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19th November 2008 | Draft

Climate of Change Misrepresented as Climate Change

insights from metaphorical confusion

- / -

Switch of focus
Change of patterns of behaviour
-- recognition of the asystemic framing of climate change
-- institutionalized shunning of overpopulation
-- role of religion in reinforcing unsustainable behaviour
-- use of tangible climatic phenomena to frame the response to intangible strategic crises
-- role of technology corporations in a quick-fix geo-engineering solution
-- beyond single-factor strategy development
-- possibilities of "unthinkable" solutions
-- unrecognized role of people power in times of systemic crises


This is a summary of ways in which the focus on climate change, understood as a problem, is being used, deliberately or inadvertently, to reframe the climate of change. The latter was previously associated with the innovative potentials of a new century, openness to "new thinking", the possibility of a "paradigm shift", and new ways of doing things.

Essentially, it is argued here, these creative, remedial possibilities for a spectrum of challenges are being transformed into a particular understanding of problematic climate change -- to which conventional strategic responses are then considered appropriate within the old mindset. The significance of "climate change" is being conflated with that of "climate of change" -- to the disadvantage of the latter and its associated expectations.

It might be said that those focused on the tangible specifics of climate change have successively appropriated the potential previously associated with the intangibles to which climate of change referred -- including issues of social justice and response to the underprivileged. Reference to climate of change is increasingly used only to imply that previous denial regarding climate change is being overcome -- in the new climate of change. For this reason, reports on climate change often now use the phrase climate of change in their title.

It is clearly dangerous for many social change agendas that "stop climate change" should be understood as implying, to any degree, the creation of a "climate of opinion" in which "change should be stopped".

This summary serves primarily to point to more extensive arguments elaborated in earlier papers (with appropriate references) regarding the issues of which preoccupation with climate change is a symptom -- notably the issue of population growth, previously recognized as a driver of climate change.

Switch of focus

The recognition of a climate of change has been variously acknowledged and welcomed in relation to the new century. Conferences have been organized on the theme of change and on "being the change". It is a theme that has been reinforced within the business environment as essential to necessary innovation in order to sustain competitive advantage. Governments have recognized the need to sustain such a climate of change as part of facilitating the process of development at all levels of society.

"Climate" should clearly be understood as one of the fundamental metaphors that humanity lives by, or within, in the light of the methodology regarding conceptual metaphors developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Metaphors We Live By, 1980)

The metaphorical confusion might be seen as having its origin in the historically important Wind of Change address made by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town in 1960 -- made noteworthy for the subsequent process of decolonization by the phrase:

The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.

The metaphor, as "winds of change", was subsequently used very widely with reference to socio-political change or with reference to change in general. However it is noteworthy, with respect to the environment, that Margaret Thatcher was subsequently widely noted for her strong resistance to any recognition that wind from the UK caused acid rain in Norway.

The challenge of global warming has only reached prominence in very recent years -- following the considerable resistance of many sectors of society, notably in the business community. It has been the subject of vigorous debate within the academic community. A stage has now been reached in which climate change has become an acceptable theme of concern in a wide range of institutions. It might even be said to have become fashionable -- with any associated initiatives and strategies as now being effectively beyond criticism in a situation framed as increasingly desperate.

The concern here is the manner in which climate change is being used, possibly inadvertently, to reduce the significance of a climate of change to the focus on particular tangible phenomena -- carbon emissions, rising temperature and sea levels, and associated disasters (hurricanes, droughts, etc).

Has there effectively been a switch of focus from the intangible subtleties of a climate of change to the tangibles of climate change?

Change of patterns of behaviour

Within the framework of a climate of change, much was made of the possibility of a change of attitude to life, creativity of every kind, a sense of fulfillment, advance of knowledge, innovation in technology and social organization, etc. An emphasis was given to this mindset in exploration of the so-called "cultural creatives". However it has also been found in the widespread interest in self-improvement, self-help and the development of civil society and community support structures. The emphasis has been on the freedom to explore new possibilities and potentials in recognition of new challenges and the associated responsbilities.

In relation to climate change, a particular focus has been given to the earlier recognition within that climate of change that there was a need to change patterns of behaviour, especially patterns of consumption, in order for human society to live within its means on a resource constrained planet. This focus has now been adapted to the challenge of climate change as an evident priority. In the case of climate change, the behaviours that arguably need to be changed, from that perspective, are certain patterns of resource use -- most notably those resulting in carbon emissions.

