Metaphors, ticking bombs and climate change

Patrick Duffley
May 1, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

Since linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson published their monograph Metaphors We Live By in 1980, scholars have devoted considerable attention to the use of metaphor as a cognitive tool that enables people to apply what they know from their direct physical and social experience to understanding more abstract things.

For example, a common metaphor used with respect to argumentation is that "argument is war". This metaphor shapes our way of viewing and talking about arguments, so that it is not uncommon to hear people say things like "He won that argument," "I attacked a weak point in his argument" or "My argument got shot down at the last board meeting."

The very way an argument is conceptualized is shaped by this metaphor. An argument can of course be seen in other ways than as a battle, but we use this concept to shape the way we think of argumentation and the way we go about arguing.

Because metaphors make abstract things concrete, they are a powerful tool for influencing the way that people think of certain things and phenomena. For instance, the common conception of demographic growth is heavily shaped by the metaphor "population growth is a bomb", which was popularized by Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book entitled The Population Bomb. The implicit content conveyed by this metaphor is that population growth is a powerful force which has been suddenly unleashed and which is expanding rapidly in all directions, destroying everything around it.

In actual fact, peak world population growth was reached in 1963 with an annual growth rate of 2.3 percent. In 1968 when Paul Ehrlich published his book, it had already started to decline. Since then the increase of the world population has slowed every year and today is only growing by 0.9% per annum, as the graph below shows.

If one were to propose a metaphor to describe what is actually happening population-wise, a much more appropriate one would be that of a boat sailing up a large river which has cut its engines and is now drifting upstream on its initial inertia but is gradually slowing as the current of the river acts upon it. In only 50 years from now, the boat will stop moving upstream and start to be pushed back downstream.

Recently, the bomb metaphor has started to be applied to climate change. Its very first recorded use in relation to this issue was in a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute published in 1988 intitled "The Greenhouse Effect: Impacts on Nordic Countries and Possible Remedial Measures." However, we are hearing more and more frequently that "the climate bomb is ticking."

On the other hand, climate scientists have determined that the warming effect of each molecule of CO2 decreases logarithmically as its concentration in the atmosphere increases.

This is why there was no runaway greenhouse warming when the concentration of CO2 was approaching 20 times that of today during the Cambrian period about 500 million years ago. This inconvenient truth is kept very well hidden and is rarely mentioned, as it undermines the theory of future catastrophic climate change.

On top of this, water vapour, not CO2, is Earth's most abundant greenhouse gas, and is responsible for about half of the greenhouse effect.

In the light of these facts, a more apt metaphor for the impact of CO2 on the rise of global temperatures would be that of an ocean liner with a balloon full of hot air attached to its prow.