“Fighting” climate change: an analysis of a metaphor and its problematic entailments

This article builds upon my previous post which was written in response to an article by the environmentalist Bill McKibben in 2016. In an upcoming post I will draw on these ideas to explain why I think the prevalence of the “fight” metaphor in public discourse points to something deeply wrong in our culture.

INTRODUCTION

How we talk about climate change matters – because the frames and metaphors we use influences how we think and act. This is now widely acknowledged and has led to many media outlets and governments now using the term “climate emergency”. 

In this article I focus on a metaphor that is commonly used but rarely queried: “fighting” climate change. 

“Fight” is a powerful metaphor that can stimulate a sense of urgency and catalyse collective action. But as with all metaphors, it is an incomplete representation of reality, privileging one way of seeing and obscuring others.

In this article I explore what is being promoted and what is being hidden with this metaphor; explain how the “fighting” climate change metaphor frames the encounter between humans and nature as hostile, and how it masks the human causes of climate disruption. I argue that the metaphor is problematic because in making the climate system the enemy, it reinforces ideas of humans as separate from nature, and of nature as an object to be subdued and controlled. These ideas, I maintain, are both a root cause of ecological crisis, and a driver of our maladaptive responses to dealing with it. Indeed, such framing may lead us to ignore other ways of relating to the natural world, such as how to live in harmony with it, as one interdependent species among many.

I start with a brief introduction to metaphors and how they work, and how language is analysed. I then discuss the Hostile Encounter frame before exploring four entailments of the metaphor: fighting is with an enemy, there are clear sides in a fight, fights are won or lost, and fights are won by fighting. The post concludes by discussing the implications of the metaphor for motivating adaptive responses to climate/ecological crisis.

How metaphors work

Humans tend to understand and experience one thing (the target domain) in terms of another (the source domain) – it seems to be fundamental to how our minds work. These understandings get expressed in language, which means that by analysing the words people use we can infer something about how they conceptualise their world. 

When we use a metaphor, the source domain is mapped onto the target domain and knowledge about the source domain is used in reasoning about the target domain. This knowledge is referred to as the entailments of the metaphor. However, we are often unaware that we are using a metaphor let alone the specific knowledge we are carrying across.

Metaphors activate what the cognitive scientist George Lakoff refers to as a ‘frame-circuit’ in the brain. This is a bundle of concepts, emotions and values that we have learnt through experience are strongly linked with each other, and which are stored together in memory (Lakoff 2010). These structures, when activated, serve as frames of reference for interpreting new information and experiences. The metaphors activating a frame are trigger words, and it is these words that an analyst looks for in a text.

So with the phrase “fighting climate change”, the trigger word is “fight” which activates a Hostile Encounter frame. What we know about the source domain i.e. hostile encounters between opposing forces, is carried over to our thinking about the target domain i.e. how we act with regards to climate change.

Table 1. How metaphors work

As Lakoff explains, activation strengthens the physical neural basis of the frame, making it subsequently easier to activate (Lakoff 2010; 2012). Repeated exposure to certain kinds of language, for example by the dominant discourse of a society, primes a person to think and act in particular way. So language is not just a reflection of how a person thinks – language also shapes how that persons thinks (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011). 

Analysing language

Discourses can be analysed and critiqued in various different ways. Ecolinguistics is concerned with critiquing a discourse specifically for the way in which it encourages environmentally beneficial or destructive behaviour. This approach requires us to ask, does the metaphor encourage ecologically beneficial or destructive responses? Answering this question involves making judgements about what is beneficial and destructive. These judgements are informed by the analyst’s ecological philosophy – the values, beliefs and assumptions they hold about the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

The philosophical perspective taken in this article is as follows: that perception of humans as separate and superior to nature is a root cause of ecological crisis (Naess 1986; Plumwood 1993; White 1967; Merchant 1983; Bateson 1987). This sense of superiority comes with a sense of moral entitlement to exploit nature and the belief that we can achieve mastery over nature and transcend its limits through human ingenuity. Together these beliefs form part of the dominant cultural worldview of modern industrialised societies and drive advances in technoscience. It is exactly this belief of a world without limits that has led to overexploitation of nature’s resources and overwhelming of planetary cycles and processes. Discourses are therefore judged to be destructive if they promote separation and superiority, and are judged to be beneficial if they promote interconnectedness and humility.

THE HOSTILE ENCOUNTER FRAME

“Fight” is a trigger word for a Hostile Encounter frame. Other common trigger words include: combat, battle, war, defeat, attack, assault, defend, and weapon.

The Hostile Encounter frame when used to talk about climate change indicates that climate change is conceptualised as a threat to human wellbeing, culture and life. Threat causes stress, and the human tendency is to alleviate stress and its associated emotions through a variety of defences and coping strategies (Cramer, 1998; Andrews & Hoggett, 2019). Fighting the threat is one such response.