History will however surely note the tremendous historical irony associated with the Freudian displacement in focus from other forms of carbon "emission" that result in the pressures on the environment from population overshoot. Less challenging is the recognition that in systemic terms, there is a curious degree of isomorphism between the process of carbon "emission" that is giving rise to global warming and the quantity of information emitted in a variety of forms within a global society. This accumulation, whether to be caricatured as "hot air" or not, gives rise to a form of global warming -- as suggested by increasingly "heated" debate between mutually opposed views. As concluded by the editors of Scientific American (Enough Hot Air Already -- to slow climate change, it's time to talk about real action, December 2007):

Talk is cheap. It's time for politicians to stop spewing hot air and start enacting hard limits on dangerous emissions.

The argument here is therefore that this shift in focus has obscured the more general climate of change and reduced it to a specific understanding of changes in patterns of behaviour relating to global warming. The challenge of other patterns of behaviour has been avoided and designed out of any debate -- seemingly deliberately so. The wider and more comprehensive sense of climate of change has been appropriated by those preoccupied by climate change -- effectively precluding consideration of such wider issues, some of which may be of greater significance, even possibly as drivers of climate change itself.

Given the role of Al Gore in achieving an institutional focus on climate change, the conflation of significance may notably be seen in his acceptance of the 2008 Freedom Award under the theme "Climate of Change" -- which he shared with Diane Nash, who played a key role in the civil rights movement in the USA. The award is made by the US National Civil Rights Museum. Confusion is clearly created in this case by appreciation of Gore's role in highlighting the challenge of climate change as a "change agent" in a climate of change -- in which efforts are now made to "stop climate change" whilst lauding the climate of change.


It is especially interesting that this shift to a climate change focus has been achieved in such a way as to obscure issues relating to population overshoot -- overpopulation and the limited resource capacities of the planet. These have been successfully reframed as irrelevant to the real challenge -- now framed as being of the highest urgency -- of climate change.

Clearly climate change, as a tangible challenge, calls for less challenging responses than those associated with the behaviours giving rise to continuing population increase and its consequences. The behaviours directly associated with climate change are politically much easier to handle. The possibilities of various technical "fixes" -- even less challenging to politically sensitive patterns of behaviour -- are now being widely proposed.

The question is whether the openness previously associated with a climate of change can be recovered -- given the current rapid shift to an overwhelmingly closed focus on climate change.

Challenge: recognition of the asystemic framing of climate change

In the analysis of the challenge of climate change, the focus is on "downstream" consequences of overpopulation that can be assiduously treated on the assumption that the "upstream causes", and their progressive increase, can be ignored -- an approach possibly to be understood as an exemplification of nonscientific causal reasoning (otherwise termed magical thinking). The case has been strongly argued by the former Permanent Head of the Department of Science of Australia, John L. Farrands (Don't Panic, Panic: the use and abuse of science to create fear, 1993).

This is a deliberate promotion of asystemic thinking -- focusing on the "symptom" rather than the "disease" engendering that symptom. The "disease" will not disappear as a consequence of palliative measures. Who is responsible for this asystemic framing -- which goes completely counter to the thinking first embodied in the original Club of Rome report (Limits to Growth, 1972)?

Especially interesting is the manner in which efforts to analyze the evolution of the world problematique at that time have themselves been undermined in an academic context. As shown by Graham Turner (A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, CSIRO 2007), the original study provoked many criticisms which falsely stated its conclusions in order to discredit it. Despite the repeated substantiation of its conclusions, including warnings of overshoot and collapse, recommendations of fundamental changes of policy and behaviour for sustainability have not been taken up. One of its principal areas of focus was population.

Challenge: institutionalized shunning of overpopulation

In what ways may institutional avoidance of the population issue be recognized?

