Science·What on Earth?

The ongoing search for the perfect climate change metaphor

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how scientists, environmentalists and marketers talk about climate change.

Also: Work on developing renewable jet fuel gets a funding boost

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • The ongoing search for the perfect climate change metaphor
  • A new and drier home for endangered giraffes
  • Renewable jet fuel gets a government boost

The ongoing search for the perfect climate change metaphor

(Rodrigo Garrido/Reuters)

When scientists, environmentalists and marketers talk about climate change, they often do it metaphorically.

The atmosphere is a kind of greenhouse. Carbon dioxide is like a heat-trapping blanket. Climate change resembles a house on fire.

Metaphors are a crucial part of communicating climate change, said Stephen Flusberg, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, because "metaphors are central to how we talk and think about a lot of aspects of our world."

Metaphors are supposed to lead to action, and one climate change metaphor that's gaining traction is the idea of going to war. 

For example, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, made the comparison a couple of years ago in her proposal for a Green New Deal, in which she called for "a new national, social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II."

Flusberg said war metaphors can be useful in getting people interested in a cause, at least in the short term. "Wars convey a sense of urgency and risk," he said. "Whenever politicians or journalists or pundits are trying to get attention to an issue, it helps to use language that activates strong emotions — and wars do that."

But when you promise a war, you're setting people up for disappointment, said Flusberg. 

"For example, the War on Drugs in the United States, kicked off by Richard Nixon, at first really did mobilize law enforcement and the public to start to view drug problems as a serious issue to tackle. But over time, it's been an absolute abject failure.

"It's unclear how we win or lose that war. When would we say, 'OK, we've done it, we've won'?" 

Lucy Atkinson, an associate professor in communication at the University of Texas, said relying on factual information alone is just not good enough in mobilizing people to act on many issues.

 "It can be a pitfall in that we tend to think, 'Oh, it's a problem of knowledge, it's a problem of information. If people just knew more about the issue, then they would do something.' We call that the information-deficit model. And it's not really the best way to go about communicating," said Atkinson.

"People know they shouldn't text and drive, and people still do it. So it's not just about providing information, but providing avenues for change."

Chris Shaw, a researcher for Climate Outreach in the U.K., says environmental advocates must remember that people are motivated by more than fear or anger.

"The stories that people want to hear, and climate change, have got to connect. Those stories that really matter to people …  [are] about the heart." For example, this recent World Wildlife Fund campaign makes an emotional pitch by suggesting "nature needs our love."

Kai Chan, a professor in sustainability at the University of British Columbia, agrees that the public and scientists could learn a lot about love.

"We as scientists need to be much more in touch with our emotions and also our values. It's helping us to recognize that we all do, surely, in one way or another, love this planet that we call home — and then asking us whether our actions are consistent with that emotion."

— Matthew Lazin-Ryder

  • Listen to the full episode of The Greenest Metaphor from CBC Radio's Ideas here.

Reader feedback

Last week, Jennifer Van Evra wrote about Canada's plan to become a world leader in the production of hydrogen energy. Here are some of your responses.

Clive Cudmore: "The article on hydrogen misses one very important source of green hydrogen, namely nuclear. Ontario is blessed with an abundance of clean, reliable and safe nuclear energy, from OPG [Ontario Power Generation] and Bruce Power. Nuclear power is a very important element in the hydrogen mix, and I am surprised that the writer neglected it as a source of green hydrogen."

Note: Hydrogen produced from nuclear is indeed considered low-carbon, but in the EU, for example, it is called "purple" hydrogen, not green. 

Mei Lin: "Thank you for the article on hydrogen fuel — blue, grey and green. My understanding is that the only one which could be considered environmentally benign is the "green" version, but I have seen no exploration of where the vast water resources this will require will come from. In the midst of climate change, human overpopulation and consumption, is a fuel system which uses as yet uncounted amounts of water, and which will undoubtedly add stress to surface and aquifer supplies, really a good answer?"

