Use of Metaphors in Therapy and beyond. Therapists, especially of the psychoanalytic persuasion, love and value metaphors. Metaphors are vivid, creative interpretations of reality that communicate on multiple levels. Like dreams, metaphors integrate rational thought with fantasy, imagery, and emotion; they are simultaneously rational and irrational. Therapists use metaphors to explain psychological concepts, like, “You can’t go over, under, or around grief; the only way out of grief is through it.” We also help patients elaborate metaphors for their struggles or their own lives. Patients may say, “I’m a wolf in a trap,” or “I feel like the bases are always loaded,” evocatively conveying their internal state.

Unfortunately, climate writing, including scientific reports and news stories, often avoid metaphors in an effort to preserve scientific objectivity and rationality. However, this also robs the report of their emotional power and communicative potential. Speaking metaphorically, I could say that scientific discussions of climate change are often dry, while metaphoric communication can be lush. Plus, fascinating recent research shows how metaphor is also central to scientific thought.

Here are some of my favorite metaphors. I think they all illustrate elements of the crisis beautifully and powerfully.  Please send in more!

House on Fire

This simple metaphor illustrates an acute emergency– one that causes you to drop everything and act with intense focus, prioritization, and use of resources. It demonstrates that an emergency state of mind and functioning are called for in this moment.  

(World Economic Forum, 2019)

Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about? You do whatever you can to try to put out the fire or exit the house. You make a plan of action. Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.
– Margaret Klein Salamon (Leading the Public into Emergency Mode, 2016)

Waking Up

The metaphor of sleep and waking is fairly common. We are “asleep at the wheel” (Varshini Prakash, 2020) or “sleepwalking off a cliff” (Paul Erhlich., 2013).

I am such a fan of this metaphor that my current project is called Climate Awakening.  Indigenous water protector Floris White Bull (2016)  wrote this poem about her experience of political awakening at Standing Rock: 

by the spirit inside that
demanded I open my eyes
and see the world around me.
Seeing that my children’s future
was in peril. See that my life couldn’t
wait and slumber anymore. See that I was
honored to be among those who are awake.
To be alive at this point in time is to see the rising
of the Oceti Sakowin. To see the gathering of nations
and beyond that, the gathering of all races and all faiths.

The Titanic

The Titanic, famously billed as “unsinkable,” has inspired many a climate metaphor because it clearly represents how hubris and inaction lead to calamity, which plays out across class lines. Thanks to everyone in the comments who recommended it. 

The world we know is like the Titanic. It is grand, chic, high-powered, and it slips effortless through a frigid sea of icebergs. It does not have enough lifeboats, and those that it has will be poorly employed. If we do not change course, disaster, perhaps catastrophe, is almost inevitable. There is a reason why interest in the Titanic has been revived; it’s the perfect metaphor for our planet. On some level we know: we are on the Titanic. We just don’t know we’ve been hit.

– John Brandenburg, Dead Mars, Dying Earth (1999)

Here’s how James Cameron, director of the movie Titanic, put it:

There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.

Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations.

You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn.

We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There are too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now, and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ’em go.

Until they do, we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg, and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water, and so on. It’s going to be the poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with the Titanic.
-James Cameron (Grist, 2012)

Humanity is Lost in the Woods

We’ve foreclosed lots of options; as the founder of the Club of Rome put it, “The future is no longer what it was thought to be, or what it might have been if humans had known how to use their brains and their opportunities more effectively.” But we’re not entirely out of possibilities. Like someone lost in the woods, we need to stop running, sit down, see what’s in our pockets that might be of use, and start figuring out what steps to take.— Bill McKibben, (Eaarth (2010))

The End of a Feast, the Bill is Due.

Imagine a gigantic banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts’ content—eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens or Rome, or even in the palaces of medieval Europe. Then, one day, a man arrives, wearing a white dinner jacket. He says he is holding the bill. Not surprisingly, the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests that the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away. This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and the bill has come due. Yet, we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it.

–-Naomi Oreskes (Merchants of Doubt, 2010)

An Overflowing Bathtub

The metaphor of the overflowing bathtub has become common and is helpful for understanding the need to go to zero and negative emissions. We have so much carbon in the atmosphere now (419 parts per million, as of March 2023); the atmosphere is like an overflowing bathtub. You don’t need to turn down the water; you need to turn it off (reach zero emissions), start draining the tub (carbon removal), and mopping your floor (handling the damage already done).

Did you enjoy this post about climate metaphors? You’ll love the second edition of my book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. A beloved, radical self-help book, Facing the Climate Emergency combines psychology and activism into a short and very impactful package!


