Climate Cancer Montage

By Any Other Name: Climate Cancer

[Editorial/Opinion] Simon Sinek is not the kind of pundit I would usually pay much attention to, I hope he’ll forgive my frankness. Ex-adman, “motivational speaker,” adviser to corporations, someone who can use the word “messaging” without embarrassment — I’m already bored and suspicious. But it’s undeniable that there’s something we can learn from just about everybody, and Mr Sinek gave me some chewy food for thought lately.

He was quoted in a recent online article, saying that the language used to name and describe the destabilisation of our climate is not serving us well. We know so many troubling facts, yet it seems so hard to get any traction or action. Why aren’t people more alarmed? Why such resistance to necessary changes?

We have, so Sinek claims, a marketing problem. We’re not “marketing” the gravity or urgency of the situation in a convincing way, and that’s contributing to denial and inaction at every level of our society.

This is the kind of talk that usually has me running for the nearest exit; but after reading a little further I found Mr Sinek’s proposal starting to win me over. Here’s my understanding of (and maybe a bit of expansion on) his point.

You might be surprised by the history of climate/carbon studies. This is not a new idea. We didn’t just figure this out yesterday. Speculation about a relationship between coal burning and climate first appears in the literature in 1896, followed by periods of interest or concern in the 1930’s and the 1950’s.

By 1960, CO2 concentrations had been measured for long enough that a steady rise was well documented, and military/intelligence wonks were starting to worry. By the 1970’s, computers were being used to model the climate, and as public perception of human impacts on the biosphere sharpened, concern grew about the potential consequences of carbon emissions. Would greenhouse gases heat up the atmosphere? or would particulate emissions “darken the sun” and cool the planet down?

By 1988 the question was decisively answered, the warming trend was well established by solid data, and it had already acquired its two canonical labels. Wallace Broeker, geochemist and climate researcher, had coined the phrase “global warming” in a 1975 paper, and it stuck. The other popular name for the phenomenon, “climate change,” was established even earlier when Gilbert Plass published a 1956 paper on “Climatic Change”.

And that is how we come by the phrases most often used today: “global warming” and “climate change.”

The problem, says Sinek, is that global warming as a phrase doesn’t begin to convey the urgency of the situation. For modern Anglophones, warm is a positive word. We like warm weather, warm personalities, warm and cosy slippers; we warm to someone when they win our affection.

Climate change isn’t much better. In our society with its linear, progressivist, techno-optimistic view of history, change is usually a positive concept. Stability is often dismissed as stagnation, whereas change means novelty, dynamism, and probably improvement. “A change is as good as a rest,” says the old proverb; change is good for us.

So climate change sounds like it might be a good thing (we’d all like better weather, right?) … and global warming sounds downright huggable, not scary. Worse than that, it’s accurate only globally and on average, not locally and specifically; and this undermines certainty and delights contrarians.

Injecting more energy (heat) into chaotic systems like the climate results not in uniformly rising temperatures everywhere at all times, but in more extreme, less predictable, more rapidly changing conditions all over the map. That could mean unprecedented ice storms at point A, and unprecedented heat waves at point B — as climate scientists have long since got tired of pointing out. Using global warming as the official name of our problem plays right into the hands of the skeptics (both paid and amateur); like Senator Jim Inhofe in his famous Snowball Stunt, they gleefully claim that localised extreme cold weather “proves” global warming is a hoax.

Sinek suggests we need a new name for our problem, and after some consideration I endorse his proposal. He thinks it’s time we started talking about climate cancer.

Here are some reasons why the metaphor works, and why it might help people to understand our situation better.

Cancer is what happens when normal cells go haywire — start reproducing too fast, too large, unpredictably, randomly. That’s exactly what our climate is now doing: what used to be stable, fairly predictable global weather systems are in overdrive, exceeding normal bounds and expectations — getting weird and dangerous.

Cancer is often a physiological response to toxicity; it can be caused by exposure to many different chemical compounds, especially the complex synthetics produced by industry. Our climate is also responding to a kind of toxicity: overexposure to CO2 — which is also a byproduct of industrial activity. A healthy system has been “poisoned” and is spinning out of control.

Everybody knows what cancer is like. Everybody thinks of it with fear and dread. Everybody has lost at least one friend or family member to it. We know that at first the signs are often subtle or even imperceptible; then they become uncomfortable but deniable; but if left untreated the condition usually deteriorates at an accelerating pace, becoming seriously painful and/or disfiguring and then fatal. Everybody knows that most cancers have a very ugly endgame.

Everybody knows that therapies for cancer are unpleasant — seriously nasty, even — but the alternative to treatment is usually worse. We know that treatment doesn’t always work, or doesn’t work perfectly — but mostly people think it’s worth a try. Treatment can extend life, buy time, reduce suffering. We know that it takes courage, discipline, and a fierce desire to live, if a cancer patient is to survive both the treatment and the disease.

As Julia Steinberger says of the battle to mitigate and slow climate cancer: “This will not be fun, or fulfilling, or a worthy adventure of self-discovery, or a cute feel-good movie, or a task of personal validation.” It will, in fact, take courage, discipline… and a fierce desire to live.

Perhaps the most important thing we all know about cancer is that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. We know that failing to respond to a reliable diagnosis, taking no action, is a dangerous form of procrastination. The clock is ticking, if you’ve been told you have cancer.

The climate cancer clock is also ticking, and we’ve been ignoring it steadfastly for decades… despite multiple, reputable, careful diagnoses. The metaphor fits.

Climate change and global warming are far too tame, too soothing, too un-threatening to describe what is going on already, today, all around us. They are, essentially, polite euphemisms. I suggest that we might want to consider using this new name instead (thank you, Mr Sinek), when we write and speak about the great challenge of our time. Climate cancer conveys better, more effectively the heartbreak, the fear, and above all the urgency that so many of us feel.

[Banner images: NOAA photo of Hurricane Michael, 2019; images of invasive cancer from the paper “Triple-negative invasive breast carcinoma: the association between the sonographic appearances with clinicopathological feature” by Jia-Wei Li et all, Scientific Reports 2018]

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