Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Part 5: Using Language , or Metaphors be With You

Dilemma: Those committed to distorting the debate attempt to paint climate advocates as alarmists, and use language that minimizes catastrophic imagery (such as Luntz’s suggestion to use “climate change” instead of “global warming”). This is a deliberate move—skeptics critique alarmist rhetoric all of the time, including in book titles (Robert Balling and Patrick Michael's The Satanic Gases, Michael Crichton's State of Fear, and Michael's Meltdown, for examples). Our current metaphors are insufficient, as even the idea of planetary warming is a confusing concept that doesn’t sound all that dangerous. One exemplary case is the metaphor of "flipping the switch," a concept explored in the recent article, "Making Climate Hot." The idea here is that when flipped hard enough, the switch destabilizes the entirety of climate system equilibrium. The switch metaphor has the potential to be helpful for discussing abrupt climate change and the condensed timeline we will face if rapid warming is not addressed soon. However, while effective, the idea of the switch could backfire by making people believe that we could simply turn the switch off to reverse the climate crisis. Whether we like it or not, metaphors are often used in framing issues to relate environmental and scientific controversies to the public.

Strategy: Knowing that catchy phrases and concepts will inevitably taken up by the media to explain complex issues in the debate, we now have the chance to harness the productive nature of metaphors to clarify the debate. A variety of new metaphors have been deployed to stress the scientific processes behind global warming:


  • Carbon Dioxide Blanket. The Frameworks Institute and other advocates have suggested the use of the “blanket” metaphor for climate crisis. In their assessment, this metaphor is effective because it illustrates that by releasing large amounts of C02, we are blocking heat from leaving our own atmosphere. Referencing a physical object like a blanket might also help to stress that humans have agency in the process and can slow human-induced greenhouse gases.

  • Heat Trapping. This metaphor can be used to clarify and reinforce the idea of the carbon dioxide blanket. It effectively communicates the process of global warming without risking the positive connotations often associated with warmer weather. Furthermore, the idea of “heat trapping” or a “C02 heat lock” expresses the impacts of the process in a simple and easily understood manner.

  • Suffocating the World. We will also add that the images of a blanket or other object “suffocating” or “strangling” the globe are similar metaphors that may resonate with the public. Think of it this way: if a house was on fire, you would desperately want to open a window to let the smoke out. Emitting C02 into the atmosphere is like having a lock on the window—the smoke/heat just can’t get out. Eventually, smoke inhalation affects us all.

Explaining the scientific processes behind global warming is clearly important, but we also feel that a metaphor is needed to communicate the extreme importance of addressing the issue. Communicating the urgency of the climate crisis has been difficult against a backdrop of uncertainty and politicization of the issue. Use this metaphor in conversations and debates when you would like to stress the need for policy action on the climate crisis. More than anything, we need a fresh way to communicate about the issue, and we suspect that repetition of this metaphor in different forums (interviews, educational seminars, daily conversations) would prompt publicity and media attention. Our suggestion is to use a health metaphor to appeal to common sensibilities:

  • Cure a disease. Relate the impending climate crisis to an impending disease outbreak. If the medical establishment said there was a high probability that there would be an outbreak of an infectious disease, policymakers would certainly do everything they could to make sure we developed a cure or vaccine. Phrasing the metaphor in this way makes effective use of the precautionary principle, because it uses the logic that even if we weren't 100% certain that the disease outbreak would happen, we would still be motivated to take action to prevent the worst case scenario. Similarly, there is an urgent need to take preventive action on the climate crisis before it’s too late. The idea that policymakers would want to put resources and effort into developing a cure or vaccine in the disease scenario also parallels the necessity for developing alternative energy policies to counter the effects of global warming. And, to counter naysayers you may encounter who split hairs between the immediacy of a disease outbreak versus the long term consequences of global warming, remind them that some diseases are slow killers (forms of cancer and dormant AIDs for example) but that isn't a sufficient reason for inaction if we can predict their onset.

In addition to metaphors, we have three additional suggestions about language choices:

  • Regularly substitute “climate crisis,” for “global warming” or “climate change.” “Climate change” is the term that Frank Luntz wants people to use—it is a neutral term that disguises the stakes of the debate. “Global warming” is not very precise—global warming could actually cause global cooling by altering ocean current flows. “Climate crisis” is a term that indicates concern, and also enables an advocate to link together different elements of the crisis—energy, foreign policy, jobs, as well as the impacts on air, water, and land.
  • Be specific instead of saying “the environment.” “The environment” is a bit of a misnomer. We are all part of the environment—the environment is not something that just exists “out there” to be protected. Specifically cite concern for particulate matter in the air, or pollution in the rivers, or deforestation of protected wilderness areas rather than referring generally to “the environment.”

  • Call skeptics what they are: naysayers, industry-funded contrarians, and ideologues. The term "skeptics", while accurate, fuels misrepresentations in the media and does not effectively communicate that they are a minority viewpoint. This isn't an invitation to engage in full out mudslinging, but it is important to stress that their perspective runs counter to the bulk of scientific expertise.

These suggestions are necessarily preliminary. We welcome the opportunity for individuals to leave a comment for how we could improve this countermemo!

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