Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?

In The Discovery of Global Warming, Spencer R. Weart tells the story of the few dedicated scientists who first detected and questioned a change in climate through to the growing public awareness of warming in recent decades. Several major contributors are mentioned from Stewart Callendar, John Tyndall, and Thomas Chamberlin who first got the ball rolling, to major figures in more recent society such as James Hansen. Weart sets a heavy focus on the difficulties that arose at each step along the way; the lack of research funding, the miscommunication among scientists in early decades, the uncertainty of General Circulation Models (GCMs), ect.

With all of this information given, what I found most interesting about Weart’s work was his minimal but strikingly beneficial use of climate metaphors. The following metaphor sparked my interest, “If an inspector tells you that he has found termites in your house, and some day your roof will fall in, you would be a fool not to act at once” (Weart viii). This is way of saying the evidence is there that our climate is changing but the majority of people today are fools for not acting quickly.

Metaphors in scientific writing and news stories may often be avoided because they might create a lack of rationality. However, after further exploring some well-known climate metaphors it became clear to me that they have the potential to be an extremely powerful and fascinating form of communication. The following are two metaphors that I came across that really impressed me.

“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… If we do not change course, disaster, perhaps catastrophe, is almost inevitable” John Brandenburg, Dead Mars, Dying Earth

“The currents of change are so powerful that some have long since taken their oars out of the water, having decided that it is better to surrender, enjoy the ride, and hope for the best—even as those currents sweep us along faster and faster toward the rapids ahead that are roaring so deafeningly we can hardly hear ourselves. “Rapids?” they shout above the din. “What rapids? Don’t be ridiculous; there are no rapids. Everything is fine!” There is anger in the shouting, and some who are intimidated by the anger learn never to mention the topic that triggers it. They are browbeaten into keeping the peace by avoiding any mention of the forbidden subject.” – Al Gore, Six Drivers of the Future

Check out the link below to see other popular climate metaphors and discussions regarding this indirect form of communication.

Best Metaphors for the Climate Crisis

Climate Change: What’s the beef?

Cows grazing in South America. Photo by Sabiha Madraswalla, Dickinson ’15.

By Maeve Hogel

Argentina is world renowned for being one of the largest producers and consumers of beef. I just returned from a year studying there and having been served beef at practically every meal, I can attest that it lives up to its reputation. As someone who is always looking for grass-fed meats and prefers to buy local, I was pleased both by the delectable taste and the environmental friendliness of Argentine beef. The cattle are free to roam farms freely with their diets being mainly grass, unlike the diets of corn that are common in the United States. In the rural areas, many farms are still small and feed only the local people, such as the one pictured above. However, what I failed to think about until reading Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet was the effect that all of these cows in Argentina, and all over the world, have on climate change simply by existing.

Many are familiar with the connection between greenhouse gases and global warming. Particularly, we understand how humans can cause increases in carbon dioxide emissions. However, aside from carbon dioxide there are other greenhouse gases that are also important players in climate change that many, including myself, often forget to consider. As Lappe points out in her book, “though the livestock sector contributes only 9 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, its responsible for 37% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions” (Lappe, 26).

As I was sitting down to enjoy a delicious argentine steak, I certainly was not considering how that cow had affected climate change. Climate change is far from most people’s minds while they are enjoying their lunch or dinner, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Lappe’s book is filled with fascinating personal stores and interesting facts about farming not only in the United States, but in many parts of the world. Yet, for me, the fourth section of her book in which she titled “Action” is a must read for everyone (Lappe, 218). I’m absolutely a meat lover, so I will never suggest that we should all become vegetarians in order to prevent more greenhouse gas emissions. However, Lappe’s 7 principals of a climate-friendly diet are important ideas to keep in mind both for personal health and for the health of our planet. We all can eat more real foods, look for organic, lean towards local, and send packaging packing as Lappe suggests (Lappe, 218). Often we let ourselves believe that we personally can not make a difference, but when it comes to food we make a conscious choice about what we eat and where it comes from and hopefully we all start fitting climate change into the equation when making those choices.