The use of war as a metaphor to frame a response to something has a long and varied history: we have the war on drugs, war on poverty, war on terrorism, war on crime, war on truth, and now the war on the coronavirus. The frame may be deliberately used to call for urgency, solidarity and sacrifice in the face of a supposed common enemy, to focus priorities,  motivate collective action, and garner public support for extreme and intrusive government policies and powers. The article by Bill McKibben that initially triggered this post is entitled “A world at war: we’re under attack from climate change – and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII”. Clearly the aim here is to stimulate energy and motivate action (“mobilize”).

The Hostile Encounter frame in media discourse on climate change is proliferating as coverage of climate change also increases. A Google search in on the term fight/combat climate change generated around 402,000 results for the year 2018. This is a huge leap from the year before, and the results continue to decrease as we go back over the last 10 years. As shown in Figs. 1 and 2, the growth pattern is similar to the rate of increase in results for “climate change”. 

What these results suggest is that the Hostile Encounter frame is becoming more abundant as coverage of climate change also grows, which increases the likelihood of exposure to it. The purpose of this article is to explore what that exposure could mean for how we think and act on climate and ecological crisis.

I now discuss four entailments of the metaphor.

ENTAILMENT 1: Fighting is with an enemy

When we say “fighting climate change” we make climate change the enemy.

The term “climate change” refers to the phenomenon of long-term and large-scale shifts in the planet’s weather patterns and average temperatures. The changes occurring are human-induced but they are being made by the climate system itself as it reacts to being pushed out of balance and stability by human activities. What was for the past 11,000 years fairly stable and supportive to life has now become unstable and life threatening. And because the climate system is a natural system, by extension nature and natural forces become the enemy. As McKibben said in his article, “can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?

The term is also often used to to refer to something other than or more than physical transformations to the climate system. As the philosopher Mike Hulme explains, it is an idea with a variety of cultural meanings associated with it (Hulme 2009). It may be used as a shorthand expression for a larger constellation of understandings that can include the impacts, risks or causes of climate change. An example of this is in a video interview by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon which was posted on twitter in 2018 by the UNFCCC in which she states: “The fight against climate change is connected to the fight against gender inequality” (UNFCCC 2018). This sentence heads the tweet. Firstly, what is being talked about in the rest of the speech is not climate change per se but the impacts of climate change. Secondly, the “fight” against climate change involves activity that reduces the causes of climate change or enhances adaptive capacity to the impacts. These meanings are not explicit in the heading and can only be interpreted by paying attention to the rest of the speech – it is climate change that is named in as the actual enemy, not human activity. 

Making something an enemy personifies it. The target domain, in this case climate change, becomes an active wilful agent with intent to harm (Lakoff & Johnson 1980). The harm is in the direct and indirect impacts: hotter average temperatures, rising sea levels, eroding coastlines, increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, droughts, heavy rainfall, wildfires, flooding, soil erosion, land degradation and ocean acidification. All of these impacts pose threats to human security and welfare.

It is to this sense of nature as a malevolent entity that both McKibben’s 2016 article and James Lovelock’s 2006 book title “The revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity’’ speak, although they do so in different ways. In comparing the threat of climate change to the threat posed by Germany, Italy and Japan in WWII, McKibben makes the point that, unlike Hitler, the enemy of climate change is neither sentient nor evil, but he chooses to use language throughout the article that expresses and therefore reinforces exactly that. For example, the opening paragraph includes the line “Enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory” and elsewhere he states “we chose to strengthen the enemy with our endless combustion”. Lovelock on the other hand promotes a view of the Earth as a living self-regulating system that is not the aggressor leading the attack but rather is fighting us back in response to the abuse we have given it. Nevertheless, with “revenge” as the trigger word, the encounter is hostile.

The idea of nature as the enemy points straight to the dualism between humans and nature that is at the heart of the project of modernity, signed up to by both capitalism and socialism, which understands achievement of human self-determination and freedom as a struggle against the limits imposed by nature (Benton & Craib 2001). Climate change poses not just threat to mortality but also confronts us with our reality as mortal beings at the mercy of much more powerful forces, puncturing our hubristic illusions of control. The philosopher Mary Midgley argued that the notion of nature as a threat to civilised life manifests in metaphors that equate nature with evil and that project human vices onto the natural world, as for example with the negative meanings associated with ‘rat’, ‘bitch’ and ‘snake’ (Midgeley 2003). Such projection, argues Midgley, gives permission to a person or society to destroy nature. The wild and powerful forces of climate change thus present profound psychological threat to the modern sense of self as separate from and superior to nature. In fighting the enemy of climate change, we are reasserting our dominance and control over nature.

