The Catastrophe Narrative

Terminal metaphors compare the scenario of Earth (or humanity) under conditions of man-made climate change, to every-day real-life scenarios (or sometimes fantasy scenarios) having a terminal outcome (i.e. death), or at least a very high probability of terminal outcome (absent urgent action, which as a part of the metaphor is the equivalent of emissions reduction). E.g. Earth as a very ill person who is dying of a dire disease (which is anthropogenic climate change). The great simplicity of such metaphors opens the door wide for bias, because all the scientific hedging and caveats and balanced considerations are typically not promoted into the comparative scenario (indeed this would be very hard in most cases); the metaphor expression simply loses all of these. Hence the emotive message that Earth or humanity (or ‘all life’) simply dies, i.e. a catastrophe narrative in other guise. Such metaphors emerge precisely because of their simplicity and their consequent focused emotive punch regarding the death of the planet (or life or civilization, depending upon the precise form). Some texts including terminal metaphors do maintain a caveat (or more), yet typically outside of the metaphor section itself. Hence the full text is contradictory, emphasizing a high certainty of terminality at one point, yet indicating a lesser probability elsewhere. Quite apart from having the same impact as the above examples of emotively overwhelmed conditionals (i.e. the emotive part of the text, the metaphor, will win out over the more objective / less emotive caveat within public perceptions), a crucial issue regarding emotive narratives is that they are frequently retransmitted shorn of context anyhow. So, in this form the metaphor alone may be built into the next person’s narrative as an embedded quote or paraphrase or whatever. Hence in such cases, the catastrophe narrative escapes into the wild without the partial bounds its original expression contained. See footnotes 1v) suicide, 2e)ii] a giant car heading towards a brick wall, 2u) drunk driver and inevitable car wreck, 3l) ‘Global Warming is Now a Weapon of Mass Destruction’, 4b) We are careering towards the edge of the abyss, 5ac) children in burning house with no help, 5ca) suicidal, 5ga) shiny new car driving too fast on a wet, curvy road, heading straight for a crowd of pedestrians, 5gb) a runaway train headed over the climate cliff as we stoke the engine with more coal to increase its speed. Here is a (short) full example:


F2 [PETER WHISH-WILSON] Australian senator, The Greens, referring to the CO2 parts-per-million in the planetary atmosphere (May 2016): “If 400 ppm was a blood alcohol reading then we would be heading for an inevitable car wreck.”

Please see the attribution reinforcement intros of footnotes 5 and 7 for this complex variant. Likewise for merchants of doubt plus the more minor catastrophe narrative variants voice of innocence, emotive bitters, survivalist and irony.

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4 Responses to The Catastrophe Narrative

  1. Robert Clark says:

    Ms. Curry,
    I say I have proven to you that the new Ice Age began arround 18,000 years ago and the ice beaking off at the poles and the CO2 kept rising at the end of the last Ice Age for a few thousand years is proof positive. Mother nature follows strict rules.

  2. Lichanos says:

    Perhaps I have missed it, but I don’t see much here on what is ultimately driving this flowering of evil, i.e. the catastrophe narrative. I understand that there are many motivations for accepting it, and that it figures in peoples’ psychologies differently depending on who they are, but I find myself puzzled by the persistence of the narrative.

    Things are bad, getting worse, the End is nigh, fifteen years or so, whatever we do is not enough…It’s hard to see why people wouldn’t just get exhausted or disgusted with this view and slough it off. Perhaps that’s what most people do, i.e. those outside of the chattering classes.

    Among people I meet, those who are not engaged with the climate change debate do tend to slough it off as above, while those who are intellectually or emotionally engaged, tend to be bitter and cynical/conspiratorial about it. Not a “sustainable” mental state. Will it just fade away in ten or twenty years when the End Times don’t arrive, and everyone will pretend that they weren’t believing that they would ever come?

    Certainly the willingness of public figures to embrace apocalyptic thinking and to act as though it is scientific analysis bespeaks a degraded view of scientific discourse among the educated elite. But that isn’t anything new, is it? What’s new is the salience of scientific issues in public debate, e.g., pollution, habitat destruction, public health issues related to the environment.

    I find it all rather bizarre.

  3. andywest2012 says:

    Hi Lichanos,

    I think ‘evil’ is an inappropriate word to use. It is a social phenomenon, specifically a culture, and cultures can have upsides and downsides but it is best to view them objectively if we can, whether or not future history might regard some as evil, unless of course some Hitleresque regime or something but we are not in that territory. Regarding persistence, the major religions operate via the same social mechanisms, and they have persisted for millennia. Regarding arisal, it is I presume impossible to tell which culture will arise next from the soup of many competing memes, but for sure we have always been heavily dominated by cultures and they are not likely to go away any time soon, so as the main religions decline other cultures (secular or fringe religions) are likely to arise to take up the slack. Regarding rejection because the whole thing is simply too OTT, then indeed this will be happening with some folks. All cultures are polarizing, so they create resistance as well as adherence, but for those who are adherents they are convinced emotively not via reason, and for deep beliefs reason can become the slave of emotion. You’re absolutely right this is nothing new really, but indeed the entanglement of science and culture, though it has happened many times before (e.g. eugenics and national socialism), is becoming more high profile; perhaps in the long term this will lead to better understanding of our weakness (and the fragility of science) to cultural hi-jacking. Maybe the post two further down, ‘climate culture’ will give some further insight for you.

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