When Self-Interest Trumped Truth: The Politicization of Climate Change

global warming science fiction

John Charles Polanyi, the winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics, said that “scholarship – if it is to be scholarship – requires that the truth take precedence over all sectarian interests, including self-interest.” Two years after Polanyi received his award, global warming entered into the general lexicon and public discussion after Dr. James Hansen’s testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee declaring that, with 99% certainty, that “the warming trend was not a natural variation but was caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide and other artificial gases in the atmosphere.” Climate science immediately became a “political football”, as fossil fuel and big industry scrambled to scour the truth in order to defend their self-interest. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in Merchants of Doubt, warned that “small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power.” And their efforts changed the global warming discussion forever for that very reason.

While a large body of climate scientists genuinely and honestly pursued impartial and unbiased research on global warming, a small critical mass of individuals, known as “merchants of doubt”, published reports to the contrary, saying that there was actually a cooling trend, and that not enough was known about the climate to act one way or the other. Backed by abounding resources from fossil fuel companies, conservative think tanks and media outlets, their efforts turned global warming from being indisputably correct scientifically to a flimsy theory to provoke fear, and even a referendum on American government itself; cap-and-trade measures to tame down carbon emissions, as they argued, were a government intrusion into the market economy, an interference in personal rights, and indicative of the burgeoning size of the government.

What lied beneath the surface of the campaign of doubt and misinformation was the preservation of the bottom line for the fossil fuel industry for another generation, not the pursuit of scientific truth or the common good. In order for any measurable mitigation or adaptation progress to be made, self-interest must be dropped for the prospects of future generations, financial gain for environmental preservation, and negligence for stewardship. Bob Inglis, former Republican Representative from South Carolina, made the following analogy:

“Your child is sick, 98 doctors say treat him this way, two say, ‘No, this other is the way to go.’ I’ll go with the two. You’re taking a big risk with those kids.”

How long are we willing to take such a big risk and pass the buck off to our children and grandchildren? For their sakes and ours, the time for decisive action is now.


Quote by John Charles Polanyi found on

Quote by Dr. James Hansen found in NYT article, “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate”, 24 June 1988.

Definition of “political football” (to cause a political football is to “thrust a social, national security, or otherwise ostensibly non-political matter into partisan politics”) found in Safire’s Political Dictionary.

Quote from Merchants of Doubt found on page 270.

Quote by former Rep. Bob Inglis found on transcript for PBS Frontline’s program titled “Climate of Doubt,” aired 23 October, 2012.


The News of Climate Change: Is it Fair and Balanced?


By: Maeve Hogel

Upon googling “Is climate change real?”, I was presented with a whole slew of articles and websites that give a wide range of responses to what seems to be a yes or no question. The first two links, a government website and Wikipedia, agree that climate change is in fact real. However, the third article, from Fox Business, argues that there really is no significant consensus on climate change. So how can we, as readers and Google searchers, distinguish what is true from what is not? Living in an era with a high reliance on the Internet and powerful search engines, such as Google, we have access to massive amounts of information at the touch of a button. But should we believe that all of this information is correct?

In Merchants of Doubt, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway argue that a handful of scientists, with the assistance of the media, have created doubt about many significant scientific findings. Currently, we can all agree that tobacco is linked to cancer and that smoking is bad for your health (after all, it says so right on the cigarette box). However, Oreskes and Conway show that it took years after scientists first discovered tobacco’s harmful effects on health to convince the world of this fact. After the media began reporting these significant findings with catchy slogans like “Cancer by the carton”, the tobacco industry decided to refute these discoveries by hiring their own public relations firm (Oreskes, 22).

The decision to hire a PR firm, in a business sense, was genius. We heavily rely on the media, through the Internet, the TV, the newspaper, to learn about new information. By presenting different facts or showcasing data in a different way, the tobacco industry could easily show the American public a different story about the harms of smoking, just as Steven Tobak does with the data on climate change in Fox Business’ Article mentioned before.

