2 is a space blanket for the planet. It’s really thin, but really good at reflecting heat, but not nearly as good at reflecting light. Sunlight gets in, but the heat caused by the sunlight doesn’t get out.

Now we start getting into the trickier ones, starting with water vapor feedback and cloud feedback. The reality of the situation is that the small amount of additional CO2 warming increases water vapor in the air leading to more heating and that more water vapor tends to lead to more clouds, which a lot of complex work has shown increases warming as well. The denial position is that all of the science on these two points is wrong, and that vapor and cloud feedbacks reduce cooling. The logic for the second is a lot easier to understand than the first, because everyone knows it’s cooler in the shade than in the sun, and clouds cause shade. It’s wrong, but easy, which is part of the problem in communication. But let’s try a couple of options out.

Do you know when it’s hottest? Just before it rains. The clouds are there, the wind hasn’t picked up, but it’s really hot and muggy. Global warming is making the whole world muggier and cloudier more of the time, but the thunderstorm and wind never comes and sweeps it away.


Have you ever seen someone really attractive and had a strong physical reaction? We talk about getting flushed, hot, sweaty. Those are real responses to what are really minor inputs, just the sight of the attractive person. Our bodies do the rest, reacting in a complex set of ways that make us hotter. That’s what’s happening with CO2, vapor and clouds. The planet is getting hot and bothered. Unfortunately, there’s no relief available as there is for us humans.

Moving on we get to the denial of any harm position. This is in the spectrum of people who call themselves ‘lukewarmists’, which as you can see is still an unempirical position on the denial spectrum. But what they are really saying is that we have this great life, it would be great if winters and summers were a little warmer and that we’ll figure it out. Why change? And why change indeed? This is where the insurance policy metaphor likely kicks in.

Do you have insurance on your car? Yeah? Liability insurance too? Yeah? Why? You’re a good driver, your car is well maintained and you aren’t going to hit anyone. Why do you have insurance for something that won’t happen? Oh, it might happen and if it did, the insurance would keep you from losing your car, your house and your retirement savings? Well, global warming is like that liability insurance on your car. If we don’t do anything and any of the potentially bad things happen, we won’t be prepared. But if we do spend some money on liability insurance, giving us some nice side benefits like cleaner water and air, we can pretty much ensure that we won’t lose our car, our house and our retirement.

A lot of deniers are very angry these days because if they have even the tiniest bit of intelligence, intellectual honesty and morality, they have been pushed off of position after position on this spectrum over the years. The cognitive dissonance is strong and deniers are lashing out with ugly polemics, but the shift is definitely to the right.

Another position has emerged in the denial spectrum over the past few years, something I call ‘benign warmism’. These people accept all of the science except for the negative effects. It’s kind of like saying that you accept all of the physics of getting punched in the face by a boxer, but claim that you really like the feeling, but let’s go with it. They claim that northern agriculture will bloom, winters will be nicer, there will be longer growing seasons and generally that unicorns will fart rainbows over the world. It’s absurd and unempirical, as with everything else that they say and believe, but it’s effective as well. Lots of people living in places with long, cold winters and short, lukewarm summers. Lots of people travel to warm places for winter vacations. It’s seductive to think of warmer winters and longer summers, even though the reality is radically different. What might we do for these folks and the people that they are suborning with a metaphor?

Have you ever been under line squalls? Those are the moving thunderstorms and rainstorms that sweep over a place a few times during a day? You have really hot and humid sunshine for a couple of hours followed by a serious drop in temperature and lots of rain and wind. On average, the day is warm with reasonable amounts of rain, but it’s really unevenly distributed. You can call it nice on average, but the extremes are greater and it’s really hard to plan for. It’s destructive because so many things change so fast. That’s what global warming is doing.


Have you got a garden or a lawn? Maybe a potted plant? Do you try to keep it watered just the right amount? What happens if it’s under a foot of water? What happens if it gets no water? What happens if it’s a lot colder or warmer than the plants like? Thats what global warming is doing to the world, making it a lot wetter or drier, warmer and colder, in places where the plants and the people have figured out how to deal with a reasonable range. Everything is changing.

Hopefully this helps outline the ongoing challenge of communication related to global warming and climate change. As I said earlier, we have majority acceptance of the science, the remaining deniers are pretty motivated thinkers and the biggest problem is getting people to see the need for action right now.

Some of that will be done by making the actions needed seem obvious, logical and beneficial. That’s why one of the examples above mentioned cleaner air and water. Air pollution is the biggest killer in the world today per the World Health Organization, and the biggest cause of air pollution is burning fossil fuels. Shifting to renewables instead of coal and gas, and shifting to electric cars instead of gas and diesel cars makes a big difference, and a noticeable one to families. That will often motivate more change than the potential challenges.

The other thing to know is that denialism is most strong in the conservative part of the political spectrum these days. Some of that is innate resistance to change, as is inherent to the conservative mindset. A bunch of it is political enhancement of the wedge for political gain, and tribalism related to political parties. When you communicate with conservatives, they are more strongly motivated by potential negative outcomes than by potential positive outcomes on average. Finding ways to connect to the risks can help. 


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About the Author

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc and co-founder of two current startups. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric and designing for health. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. He's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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