September 18, 2020, by Brigitte Nerlich

Metaphors and realities: Coronavirus and climate change

We have been surrounded by global disasters this year, inflicted on us by ‘invisible enemies’. These invisible enemies have been made visible in two ways. In the case of the pandemic, disaster metaphors related to floods, fire and storms have made the coronavirus visible. In case of climate change, real floods, fires, storms and droughts have made global warming visible.

The classical elements, air, fire, earth and water, have been part of philosophy, mythology, popular culture and popular imagination for millennia and they still structure how we talk and think about us and our surroundings. Strangely, the earth itself now seems to be using these classical elements to talk to us too and alert us to the perilous times we live in and which are of our own creation.

Air, fire, earth and water: Coronavirus

Once the coronavirus pandemic began to ‘sweep’ around the world, people started to talk about it in rather elementary ways, using stock metaphors – linked to the classical elements: Air, fire, earth and water. The pandemic is ‘the perfect storm’, there is a ‘tsunami of cases’, and, of course, the fear of a ‘second wave’ is forever with us, there are ‘flare-ups’ and ‘hotspots’, and the pandemic spreads like ‘wildfire’; and finally, there are peaks, valleys, mountains and plateaus….

The use of such elementary metaphors has advantages and disadvantages. Let’s look briefly at the ‘perfect storm’ metaphor. It focuses our attention, but, as Brandt and Botelho pointed out in The New England Journal of Medicine: “the perfect-storm metaphor may misdirect our concepts of — and therefore our approach to addressing — emerging pandemics. This language creates a public health discourse that seems reactive rather than proactive, reductive rather than holistic, disempowering rather than empowering”.

What about fire metaphors? One could probably write a whole book about fire metaphors, from ‘burning embers’ to ‘devastating wildfire’….

Elena Semino, an expert on metaphors, has recently written a defence of fire metaphors. She says: “Even out of context, forest fires are a suitable area of experience for metaphorical exploitation. They are vivid, or image-rich; they are familiar, even when not experienced directly; they have multiple elements (trees, fire-fighters, arsonists, victims, etc.); and they have strong evaluative and emotional associations.” She goes on to explain that in the specific data she collected, “fire metaphors are used flexibly and creatively for multiple purposes, particularly to: convey danger and urgency; distinguish between different phases of the pandemic; explain how contagion happens and the role of individuals within that; justify measures for reducing contagion; portray the role of health workers; connect the pandemic with health inequalities and other problems; and outline post-pandemic futures”.

I want to add to this list of flexible uses of fire metaphors one more and that is: contestation of pandemic policies. As one resident of New York said after the outbreak was brought under control there: “Just because the fire was put out doesn’t mean the house wasn’t burned down.” (Dean, 2020)

There are also ways of using the fire metaphor to demand new ways of acting on pandemics in the future. As Professor Peter Piot, who contributed to the discovery of the Ebola virus, pointed out: “I hope the lesson will really be that we can’t afford to recreate the fire brigade when the house is on fire, we need the fire brigade ready all the time, hoping that it never has to be deployed.”

Such anticipatory action might also have been useful in another disastrously mismanaged aspect of earthly life, namely climate change.

Air, fire, earth and water: Climate change

For years and years people have been musing about the fact that climate change is difficult to talk about because it was regarded as just something that scientists speculated about and not something that affected people directly – it was something distant and foreign and, in a sense, invisible. It was never a ‘burning issue’… until now.

This situation has drastically changed over the last decade or so. Climate change has become visible for anyone to see, at least those who look and keep their eyes and ears open. Climate change now speaks to us directly by making its effects ever more extreme, like droughts and wildfires, hurricanes and floods – using all four classical elements: earth, fire, air and water.

This does not mean that some of us earthlings haven’t tried to make climate change visible, in fact to speak for climate change, for example through disaster metaphors, such as the frog in a boiling pot or the building on fire or indeed through images such as the so-called ‘burning embers’ diagram, what one may call a disaster image rather than a disaster metaphor. This was a visualisation of risk used by the IPCC from 2001 onwards using the colours of fire: yellow, orange, red. While climate change itself, using those colours, is saying: look, that’s what I can do, the burning embers diagram said something like: look what we have done and risk continue doing with worse and worse consequences if we don’t do something.

The visual representation crams actually a lot of information of climate change related risks into one graph. Here is a version from a few years ago (based on a 2017 Nature article). As the Vox article in which it is embedded rightly says: “We are already in danger, there’s more danger to come, and the best we can hope for is to slow and stop the process before the dangers are catastrophic. That’s the shape of things.”

Others have been more sceptical, especially about the performative force of the orange and red colours given to these representations of risk. Mahony and Hulme wrote: “The ‘burning embers’ diagram feeds certain anxieties about the future; we can sense ourselves walking powerlessly into the red heat, a fate made all the more inevitable as the red zone creeps towards the colourless safety of the baseline.” This was written eight years ago, when we still had some power to act. Now that power is diminishing rapidly and people are ‘walking powerlessly into the red heat’….or indeed flood, storm or, indeed, smoke-icane.


What can we conclude from these ramblings about elementary metaphors, colours and images, especially that of ‘fire’? Elena Semino had said that “fire metaphors are used flexibly and creatively for multiple purposes, particularly to: convey danger and urgency; distinguish between different phases of the pandemic; explain how contagion happens and the role of individuals within that; justify measures for reducing contagion”.

This applies to climate change too, when it speaks to us directly, or when we speak about it as a ‘burning issue’. Fire images, like the ‘burning embers’ diagram (surrounded by fire metaphors and images of real fires) convey danger and urgency; they distinguish between different phases of climate change; they explain how it happens and the roles of humans within it; and they also justify measures for reducing the risks of climate change.

Elementary metaphors are important because the speak to us directly. We all know about earth, water, air and fire. More and more people are experiencing droughts, floods, storms and wildfires. It is no surprise then that leaders attuned to such experiential knowledge use their metaphors wisely to call for collective and coordinated action. Jacinda Ardern talked for example of “actively testing those who might be at risk of Covid-19 as we hunt to find any burning embers of the virus”… I wish all leaders would do that not only with respect to the pandemic but also with respect to climate change. Oh yes, and test and trace!

Image: Photo of wildfire in New Mexico

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politicsinfectious diseasesMetaphors