This is the theme of an extensive separate review:

Part of the challenge is the manner in which any matters relating to population growth are carefully obscured in debate on climate change. This phenomenon has been variously recognized in terms of the metaphor the "elephant in the living room", as extensively reviewed elsewhere:

Challenge: role of religion in reinforcing unsustainable behaviour

The debate on overpopulation and family planning has long been strongly influenced by the beliefs of particular religions. These have an ever more influential role in the governance of major countries -- increasing the political sensitivity of the debate. However, whether or not people choose to subscribe to any faith and such preferences, it remains important to make clear in whose name these preferences are being formulated as discussed in:

Clearly the switch in focus to climate change counteracts any tendency to focus on the climate of change -- which might otherwise have resulted in healthy debate on these matters. To counterbalance the focus on "human rights", which reinforces the right to ever larger families, the question is whether such a debate would result in a focus on "human responsibilities", notably in the relation of humanity to nature, as argued here:

Ironically religions are now only too willing to consider issues of climate change -- now that they have been suitably laundered of any reference to population growth. The climate of change that might have challenged the position of religion on population growth has now itself been gutted of such unwelcome references, notably to ensure that there is no climate of change within institutionalized religion which is sustained by that concern.

Challenge: use of tangible climatic phenomena to frame the response to intangible strategic crises

It is most curious the degree to which climatic phenomena (notably in the form of hurricanes, flooding and droughts (Acts of God as conveniently understood by the insurance industry) have focused attention on the significance of climate change. Ironically the Wind of Change address in 1960 might itself even be seen as heralding, through the metaphor, a form of recognition of the effects of climate change.

More curious however is that the "fire-fighting" responses to such disasters -- beyond human control -- have encouraged the reframing of strategic responses to other crises using metaphors associated with such climate change phenomena. This is best seen in the case of the ongoing financial crisis which has been widely framed using terms such as "financial hurricane", "financial maelstrom" or "financial tsunami". These, and their inevitable consequences, are clearly then to be understood as beyond human responsibility -- and no one is now considered responsible. Who could be responsible for the economic "climate"?

The strategic response has then been defined through the mindset framed by such metaphors -- even to curious use of the "bailout" metaphor -- as discussed elsewhere:

This study suggested that the clearer systemic understanding of the financial crisis, together with its use of climate change metaphors, might indeed offer the possibility of new thinking in response to future crises in a climate of change which has every likelihood of indeed being "turbulent".

However, the systemic crises to come should not now be treated as though they were climate change crises simply because there is an accumulating change in the "climate of opinion" about them and a familiarity with the "fire-fighting" response -- as a form of "business as usual". Much may however be learnt about the challenge of climate change by recognizing the consequences of making this assumption -- as is so clearly demonstrated in the case of the financial crisis and the strategies deployed in response.

It is nevertheless curious that the remedy for the financial crisis should be expressed in terms of "reinflating" a global economy (that has "cooled"), and improving the "climate of confidence" (in a "frozen" financial system), at a time when the climate change preoccupation is with reducing global warming. Ironically it might even be asked whether the long-standing dependence on "growth" has not resulted in a global economy that is essentially "overheated" in economic terms -- an overheating to which the current financial "cooling" might be seen as presaging the kind of drastic remedy required in the case of global warming.

Challenge: role of technology corporations in a quick-fix geo-engineering solution

One of the features of a climate of change is the recognition of the enormous possibilities of technology in response to many challenges. However technology, and increasing dependence on it, has been responsible for many of those problems -- if only in populating the world with combustion engines, a primary source of carbon emissions. It is not difficult to see the emergence of an "industry-environment complex" to complement the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower cautioned. For such a complex, rather than any change of behaviour, a geo-engineering solution to climate change represents an ideal method for continuing "business as usual".

Geo-engineering can be presented as a credible "fix" within the domain of competence of various technologies -- provided very extensive resources are allocated to them -- a welcome boon in a time of global recession and a means of "reinflating" the global economy. It is of course convenient to forget the technological arrogance that has been associated with past disasters, such as the RMS Titanic.

This challenge is reviewed in some detail in:

Reference is made there to the widely-known adage: For every human problem there is a solution that is quick, simple, inexpensive -- and wrong. Nevertheless there is increasing expectation that the original Manhattan Project is likely to be considered the most appropriate model for surreptitious unilateral decision-making regarding development and implementation of a geo-engineering solution (Jay Michaelson, Geoengineering: a climate change Manhattan Project, 1998).

As with the "fire-fighting" response to the financial crisis, geo-engineering can be conveniently framed as a form of technical "bailout" that needs to be rammed through with as little debate as possible -- especially if the urgency is such that there is a need to shift into a wartime global security mindset (Dennis Bartels, Wartime Mobilization to Counter Severe Global Climate Change, Human Ecology, 2001).