Oreskes and Conway in their book often discuss how science is never exact. It is impossible to ever say for sure, 100% of the time, that a finding or discovery is correct. It is only true until the next discovery proves that it isn’t. This doesn’t mean we should never believe a new scientific discovery. It does however mean, that in a country with freedom of the press, there will always be someone looking to capitalize on that little sliver of doubt that exists in the field of science. Much responsibility falls on us, as we read an article or Google a question, to recognize what is reliable information and to filter out those who just trying to create doubt. It is in no way an easy task, but as climate change becomes an even more pressing matter and there continues to be many powerful naysayers, it’s a very important one.

Seeing the Bigger Picture: Harmonizing Weather and Climate Variability

Photo from the New York Times Magazine.

As humans, we have a finite amount of RAM in our brains at our disposal at any given moment to observe and analyze the world around us. It’s difficult for us to take what we see day-to-day and compile it all together to analyze the various trends at play over a longer period of time. We all can easily observe that, recently, there have been a lot of ups-and-downs in the weather that are unusual and uncharacteristic for summers in Central Pennsylvania: the week of July 7th – July 13th saw an average high temperature of about 87⁰F in Carlisle, while the week immediately following it (July 14th – July 20th) was 79⁰F, nearly ten degrees cooler. This sort of drastic change in temperature seems to be becoming the norm more than the exception.

It’s harder for us, however, to place those observations against the perspective of the trends going on at a higher plane, in the climate rather than in the weather. “Rising sea levels, warmer global temperatures, increasing ocean temperatures, and shrinking ice sheets seem like a distant reality, one that surely doesn’t affect me directly.” However, climate and weather are undeniably and inseparably intertwined; a changing climate will have severe repercussions on the weather we experience on the ground in our own lives, from more extreme summers and winters to increased flooding and longer, more frequent droughts around the world, as expressed in The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer R. Weart.
Putting variations in the climate over hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years in harmony with the weather variability we see on a day-to-day basis is a tall order. To do so, a systems-centric perspective is required in order to connect the dots between our personal experiences and what’s working above them, and how long-term changes in the climate trickle down to affect short-term weather patterns. Just as a drop in a body of water ripples throughout the whole body, so does a change in a process within a system affect the system as a whole and how it operates. Our climate is a system of weather patterns, and a change in it will have far-reaching effects on these weather patterns in turn. Our humanness doesn’t make this perspective readily accessible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely out of reach. It is essential, however, for us to think more holistically towards the relationship between weather and climate variability in order to see the system as a whole, and to fully understand the different mechanisms and processes at work within it.


All weather data from Weather Underground (



Bringing Back Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood

Community members of Lambertville, NJ enjoy Community Kitchen- a great way to foster the community-mindedness McKibben percribes.
Community members of Lambertville, NJ enjoy Community Kitchen- a great way to foster the community-mindedness McKibben prescribes.

Eaarth by Bill McKibben is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in living through climate change. Focusing on what we need to do as a society and personally to adapt to our new planet, Eaarth, McKibben brings some hope to an otherwise hopeless subject. Just like any probable solution to adapting to a changing world, McKibben prescribes a paradigm shift, this time a shift from a centralized, ever-expanding society to more decentralized societies aiming to sustain community, not expand it. My sister and I were “raised by a village”. Growing up in a small town, the daughter of a folklorist and homebody, neighbors have always been an important part of my life. We are just as comfortable in our home as we are in the local library or other places we volunteer at. We barely ever get through a spontaneous baking job without borrowing a cup of sugar from one neighbor or a teaspoon of vanilla from another. Thus, McKibben’s prescription of more community-based efforts like micro-grids for power and local food initiatives resonated with me but even more so, the idea that we will need to rely on our neighbors for help as we continue to face climate changes hit close to home.

Already with Hurricane Sandy and losing power for 10-15 days in town, being neighborly became a requirement. Volunteering at the Community Kitchen in town, where there was no lights but still hot water and a working stove, we cooked everything that started to defrost from the freezer and must have fed the whole town at least twice. Everyone came out for the hot meal, not just the usual crowd. And those who did not show up, we brought chili to the charging station at City Hall. Just as McKibben claims, when we were hit with a disaster debatably a symptom of climate change, the whole town became neighborly as we could no longer rely on central power or central authorities to come to our rescue. The bottom line: people like to be neighborly once they give it a chance. When push comes to shove, they will reach out to help and get help not just from the poor half way across the world but those right across the street.



