Best Metaphors for the Climate Crisis

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 patient’s elaborate metaphors for their struggles or their own lives. Patients may say, “I’m a wolf in a trap,” “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 sleeping and waking are 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’s a clear representation 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 (416 parts per million, as of March 2021), that 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), and start draining the tub (carbon removal) and mopping your floor (handling the damage already done).

Join a Climate EMOTIONS Conversation.

In pain about the climate emergency? Feel like no one understands? Join a Climate Emotions Listening and Sharing call – a small group sharing and support session held online. In this hour-long call, you’ll connect, express yourself and be understood by others going through the same thing. Join a session today!