Challenge: beyond single-factor strategy development

Change, as recognized by climate of change, is acknowledged to be a complex process of which the complexities of climate change offer a valuable model. Edgar Morin (Pour Sortir du XXe Siecle, 1981) and Kenneth Boulding (Ecodynamics; a new theory of societal evolution, 1978) both noted decades ago the dangers of single factor explanations. In Boulding's words:

The evolutionary vision sees human history as a vast interacting network of species and relationships of many different kinds, and there really is no "leading factor" always in the forefront. At times, changes in material technology are the major mutational developments and create niches for social changes of various kinds. At other times, however, intellectual or spiritual movements take the lead and create niches for new material artifacts and technologies;  sometimes climatic changes dominate the scene; or sometimes biological mutations dominate, such as the disease bacteria that caused the great plagues.  (p. 19-20)

The easisest way to make change simpler, however, is to frame it in terms of a single problem -- such as to exclude all other factors as secondary or derivative. Climate change is now in the process of being so framed as the cause of all other problems of change. This framing has just been preceded by the treatment of terrorism in the same manner (Promoting a Singular Global Threat -- Terrorism: strategy of choice for world governance, 2002). Terrorism was framed as the key problem for many decades to come.

Curiously, rather than the intelligence services being complicit in this framing process, and withholding relevant information (as in the case of terror), it is now any scientist with some knowledge of climate change -- thereby excluding complementary perspectives in a similar exercise in groupthink (Groupthink: the Search for Archaeoraptor as a Metaphoric Tale: missing the link between "freedom fighters" and "terrorists", 2002). And somehow it has been possible to pass over the truly dramatic demonstration of the failures of collective expertise as so recently evident in the financial crisis and its economic consequences (Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering: "credit crunch" focus as symptom of a dangerous mindset 2008).

Does the warning in the much-cited quote reported by Ron Suskind (Without a Doubt, The New York Times, In The Magazine, 17 October 2004) -- regarding an exchange with an aide in the decision-making circle of President Bush -- now apply to the shift from "terrorism" to "climate change":

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Ironically it is this "flexible" attitude that might be understood as a perverted comprehension of the climate of change.

Challenge: possibilities of "unthinkable" solutions

At the time of the Cold War, much was made of the challenging strategic realism of "thinking the unthinkable" in the face of nuclear disaster and nuclear deterrence, notably through the work on the unthinkable by acclaimed futurist Herman Kahn (Thinking about the Unthinkable in the 1980s, 1985) who had earlier coined the phrase (Thinking About the Unthinkable, 1962). Recently use of the phrase in relation to current strategic challenges has been upgraded in relation to terrorism by Jonathan Stevenson (Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: harnessing doom from the Cold War to the Age of Terror, 2008).

Arguably, through his appropriately acclaimed documentary, Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006) went some way to thinking the unthinkable -- conveniently downplayed as simply "inconvenient". Perhaps more thought should be given to the challenges of rendering digestible the unthinkable and recognizing some of the associated issues, as explored here:

Curiously there is very little effort to "think the unthinkable" in the face of the challenges seemingly represented by climate change -- surely a comparable strategic challenge to global, if not national, security, given the purported risks. One striking exception is the use of the phrase by Lydia Dotto (Thinking the Unthinkable: civilization and rapid climate change, 1987) in a report on the early Conference Civilization and Rapid Climate Change (1987) which focuses on the extent to which the phenomenon of climate change was itself denied at that time. As rapporteur she notes that the conference:

set out to bring together the knowledge of scientists, social scientists and humanists on one of the most difficult problems facing humanity -- the threat to civilization posed by events such as overpopulation and nuclear war and the rapid climate changes they induce.