Identifying climate change as the enemy makes it something “out there”. The metaphor masks the real source of the problem: human activity that is disrupting natural systems and causing them to change in these dangerous ways. It displaces the focus away from human culture, and in so doing it potentially allows ecologically destructive human activity and its underlying drivers to continue unchallenged.

Changes in climate can and do pose direct and indirect threats to human and nonhuman life but this does not necessarily make the changing climate an enemy that must be defeated by fighting it. Framing the relationship in this way is a choice, albeit one that may not be conscious and deliberate.

ENTAILMENT 2: There are clear sides in a fight

“Fight” and “war” suggest a simplistic dualistic pairing. As George Bush said after the al-Quaeda attacks in the USA in 2001: “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror”. There is no room for shades of grey, and it is clear which side you should be on. With the metaphor “fighting climate change” the implication is that a clear distinction can be made between “us” (humans) and “them” (a changing climate), reinforcing the idea of a separation between humans and nature.

In an article about the metaphor of war, the journalist Charles Lane states “When you think of someone as an enemy, it’s harder to contemplate trusting, respecting or cooperating with him or her”. This is supported by social identity theory which states that people tend to show bias towards those they regard as part of their in-group and prejudice and discrimination to those they see as part of their out-group. Seeing nature as being ‘on the other side’ may incline people to act in ways that harm the natural world, or aspects of it, (Crompton & Kasser 2009), even though that would exacerbate the ecological crisis. It could also make it harder to think about working with nature and natural processes to improve the situation.

So what happens if you don’t join the fight, or join the opposing side? The metaphor creates the possibility for there to be traitors and patriots in the fight against climate change. Lane warns that cooperative behaviours “start to look like treason instead of what they really are: the minimum requirements of democratic life”. Joanna Macy observed that there is a sense of self-righteousness in the fight against evil (Macy 2007). This moral undertone is also noted in a study of news media, which found that war metaphors allowed for negative evaluations of those who failed to join the fight (Atanasova & Koteyko 2017).

McKibben identifies those who are “on the other side” as those who oppose mobilisation – the powerful industrial forces heavily invested in fossil fuel infrastructure. Opposition to mobilisation in McKibben’s view is to be overcome by adopting a wartime mentality that accepts the need for urgent action. Here, we can see a circularity of reasoning: conceptualising climate change as war leads to seeing those with vested interests as opponents, and their opposition is to be overcome by making the conceptualising of climate change as war more dominant. With this example we can see how the metaphor gives little space to debate the appropriateness, purpose or morality of the fight (Hartmann-Marmud 2002; Lakoff 1991). Indeed the opportunity to question whether we are even in a fight may be stifled altogether – as McKibben asks, “The question is not, are we in a world war? The question is, will we fight back?” And this leads to a question of how conscientious objectors to “military” climate change service would be treated.

ENTAILMENT 3: Fights are won or lost

There are two aspects to consider with this entailment.

First, the Fight metaphor gives the impression that the target domain is manageable (Hartmann-Mahmud 2002; Macy 2007). But the past few decades of war in the Middle East show that outcomes can be messy: there may be no clear end or clear winner, and other parties with other agendas may become involved in the fight. What does it mean to fight climate change – how will we know when we have won? Given the complexities of feedback loops, lags and different rates of change with planetary processes (IPCC 2018), it is far from simple and probably impossible to establish an agreed definitive point when “victory” over climate change can be said to be achieved. There is research that shows that when confronted by threat, policy makers tend to simplify and stereotype assessments of a situation (Staw et al 1981). This serves to reduce the threat and gain a sense of being in control of the situation. But the Fight metaphor in the context of climate complexity creates a false sense of certainty.

Second, because fights are there to be won, the implication of the Fight metaphor is that the forces of nature can be subdued and dominated. It is interesting that the term “carbon capture and storage” has been created to describe a process designed to prevent carbon dioxide emissions produced from use of fossil fuels from entering the atmosphere. The main meaning of ‘capture’ is to catch by force, to take prisoner (OED Online 2015; Etymonline 2015). Capturing carbon means gaining control of it. The Fight metaphor obscures the concept of nature as a complex system and instead reinforces the idea that humans are capable of achieving mastery and control over nature by virtue of our superiority.

ENTAILMENT 4: Fights are won by fighting

A Hostile Encounter frame limits the types of responses to the threat that are perceived to be acceptable. Wars and battles are fought with violence, which can come in different forms but is predominantly physical: people are injured and killed, and infrastructure is destroyed. Nonviolent responses such as attempts to understand the root causes of the threatening situation may be deemed inappropriate and derided as soft. As Lakoff (1991) explains, for nation states strength tends to be perceived as military strength. Perhaps this explains the prevalence of the war metaphor in political discourse. In terms of responses to climate change, alternative approaches of working with (rather than fighting against) powerful natural processes, or targeting the underlying human causes of climate change, are not imagined or given due consideration. This perspective has also been put forward in relation to the coronavirus for example in terms of adjusting to the new normal of periodic outbreaks and changing ecologically destructive  behaviours that create the conditions for new viruses and diseases to emerge.

