Calvin on Climate
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Calvin on Climate

Making the Climate Problem Easier to Grasp

It seems to me that the climate problem might be best conveyed via memorable storylines that use common vocabulary, analogy, and parable to map to the climate consequences.

Adapting familiar tales, where the listener can often guess what is coming next (but is then surprised by novelty) is a familiar source of humor, as in “Shave and a Haircut” with “two bits” in the wrong key. There are a number of ironic variants on the Lord’s Prayer. Songwriters and comedians often mine such sources. Markup is another avenue: “Fourscore and seven years ago [No, no, Abe — no padding out the word count. Just say eighty-seven!], our forefathers brought forth a new nation… [Bong! Ten-point word-police penalty 150 years from now!]

For longer pieces, keep in mind Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end framework for a good story. That will keep the climate problem’s mapping easier to recall.

Problematic Words

“Tipping point” has turned out to be a problem for the general public. It addresses transitions and was meant to designate a system such as a gun’s trigger that has a threshold for going bang. But it need not involve an explosion in response but merely the entry to a runaway situation. One’s climate story might incorporate a parent working hard to get the baby carriage to the top of a hill. The tipping point is when one starts down the return path and must now haul backward to keep the baby carriage from accelerating downhill.

When something suddenly switches from one condition to another — say, between dim and bright in a bathroom, try “Click!” or snapping your fingers to convey the concept. Our climate problems include abrupt shifts and slow ramps, often a mixture of both. Click-free dimmer switches allow a slower, less painful transition in brightness, but an overheating climate parable could go on to tell of the proverbial frog in the pan of slowly heating water when it becomes too weak to escape. “Don’t be a frog” might then become a good chant to direct at the go-slow and do-little politicians we keep electing, who say one thing and do another.

Zero carbon aka carbon neutrality is like keeping your deposits and withdrawals in balance, out of overdraft territory. That is the most minimal of goals; I am surprised that leaders can promote it without blushing. A carbon dioxide cleanup, which might actually fix the problem, is more like digging oneself out of debt.

Storytelling also allows some imprecise terms to be used, and word choice can be a big problem for climate. Scientific terms are often misunderstood, even by scientists from adjacent fields getting themselves up to speed.

Another example: Mitigation. The only connotation that I once knew involved the mitigating circumstances for a judge to reduce the length of a prison term. I wasn’t familiar with its more general “softening the blow” definition that policy types use to distinguish between avoiding the blow (with, say, shade or cleaning up the excess CO2 accumulation overhead) and softening the blow a little (all other “climate solutions” merely slow down climate worsening).

Most of the time when policy types say mitigation, those of us writing for general readers might instead substitute the phrase “Softening the blow” and illustrate the concept with a padded boxing glove.

Emissions reduction schemes, including zero carbon, are mere mitigation — a good idea for the environment more generally, but not fast enough to count for much when trying to cool us off or reduce the extreme weather which can collapse civilization.

More to come. Suggestions welcome.



What’s behind the new extreme weather — and what makes it a climate emergency, requiring that we clean up the 50% excess of CO2 in the air overhead.

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William H. Calvin

President, Professor emeritus, University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Author, many books on brains, human evolution, climate