The Danger of Metaphors
Metaphors are surely a necessary aid to thinking, at least at a preliminary stage in the effort to understand some phenomenon. But they can also prove to cloud issues as much as shed light on them. The reason is that metaphors by definition do not involve a literal application of language to describe a problem.
I encountered a very interesting set of metaphors in a Guardian Unlimited article, which is an excerpt of a book by Paul Brown, on climate change. The first occurred in the headline for the story: "How close is runaway climate change?" The use of "runaway" in connection with climate change likens the climate to a horse that has tossed its rider and galloped off into the distance. This use of "runaway" evokes the idea that unless we gain control of climate change, we will lose our ability to affect it. Maybe this is true. Maybe it isn't.
A "teaser" below the titles reads:
In an extract from his new book on global warming, Paul Brown looks at how close the planet is to irreversible damageThis provides a very explicit way of characterizing what might be meant by a "runaway climate." It would be irreversible damage. The catalyst for this climate change is said to be greenhouse gasses, specifically the production of unwanted Carbon Dioxide.
We are all aware that climate change is cyclical. The book excerpt suggests not that it will cease to be cyclical but that the average temperature of the globe will irreversibly increase. The meat of the article is presented in this paragraph:
The phrase "tipping point" is heard a lot more from scientists. This is where a small amount of warming sets off unstoppable changes, for example the melting of the ice caps. Once the temperature rises a certain amount then all the ice caps will melt. The tipping point in many scientists' view is the 2˚C rise that the EU has adopted as the maximum limit that mankind can risk. Beyond that, as unwelcome changes in the earth's reaction to extra warmth continue, it is theoretically possible to trigger runaway climate change, making the earth's atmosphere so different that most of life would be threatened.In this case, our metaphor has changed from that of a runaway horse or train or bride to that of something tipping over or toppling. Indeed, the word "tipping" normally occurs with "over" but interestingly one does not read or hear proponents of the global warming hypothesis ever referring to the "tipping over point." If they did then the fact that they are using a fundamentally spatial metaphor would be clear to all. It would also sound rather silly. Likening the climate to, say, a free-standing vertical object that can be said to have a tipping point -- say the amount of force exerted on the tip of the object that would cause it to fall over -- is not helpful to understanding the issue of global warming. I also draw attention to the weasel phrase "theoretically possible."
I am also intrigued that the EU has decided that a 2˚C rise is as far as we can safely let the warming go. I don't know whether some set of EU scientists voted that 2˚C is the most we can allow the average global temperature to rise or a bunch of politicians decided this but the last I checked scientific hypotheses are net decided via the democratic process. In point of fact, unfortunately, scholars can tend to come together to hold a consensus view. That view then becomes enforced by journal editors and panels that select the papers for presentation at conferences and select the grants that will be funded. These views can come to be proved incorrect.
We are invited by the idea that the globe will get hotter and hotter to believe that some day summer will not change over into fall but will become hotter and hotter until it reaches some limit at which all thermometers will stick. That we know will not be true since as the temperature rises, evaporation of bodies of water will accelerate and that will lower the average temperature. So, at worst, we would arrive at a cyclical warming and cooling as we have now but at different average temperatures. What this equilibrium would entail for living beings is anything but clear. It could mean that we all live in a Sahara-like environment or all live in Hawaii-like environment. Or that all life is extinguished. No one has a clue about this.
The article moves on to an American political metaphor when it says:
Runaway climate change is a theory of how things might go badly wrong for the planet if a relatively small warming of the earth upsets the normal checks and balances that keep the climate in equilibrium."Checks and balances" -- imagine that. The climate works in something like the American political system with each of the three branches of government able to check and balance the others (whatever that means). I also draw attention to the use of the weasel word "might."
The article makes one fantastically false statement:
Warming is directly related to the quantities of greenhouse gases there are in the air, the chief of which is carbon dioxide.In fact, the chief greenhouse gas is water vapor. The Florida State University Meterology Department gives these figures for the composition of our atmosphere:
PERMANENT gases in the atmosphere by percent are:Our concern is with variable gasses, of course. The article/book excerpt suggests that we will have runaway expansion of the level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. Right now, as the FSU figures make clear, it would take an enormous expansion of the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere for it to catch up with water vapor.Nitrogen 78.1%(Note that these two permanent gases together comprise 99% of the atmosphere)
Other permanent gases:Argon 0.9%VARIABLE gases in the atmosphere and typical percentage values are:
Hydrogen 0.00005%Water vapor 0 to 4%
Carbon Dioxide 0.035%
We are faced with a very large array of answered scientific questions, not all of which we are even aware of if climate science is like the rest of science, a scare, and a political problem. If the scary activists are right we need to do something. This will entail diminishing greenhouse gasses, which is our only tool. I have no clue who is right in this debate but I do know that this Guardian offering is so full of misleading metaphors and weasel words and phrases that I can't take it seriously. What I do know is that the US will not give up its standard of living willingly nor will developing nations give up their ambition to reach or surpass our standard of living. Maybe the human race will die off. Would that be all that bad?
Some will be upset that a mere linguist has the temerity to blog on this topic. But note that I have pretty much stuck to the language of the article. Moreover, the fact is that if there is a problem and if we must act, it is essential that people like me and you understand the problem and what I can tell you is that Paul Brown is very far short of being persuasive.