December 17, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Abseiling down the climate cliff metaphor

Since its very beginning in the 1980s, public discourse about climate change has been structured by metaphors. We had the greenhouse effect, the carbon footprint, the hockey stick, the tipping point, and we also had climategate; and to these metaphors we can now add the ‘climate cliff’ (which one can almost see as an upside down hockey stick). It emerged within a double context, namely during the US discussion of a ‘fiscal cliff’ (for a neuro-cognitive discussion of this metaphor see George Lakoff’s article here) and during COP18 held in Doha, Qatar (where it became a hashtag on twitter). It was followed by the less successful ‘environmental cliff’ (no alliteration!) (and a series of other ‘cliffs’). As one blogger said: “We not only have ’the fiscal cliff‘, but also ’the climate cliff‘ and ’the political cliff’, all of which attest to a deepening sense of current anxiety about the human prospect. For we seem to be surrounded by a precipice on all sides.” There is even talk of a fiscal cliff of metaphors….

The climate cliff and the pathway metaphor

Although ‘climate cliff’ is a coinage based on ‘fiscal cliff’, one doesn’t have to know anything about the complexities of the fiscal cliff to understand this metaphor which is used in the context of very evocative and easy to picture phrases, such as heading towards, hurtling towards, inching closer, approaching, going over, facing the, pushing over, throwing over, reaching, being on the edge of, falling off, plunging into, peering over, avoiding and so on. In this respect the climate cliff is embedded in a landscape of very productive metaphorical and visual networks of images. Most of these are based on what one may call the journey or pathway metaphor, which, according to Mark Johnson, is itself based on an embodied ‘image schema’ that is basic to human thinking.

The role of the web and key actors in metaphor diffusion

The important difference between the ‘older’ climate metaphors such as greenhouse effect and carbon footprint lies in the much faster circulation and therefore also semantic and political connectivity of newer ones, such as “climate cliff”. In the 1980s, metaphors circulated mainly via traditional newspapers, with slow publications rates – at least when compared to the Web and social media that have sped up the circulation of new metaphors. A simple google search, for example results in 64,800 results on climate cliff, mostly online newspapers, but also cartoons and other imagery around the newborn metaphor and videos, such as an HBSC video on “how to avoid the climate cliff’ (17 December, 2012).

The Web enables the very fast spread and distribution of creative metaphors, the establishment of novel connections, as well as the recreation of, and playing with, a metaphor in multiple modalities and genres. It also enables connections to be exploited between fiscal, climate and other cliffs, which can mutually reinforce each other. This new potential for sudden metaphor explosion and diffusion is interesting for social scientists, but also difficult to catch ‘live’ because of the sheer number of blogs, cartoons, online newspapers, organizational websites and other online sources joining the debate on ‘climate cliff’, and giving it ever new meanings in a very short period of time.

The metaphor is also linked to other non-cliff metaphors such as carbon ceiling and carbon tsunami for example, and possibly many more creative ‘carbon compounds‘ in an ever widening network of meaning.

The climate cliff metaphor seems to have been ‘born’ around the 1 of November (according to the news database Lexis Nexis; Charlie Cray for Daily Politics) and gained strength through its use by key actors such as Al Gore (who said “By including the carbon tax in the solution to the fiscal cliff we can [get] away from the climate cliff.”) and Senator Ed Markey speaking about the climate cliff, as well as the climate cliff taking off, so to speak, at Doha, COP18 (26/11-7/12/12) (“The talk in Doha, Qatar, is climate cliff”).

Metaphors as speech acts

In what way is this new metaphor different from older ones and what may this mean for climate change communication? The greenhouse metaphor was what one may call a science-based explanatory metaphor. It encapsulated the essence of the workings of CO2 (and other ‘greenhouse’ gases) in the atmosphere, and it has become part of what one may call, metaphorically, the DNA of climate science (for good or for ill). It is in a way a ‘statement of fact’. The tipping point metaphor is also science based (partially rooted in chaos theory, and made famous by Malcolm Gladwell), but has more of an appeal function. It tells us that we are approaching a point of no return and that one should do something about that, in this similar to the contested image of the hockey stick. In this case a scientific graph, once imaginatively labelled, became a political tool used in various ways. The carbon footprint metaphor in turn visualises the effect of carbon dioxide emissions as products of individuals or social groups or nations or continents and became part of a nudge type campaign of behaviour change. Then came ‘climategate’ and put a bit of a break on that enterprise. The cliff metaphor is perhaps the most visceral and political of these metaphors with the clearest appeal function. One thinks immediately of warning signs saying: Danger! Cliff! It has, in principle, what speech act theorists call the most illocutionary force. It incites the performance of actions. In this it is different from the tipping point metaphor that lacks the urgency and visual threat of a climate cliff. Both metaphors have a strong association of irreversibility of global warming, but the cliff metaphor/visual image adds an image of physical threat and danger to public understanding of climate change. However, is climate cliff just one more of many ‘apocalyptic’ metaphors which are frequently discussed in climate change communication literature and generally regarded as counter-productive, in the sense that they turn people off rather than inciting them to action?

Climate cliff, history and future

By coincidence John Holdren, senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology, gave the Grantham annual lecture at Imperial College London on the evening I was starting to write this blog post, and it turns out that in 2007 and 2009 he compared global warming to being “in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog.” So the cliff metaphor has been around in embryonic form for a while, at least since the high days of climate change communication and policy deliberations. We have to wait and see how this year’s incarnation plays out, that is, whether it has the persuasive form it sets out to have, or whether the apocalyptic implications of the metaphor inhibit its performative potential.

While reviewing this post before posting I came across this announcement:”Forecast the Facts, the climate accountability group behind, announced the launch of today, an interactive site that contrasts the very real ‘climate cliff’ with the manufactured ‘fiscal cliff.”

PS: A post-financial cliff climate cliff metaphor

This blog post was written in collaboration with Dr Iina Hellsten my Co-PI on the ESRC/ORA climate change project.

The title was inspired by Rob Smith during the School of Sociology and Social Policy’s Christmas dinner!

Image Bertrand Semelet


Posted in Climate ChangeLanguageMetaphorsScience Communication