In wartime, behaviours that would be unacceptable during peacetime are permitted. Research on unethical decision-making in organisations such as Enron finds that a language of war in the organisation creates an atmosphere of war with stress, pressure, fear and aggression, and the regular social norms and regulations no longer apply. In such a context, people may be influenced to stray from ethical norms and values in a creeping process of adaptation, leading to “ethical blindness” meaning a temporary loss or inability to see the ethical dimensions of a decision at stake, or to see how one has deviated from one’s own values (Palazzo et al 2012; Hoffrage 2011). As the environmentalist George Marshall has argued, “Enemy narratives soften us up for the violence, scapegoating, or genocide that follows” (Marshall 2014). Use of such narratives by climate activists, he warns, is a dangerous game to play.

Sacrifices are expected of civilians during wartime. McKibben notes that Pearl Harbour made individual Americans willing to do hard things such as pay more in taxes, endure shortages and disruptions. But there is inequality in sacrifice: some people sacrifice more than others and some suffer more from the consequences, usually the poor and marginalised. Likewise with climate change. The “civilians” who suffer more than others are those who have contributed the least to causing it (IPCC 2014, 2018). The injustices of this could be regarded as “collateral damage” and treated as less of a political priority than winning the fight. A parallel to this was seen recently with the coronavirus when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to accept large scale loss of life when announcing measures less stringent than those taken in other countries based on a misguided idea of achieving victory through ‘herd immunity’ – an approach now abandoned after intense public and scientific outcry.

CONCLUSION

In this article I identified and discussed four entailments of the “fighting” climate change metaphor: fighting is with an enemy, there are clear sides in a fight, fights are won or lost, and fights are won by fighting. I now summarise what is being promoted and what is hidden by the metaphor, and draw conclusions about the implications for motivating adaptive responses to climate/ecological crisis.

What is being promoted?

In making the climate system the enemy with intent to harm us, the metaphor reveals a conceptualisation of climate change as a threat to human security and welfare, and to civilised life. Implicit permission is given to destroy the enemy thereby eliminating the threat. The metaphor promotes the idea of a clear separation between humans and nature, and presupposes that the forces of nature can be overcome – that humans can be more powerful than nature. Fighting against this enemy is a show of strength, and serves to reassert a sense of certainty, control and dominance, which eases anxiety about the threat.

Furthermore, behaviours that would be unacceptable in peacetime may take hold and even gain public acceptance, such as anti-democratic governance, restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of speech, as well as expectations of sacrifice and “collateral damage”.

What is hidden?

With the climate system as the enemy, the real source of the problem is masked – human activity that overexploits nature’s resources, overwhelms natural cycles and pushes natural systems out of balance and beyond safe operating boundaries for supporting life. With the focus “out there”, it potentially allows these destructive human activities – and their underlying drivers – to continue unchallenged. The metaphor leaves no space for alternative ways of responding, such as working with nature rather than fighting against it.

With nature and the climate system conceptualised as something that humans can subdue and control, an understanding of nature, and climate, as a complex system is obscured.

Does the metaphor encourage ecologically beneficial or destructive responses?

The philosophical perspective I have taken to analyse the metaphor judges discourses to be destructive if they promote ideas of human separation and superiority over nature, and judges discourses as beneficial if they promote interconnectedness and humility. As I have shown, the metaphor “fighting” climate change promotes separation and superiority, and hence can be considered problematic in terms of motivating maladaptive responses to climate/ecological crisis. Such framing may lead us to ignore or denigrate other ways of relating to the natural world, such as how to work with and live in harmony with nature, as one interdependent species among many.

In his 2016 article, Bill McKibben suggests that fighting a war against climate change would be socially transformative, as it would help ease income inequality with higher employment and regeneration of ‘hollowed-out’ rural states and ‘decaying’ suburbs. But these outcomes are not dependent on going to war with nature, and could be achieved with other approaches that do not conceptualise nature as the enemy.

[References to follow]

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2 Responses to “Fighting” climate change: an analysis of a metaphor and its problematic entailments

  1. This is brilliant. It is one of the most exciting and important articles on climate change that I have read in a while. I’m similarly convinced that metaphors are at the heart of our challenges and solutions. Eg. Here: https://pubs.lib.umn.edu/index.php/ijps/article/view/170

  2. cultureprobe says:

    Thanks Jonee, and for posting link to your work – really interesting ideas!

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