Curiously overpopulation is no longer considered a problem and nuclear attacks are now considered a solution to the problem of global security. On the other hand the phrase "thinking the unthinkable" continues to be used from other perspectives, presumably related to understandings of the climate of change:

In the spirit of "thinking the unthinkable" formal recognition should presumably be given to the seemingly unquestionable constraints of:

Within such constraints, one possibility illustrative of the "unthinkable", is

This seeks to make the point -- by a reductio ad absurdum (a pun if there ever was one) -- that more careful consideration should be given to such constraints and the degree to which they should be questioned. Some earlier efforts in that direction advocated more creative use of metaphor:

Efforts to change current mindsets in relation to climate change, such as that of the Pentagon study by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall (Imagining the Unthinkable: an abrupt climate change scenario and its implications for United States national security. 2003) do not adequately question ("unthink") the conventional cognitive processes through which they are framed, as argued here:

Specifically the challenge would appear to be the possibility of a new self-reflexive psychoactive engagement with the environment:

Challenge: unrecognized role of people power in times of systemic crises

Beyond the change of cognitive and behavioural patterns expected of people, it is curious that in the anticipation of systemic crises relatively little recognition is accorded to the most basic resource on which people are forced to rely -- when bereft of institutional and societal support structures and conventionally-recognized sources of energy.

This is notable in media coverage of any disaster -- as typically associated with the tangible consequences of climate change -- but goes unrecorded in analyses of the productivity of a country or of its energy resources. This resource has been explored more extensively in the following:


This summary highlights the need to reframe the exigencies of responding to climate change (as they are increasingly narrowly defined in practice) within a new and more open climate of change -- one which elicits a more creative spectrum of responses to the broader set of challenges of which climate change is but a symptom. Note the exercise, in the light of this consideration, in Climate Change as a Metaphor of Social Change: systemic implications of emissions, ozone, sunlight, greenhouse and overheating (2008).

Climate change may indeed engender a climate of change -- as in times of any crisis. The financial crisis has certainly engendered a climate of change. However it is obviously ridiculous to misrepresent all crises as crises of climate change (through metaphor) -- even though they may predispose challenged strategic thinking to frame them in that way, cultivating a climate of opinion supportive of that readily comprehensible view. This would be confirmation of the old adage: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail -- and others should be so persuaded.

The metaphorical confusion might even be seen to be at the core of the campaign leading to the successful election of Barack Obama (The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, 2006) with the slogan We Want Change. These concepts could be fruitfully combined as The Audacity of Change in its widest sense. The challenge of climate change is however that it is effectively an "audacious" interference by the planet in "business as usual" and in the hopes of many to whom Obama appeals. It may indeed "stop change" in the sense evoked by climate of change. Hence a concern that unrealistic hope-mongering might undermine any capacity to enable and benefit from a climate of change:

The currently emergent global civilization has recently been seen as meriting the label Anthropocene Era. It would be regrettable if, after its predicted collapse, it were to be recognized by future historians as the Obscene Era -- in the light of its irresponsible use of its "birth right" (Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006; Jared M. Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, 2005; Chris Clugston, America's Self-inflicted Societal Collapse, Energy Bulletin, 17 September 2008).

Perhaps more embarrassing would be if humanity's behaviour were to be framed by the future as being as laughable as that of King Canute (Ruler of the Waves) in seeking to "stop climate change" -- such as through a can-do "Climate Alliance Network United against Terrestrial Emissions".

What is the "unthinkable" in relation to the challenges of civilization -- and when are we going to think it? As recently noted by Andrew Lakoff (From Disaster to Catastrophe: the limits of preparedness, SSRC, 11 June 2006), Kahn indeed invented a method for 'thinking about the unthinkable' that would make planning possible for disasters like Hurricane Katrina, namely scenario development.

Or, rather than problematic exercises like the Report from Iron Mountain (1967), is it a question of unthinking the thinkable in relation to any "pursuit of happiness" associated with the desire for change, as subtler approaches might suggest:

Such considerations are beyond cooptation of the phrase to rethink perceived military challenges of nuclear and biological warfare (see Anthony H. Cordesman, Asymmetric Warfare versus Counterterrorism, 2000).

Or will such subtlety take the form of acceptance of the belief, promoted by faith-based governance, that deity will necessarily intervene in the form of an Act of God -- a spiritual "bailout" when things get too warm? (cf Spontaneous Initiation of Armageddon: a heartfelt response to systemic negligence, 2004).

The serious consequence of the current play on words between climate of change and climate change highlights that for some any such bailout in fact represents a much desired change of climate.


Jack Alpert. Thinking About the Unthinkable. 2005 [text]

Dennis Bartels. Wartime Mobilization to Counter Severe Global Climate Change. Human Ecology, 2001, 10 pp. 229-232 [text]

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