Being Neighborly- Lambertville, NJ’s Community Kitchen

Sabotaging Progress with Global Climate Change- Merchants of Doubt

The MVP in the Merchants of Doubt Arena
The MVP in the Merchants of Doubt Arena


Merchant-of-doubt-scientists do not follow scientific practices regarding climate change. At first glance it seems if they do because they claim to represent larger scientific institutions and coordinate with other acclaimed scientists. With a little more research, as Oreskes and Conway did in Merchants of Doubt, their scientific processes are proven fraud and filled with deception. One National Academy report on carbon dioxide avoided the standard cooperation and peer-review process by splitting up the chapters in the report so committee members did not have to agree on one answer. Thus, even though it was published through the National Academy, the assessment did not include the standard scientific peer review practiced by most academy members. Furthermore, the splitting up of chapters resulted in conflicts with the science of global warming pointing to action and the economics of global warming pointing to inaction, with the final chapter concluding to follow the economic path. Thus, scientific evidence was disregarded, a practice unacceptable in the credible scientific community.

The merchants of doubt are also responsible for creating a global climate change debate. Through the Marshall Institute, three scientists distributed an unpublished paper which they later published into a booklet, asserting that science points to the sun causing global warming, not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. First, an unpublished paper means that it never went through peer-review process, the process vital to the credibility of science. Readers may have overlooked this, seeing that the article was written by three acclaimed scientists, never mind they had no expertise in the field. In fact, the Marshall Institute itself was created to defend President Reagan’s “Star Wars” against scientists’ claims that the strategy was unrealistic. Thus, it was created to defend policy decisions from questioning scientists. The three authors of the booklet represented merchants of doubt, faking scientific credibility in order to avoid regulation to mitigate global climate change. Sadly, their plan worked to convince White House members that global climate change was natural and raised no need for action. Merchants of doubt are the reason anthropogenic global climate change has just recently been acknowledged by the U.S. president even though the idea was first researched and accepted by the scientific community over half a century earlier.

Making it in this New World

It is going to be difficult. What is “it” you may be wondering? It is the transition from one way of life to a completely antithetical way of life that is about to occur. It is the future conditions that have been crafted inadvertently throughout the development of the modern world. It is what Bill Mckibben is desperately warning about in eaarth, a planet that has a new set of operating standards. Earthquakes where they used to not be, destructive droughts, unpredictable changes to agriculture, dangerous diseases spreading rapidly into new territory, and dangerous global conflicts. Having been fortunate to sit down and converse with Mckibben, as well as see him speak to several different audiences, I can hear the sense of desperation in his written works, as well as the tremendous hope he has for our species in the “new world” as he puts it. But as I told you before, it is going to be difficult.

The difficulty does not simply rise from the monumental shift away from fossil fuels that is necessary, but it also lies in the mystery of what society will look like when the dust settles, if it ever does settle. There are innumerable proposals in existence, just as many as there are for a definition of sustainability. From the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Futures Study on renewable energy in the United States to’s goal of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to Exxon Mobil’s devotion to burn all of their carbon reserves in order to ensure a secure future. Consensus has not been reached, but we can hope it will be this year and next at the COP. Mckibben offers a strong general solution that I would gladly follow; focus on community.

How do we survive in a new world when we have adapted to a completely different set of rules? Assuming rapid adaptation on a massive scale will keep the crops from drying out and our population centers above the rising tides we would need one of two things; either a strong central government and international organization to make change happen- I am pretty sure that we do not want to go down that road- or see an overwhelmingly amount of the population begin to change. The latter seems to be more within our reach, at least in the US. We are not there yet though. Climate change deniers still exist, people are still belching carbon from their exhausts, and Exxon Mobil still plans on not letting any of their reserves be stranded investments by burning them all.
What is to be done then? We must educate, advocate, and grow a community around curbing carbon emissions. Mckibben wasn’t the first to recognize the importance of community. It is a recurring theme in progressive thought. The word is becoming overused, Mckibben admits it, but that does not mean it is not important. It is also merely a first step, because once this community is strong enough to enact change then we must begin to change.

-Justin McCarty