The ongoing search for the perfect climate change metaphor

Some people describe it as a war. To others, it’s a race. Maybe it’s a sickness that needs to be cured, or a puzzle that needs to be solved. There are a lot of metaphors for the fight against climate change, and picking the right one might be the key to making real progress.

War metaphors are powerful but could backfire, says expert

When advertisers, politicians or journalists talk about climate change, it's metaphoric. It’s difficult to imagine what 1.5 degrees of warming would do to the planet — but a picture of a melting ice cream cone may help. (Shutterstock)

*Originally published on April 1, 2021.

When scientists, environmentalists, and marketers talk about climate change, they 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.

According to an ad for Ben & Jerry's ice cream, global warming is like a melting ice cream cone.

Metaphors are a crucial part of communicating climate change, says Stephen Flusberg, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York.

"Metaphors are central to how we talk and think about a lot of aspects of our world… Metaphors are not just something extra like a rhetorical flourish. Metaphors are, to use a metaphor, baked into language."

When it comes to climate change, communications strategists have struggled for years to find the right metaphor to get people motivated to address the problem.

Facts don't sink in

According to Lucy Atkinson, an associate professor in communication at the University of Texas, relying on factual information alone is just not good enough. 

"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," says Atkinson.

Scientists have known the facts of climate change for a long time, but the facts on their own don't seem to resonate with people.

For example, this 1958 TV broadcast on climate change uses an approach called the information deficit model — one that clearly hasn't worked yet.

People don't simply need to know; they need to know what the next step is, says 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, providing suggestions, ways that people can become engaged."

Declaring war on climate change

Metaphors are supposed to lead to action. And one climate change metaphor that's gaining traction is "war." 

In a cover story for the New Republic magazine, American environmentalist and author Bill McKibben wrote: 'We’re under attack from climate change — and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.' (New Republic Magazine, September 2016 issue)

U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made the comparison in her proposal for a Green New Deal, legislation intended to fight climate change, in which she called for "a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II."

Flusberg says 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. They're scary. And so that when 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 there's a danger in relying on war metaphors. The fight against climate change will be long, and there probably won't be a single, clear moment when we've won the war for good.

When you promise a war, you're setting people up for disappointment, says 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?'" 

'World War II is really that archetype of a war. It was a great evil that was rising… it required a full mobilization and sacrifices on the part of the entire nation and the entire alliance to destroy that evil,' says Stephen Flusberg. (Image of Nazi Luftwaffe, circa 1939 — General Photographic Agency/Getty Images )

Make images of love, not war

According to some communications experts, one under-used metaphor to motivate people is "love."

Chris Shaw, a researcher for Climate Outreach in Seaford, East Sussex, U.K., says advocates for climate action must remember that people are motivated by more than fear or anger.

"What matters to people is good relationships with family, friends, place, and it does get ignored. The stories that people want to hear and climate change have got to connect. Those stories that really matter to people…  is about the heart."

Love may not be as popular a metaphor in the fight against climate change as war is, but it's picking up speed. For example, this recent ad from the World Wildlife Federation:

Kai Chan, a professor in sustainability at the University of British Columbia, says 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."

Professor Chan says love is so important and central to people, it may well be the metaphor we need most to address climate change.

"Everybody knows what that word means, right? There's no contesting the nuances of it." 

Given the ongoing search for the perfect metaphor, IDEAS has created our own version of an ad to drive home the metaphor of love. The ad is meant not just for individuals, but for industry and political leaders, as well. Does it work for you?

Guests in this episode:

Lucy Atkinson is an associate professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & PR in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Stephen Flusberg is an associate professor of psychology at Purchase College at the State University of New York

Kai Chan is a professor at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

Chris Shaw is a researcher with Climate Outreach in Seaford, East Sussex, U.K.

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, and author of The New Climate War.

* Written and produced by Matthew Lazin-Ryder

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