  1. Thanks. Very important. There are metaphors explaining how we got here (the waiter presents a bill) and there are metaphors that help us understand where we are right now.

    From somewhere on the Internet: “It is as if we have jumped out of an airplane without a parachute – Free-falling and now we must knit a parachute on the way down.”

    Or my favorite: we are 7 billion people in a slow crashing car, careening off the road, Descending the mountain over rocks and brambles, all we can do is cinch the safety belts, and ease up on the gas. The brakes don’t really work. We have not hit bottom, and we don’t see where we will crash. We can control very little.

  2. I found all of your selections to be quite powerful.

    As many writers have expressed, the Titanic story serves as a poignant metaphorical microcosm for the climate change story.

    Here is one of my favorites:

    “The world we know is like the Titanic. It is grand, chic, high-powered, and it slips effortless through a frigid sea of icebergs. It does not have enough lifeboats, and those that it has will be poorly employed. If we do not change course, disaster, perhaps catastrophe, is almost inevitable. There is a reason why interest in the Titanic has been revived; it’s the perfect metaphor for our planet. On some level we know: we are on the Titanic. We just don’t know we’ve been hit.”
    – John Brandenburg, Dead Mars, Dying Earth

  3. Margaret Klein

    Oh man, Richard and Daria, these are great. They are painful to read! Which means they are successful at communicating the gravity of the situation.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great with ships – As with Pequod and Titanic,.

    Perhaps the perfect metaphor would be a description of reality. We are on Spaceship Earth Our spaceship is shaped like a planet. The story is modern – because we have built spaceship systems. We are culturally well-trained to live as if we are in a Hollywood movie — one unfolding as an insane fantasy about wealth, power, leisure with plenty of crashing cars and explosions. We are trained to use all the energy we want, for anything.

    Only when we regard the true-story movie “Apollo 13” can we begin to understand how Earth is a spaceship. Ours is a globe that we cannot steer, cannot control. And we have been burning up the carbon within the ship – like an old wooden sailing ship burning decking to stay warm.

    We have broken some of the vital systems, and they are degenerating. And like a movie, we need to improvise while we figure out how to survive. We should be thinking of how our kids will survive, but I’m convinced we are covering up our panic, and really don’t have time to think about the kids. .Even though we have great navigation, we can’t seek a safe harbor, so all we can do is work on the science/engineering of life-support.

    Link to another metaphor.. We are acting like Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

  5. Thanks for this. As a jurno I’m always making up or hunting for apt metaphors. Here’s a version I use in talks:

    We’re flying in an old but comfortable airplane. it’s crowded and we are busy doing our human things inside. Unbeknownst to many some of those activities are loosening the rivets that hold the plane together. The air is also getting ever more turbulent, the plane occasionally shaking and rattling catching everyone’s attention for moment or two but then were too busy to give it any more thought.

    It turns out were heading into a giant storm of unknown power.

    The storm is climate change. The plane is our ecosystem that which supplies us with food watcher air and much more. The rivets are parts of the ecosystem that are being damaged by human activities.

  6. One interesting difference between using the Titanic as a metaphor as opposed to a plane or a spaceship is that the Titanic had lifeboats – and lifeboats provide some hope.

    It is a well known fact that there were not enough lifeboats for all of the passengers on the Titanic. But it is much less widely known that the lifeboats were only 60% full. I find that to be a haunting fact. How could it have been that people aboard a sinking ship did not ensure that the lifeboats were filled to capacity? The only conceivable answer is that many of the passengers and crew must have believed that they were indeed on an unsinkable ship. And I find that to be a most interesting parallel for the climate change story. Far too many people do not grasp the severity of our situation. The reality, however, is that we need to start boarding the lifeboats and we need to ensure that they are filled to capacity.

    Here are some interesting excerpts from an account written by one of the survivors:

    “Suddenly a queer quivering ran under me, apparently the whole length of the ship. Startled by the very strangeness of the shivering motion, I sprang to the floor. With too perfect a trust in that mighty vessel I again lay down. Some one knocked at my door, and the voice of a friend said: ‘Come quickly to my cabin; an iceberg has just passed our window; I know we have just struck one.’

    No confusion, no noise of any kind, one could believe no danger imminent. Our stewardess came and said she could learn nothing.

    The first touch of our lifeboat on that black sea came to me as a last good-bye to life, and so we put off – a tiny boat on a great sea – rowed away from what had been a safe home for five days.

    The first wish on the part of all was to stay near the Titanic. We all felt so much safer near the ship. Surely such a vessel could not sink. I thought the danger must be exaggerated, and we could all be taken aboard again. But surely the outline of that great, good ship was growing less.”