Fran Bazos: "I have been curious about hydrogen energy, but like most people know not nearly enough about what our government is planning and which technologies are being promoted. What I do know is that we have to move quickly and make the right decisions."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! From divestment pledges to sustainable portfolios, it appears the finance industry is acting on climate change. But research shows Canadian pensions and other funds are still heavily invested in fossil fuels. What on Earth follows the money Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

Plus, a bit of happy news for our friends producing the radio show they are the first recipients of the Canadian Journalism Foundation's award for climate solutions reporting. Congratulations.

The Big Picture: A new — and drier — home for endangered giraffes

Water levels have been rising for some time in Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley of Kenya. But last year, increased flooding threatened the lives of a small group of endangered Rothschild's giraffes, prompting a rescue effort to relocate them to Ruko Community Conservancy. Here, Noella, a five-month-old Rothschild's giraffe, gets her feet back on solid ground after a rescue effort to relocate her from a disappearing island. The relocation of the giraffes was completed on April 9, says the Northern Rangelands Trust.

(Northern Rangelands Trust/The Associated Press)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • We may be staying close to home because of the pandemic, but a new educational mobile game gives players a chance to travel the world, this time as animated characters finding various species of birds and doing conservation quests to improve the health of their habitats. Game developer Adam Dhalla hopes it will help connect with "the next generation of potential conservationists."

  • The pulses of those who favour a flexitarian diet could be racing at the thought of eating more peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas and having farmers grow more of them. And it could all have nutritional and environmental benefits, scientists have found.  Don Smith, a crop ecophysiologist at McGill University in Montreal who was not involved in the research, says it should "provide some very useful guidance to the overall agri-food sector with regard to enhancing sustainability."

A boost for renewable jet fuel

(Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Almost 20 years of research to create renewable jet fuel from agriculture and forestry waste in Alberta has received a big boost from the federal government.

A group led by University of Alberta professor David Bressler has received a $2.89-million grant from Natural Resources Canada. The group has been working on a project to convert renewable materials — that are often already turned into biodiesel fuel — into fuel that can be used by jet engines.

Biodiesel is a fuel substitute made from sources such as plant oils, waste cooking oil or animal fats. The result is a sustainable alternative with a lower carbon footprint than traditional fossil fuels.

Bressler, a professor of bioresource technology and fermentation, says biofuel is a quick and effective way to immediately meet increasing emission standards in the aviation industry.

"The aviation space is about two per cent of our carbon footprint out there, and it really has nothing in the short term that can help them reduce their carbon footprint," said Bressler on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active on Monday. 

"As we're developing this, not only does it create that opportunity to blend with traditional fuels into traditional engines, it actually has better emissions criteria than some of the traditional petrochemicals."

The funding has allowed them to collaborate with researchers, engineers and students, and to invest in infrastructure such as pilot plants. Currently, the group is working on scaling up biojet fuel to be ready for commercialization.

Bressler's group already has one potential site to develop biojet fuel. Forge Hydrocarbons, a company based on Bressler's research, is building a $30-million commercial plant south of Sarnia, Ont., to produce renewable gas and diesel.

Biofuel for jets would be a timely advancement with the aviation industry facing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint. The industry has a goal to cut total CO2 emissions, which have been escalating for decades, in half by 2050. 

Newly manufactured planes now often have a lifespan of 35 to 40 years and are difficult to retrofit, Bressler said. This makes renewable fuels an easy way to cut into emissions.

Bressler has been working with industry and government partners to convert waste fats and oils into biofuel since 2003. His hope is this effort will also create a market for agricultural and food producers to sell waste lipids like crop-based oils and corn oil.

"What really got me into this 20 years ago was looking at creating new value pathways for agriculture," said Bressler, a professor in the agricultural, life and environmental sciences faculty.

Bressler will be watching the Sarnia plant's success in producing fuel at a commercial scale. If that plant does well, he said he hopes it will lead to many more facilities including in Western Canada.

"Hopefully, Plant 2 lands in Alberta with the biojet module ready to go," Bressler said.

— Andrew Jeffrey

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?