Why we need to rethink these three climate metaphors

Why we need to rethink these three climate metaphors

Illustration of airplanes at war
ShutterstockVitaly Ilyasov
This isn't what climate challenge really looks like.

Metaphors are potent tools in political communication, and climate discourse in particular. Grappling with a constant state of information overload, we rely on these cognitive shortcuts to guide all manner of decision making, including who to vote for and which policies to support.

Because metaphors create such powerful and lasting ideas and images, they help us to bypass the analysis of complex information by triggering visceral emotions — and the gut is where the truth lies for most of us.

That’s why it’s understandable that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has advanced the metaphor of a Green New Deal, a proposed economic stimulus program to address both climate change and economic inequality. Likewise, outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown recently compared climate action to World War II mobilization. Others have called for a climate "moonshot" to avert ecological doom.

These metaphors each communicate a sense of urgency for the country to come together to overcome a great challenge. With climate change already shaping up to be the great challenge of the 21st century — if not all centuries — it might seem natural to use such grandiose language to spur action. But these climate metaphors are inherently flawed.

Let’s resolve to ditch these cognitive shortcuts and find better ones.

A Green New Deal, old baggage

The New Deal of the 1930s provided jobs for millions of workers, helped to stabilize banks, developed public infrastructure and even created Social Security. While the United States needs an ambitious and comprehensive climate policy, there are major problems with branding it as the Green New Deal.

One of the biggest issues is that Republicans almost certainly will be compelled to dismiss it out of hand. The New Deal was rooted in the Keynesian economic principles of big government spending, which Republicans typically ideologically oppose. This means that many will be primed to oppose the Green New Deal from the get-go, even if they actually agree with some of its tenets. We need an enduring bipartisan climate policy, not one that will be cut down when political winds change.

Another problem with the Green New Deal metaphor is that it could alienate communities of color due to its legacy of exclusion. Marilyn Waite recently wrote in GreenBiz that the Green New Deal "couldn’t be a more terrible name," and that we should "get this message right and not reference one of the exclusionary blights of U.S. policy."

A warming world isn't war

Brown isn’t the first politician to use the World War II metaphor to convey a sense of urgency about a current event, and he won’t be the last. Politicians and pundits long have tapped into the memory of the Second World War to dramatize a political action or issue: Take Nixon and the "War on Drugs," for example.

Likening complex social, economic and political problems to the deadliest war in human history is a natural impulse because it creates clarity out of the void. The notion fits into the narrative that climate change is bad and "good" people must coordinate a national and global effort before it’s too late.

But we can’t afford for climate change to become yet another failed war metaphor. Climate change isn’t evil, nor is there some dark army to defeat. There never will be a "Climate Pearl Harbor." Indeed, experiencing extreme weather — the most clear and present impact of climate change — is not even enough to convince climate skeptics.

Even if we act as we must to address climate change, we won’t know for years if we’ve succeeded. Don’t expect a victory parade for zero-carbon success.

No 'moonshot', no problem

We live in an era of innovation, with new gadgets and gizmos released daily. Naturally, it might seem that we need to come up with fantastic new technologies to address climate change, just as we made extraordinary breakthroughs to put a man on the moon.

The problem with the "moonshot" metaphor is twofold: Technology alone won’t be enough to address climate change, and we already have the technologies we need.

Talk about a "climate moonshot" primes people into thinking that the situation is more hopeless than it is. We’ve already got the right technological tools to address climate change — clean energy such as solar and wind, with proper scaling, could reliably and affordably provide up to 40 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. What’s still needed is a better balance of policies and the political will to implement them.

Breaking our carbon addiction

Climate change is a conflict between our short-term wants and our long-term welfare. We inhale those hydrocarbons knowing well that we’ll pay later. It sounds a lot like the smoking epidemic. Could this be the better metaphor we’re looking for?

During World War II, tobacco companies distributed cigarettes to soldiers overseas for free, addicting the Greatest Generation to nicotine. And for decades, the tobacco industry downplayed and even outright denied smoking’s negative health impacts, just as Big Oil dismisses climate science today.

But then something changed. Through sound policy, including higher taxes on cigarettes and improved public health education, smoking rates plummeted. Today, only around 14 percent of U.S. adults smoke — less than a third of the rate just 70 years ago.

Just as we’ll never completely eliminate smoking at a societal level, we won’t stop climate change. We’re well past that point, as evidenced by the increasingly dire IPCC reports. But we can manage and mitigate our carbon addiction through sound policy that disincentivizes fossil fuel usage and fosters clean energy and sustainable business innovation.

Our world’s lungs are wheezing, and it’s time to break the habit. It’s a new year, after all.