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The ongoing search for the perfect climate change metaphor

The ongoing search for the perfect climate change metaphor

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'?"

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