    Here is a link to the full account:

  7. At this point, I see us as Wiley Coyote, just before his expression changes, just before he realizes there is nothing under his feet but air.

  8. Okay, I’ll pitch in:
    “Your town has a long-standing garbage problem. It doesn’t have a landfill, and tipping into other landfills is prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, households are generating an increasing amount of garbage from stuff they’ve bought, convenience meals, and all the other contraptions of modern life. So a long time ago it was agreed at a town meeting that everyone could tip their garbage into a truck, for free. But when the trucks were full, they would dump their contents onto the town’s lawns.”

    (The rest here:

  9. For the general public, confused by scientific claim and sceptic counterclaim, I like the Dirty Harry analogy which illustrates risk assessment very well.

    Callaghan, when he cornered the punk after a shoot out, famously said:

    “I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

    Neither Dirty Harry nor the punk knew for certain whether there were any dangerous climate change bullets left in the Magnum. The punk risked his life that there were none and died.

    Given that the ordinary person cannot easily judge which side is talking reality, they can only judge the wise thing to do for their families by looking at consequences.

    The punk/sceptics had a right to risk their lives by their decisions on what they believed. They did not have a right to risk everybody else’s lives and futures.

    Deniers/sceptics do not have the right to put everybody else at risk with their beliefs.

    Looking at the available credible science, the situation is that there are metaphorically 5 (at least!) dangerous climate change bullets left in the gun and only one potential misfire.

    Denier/sceptics, if too many listen to them, are forcing us all to be exposed to the risk of a Russian roulette shoot out because they feel lucky.

    I’ve often finished off answering denialist comments online with – “do you feel lucky punks, well, do ya?”

  10. The Titanic story, and what it represents, seems to have it all. The architect determining if the ship will sink, the class differences of the passengers, the lack of an experienced Captain at the wheel, the lag time for the ship to change course, the goal to set a crossing time record risking safety, and the natural world rebuke to the hubris made world of the Titanic. Even the music as anodyne, then as now. Anyway, virtually everybody can get the Titanic parallel.

    • Margaret Klein

      I agree, I think the Titanic metaphor is haunting, beautiful, and apt! As Daria pointed out to me, a crucial part of the metaphor is that the lifeboats on the Titanic were only about half full. The panic, chaos and lack of planning meant more lives were lost than had to be.

  11. OK.. where are we in that story? Early or late?

    Are people still confused about what’s happening? The lights are still on, but the ship of state is starting to list noticeably. Is the band playing? Is the confused crew starting to fill the lifeboats? Why are the lifeboats not full?

  12. Wow! This is an old thread, but it should be revisited and revived! I completely agree that we need metaphor to awaken the climate change deniers. I think the Titanic metaphor is probably the best here, but I like the author’s banquet spread as well. Will the wealthiest 1% funding the talking points that this is not a manmade event, the rest of us need to start talking a LOT more.

  13. Came here via google looking for a climate change metaphor. Didn’t get disappointed.

    Love the Titanic one. This metaphor has the deniers that still deny the ship is sinking, just like we have climate change deniers despite the facts that are available.

    The Titanic metaphor shows how some affluent groups on the ship are able to survive, while some are left to die. Just like the known fact some regions of the world will suffer far more from climate change than others.

  14. This is a great question, and something I’ve pondered for some time. I’ve not yet come up with the perfect metaphor. In my mind, climate metaphors must capture these three realities of climate change:

    1. It’s silly for an average climate skeptic to think they know better on this complex topic than do scientists who have devoted their careers to studying the earth’s climate.

    2. Climate change is irreversible. Once we add CO2 to our atmosphere, it doesn’t (on a human time scale) go away. So unlike so many other problems we deal with as a society, it’s not like we can just address the problem once the effects become too severe.

    3. There is a massive lag built into climate change. This, combined with #2, is what makes the problem so challenging to communicate even to those who are concerned about the problem. Once you stop emitting CO2, the earth will continue to warm for some time. So by the time you get to the point where we say “it’s too hot, let’s cut co2”, you’ve already baked in additional temperature gain.

  15. The Titanic analogy is wrong and dangerously pessimistic.

    The Titanic analogy is imperfect because the boat’s fate of sinking completely was inevitable, once the boat hit the iceberg. The earth’s climate change-induced fate is not inevitable total failure. However, I do see that the analogy is plenty compelling in most other senses.

    A compelling aspect of the Titanic analogy is the fact that a third of the boat’s passengers and crew survived. People often remark that climate change will wipe out all of humanity. It would be effective to point out to those people that a third of the Titanic people survived.

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