An Evaluation of Metaphors in Climate Change Discourse




Walsh-Thomas, Jenell Marie

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Anthropogenic climate change is currently one of the biggest threats facing the human population across the globe. Most Americans, however have little understanding of this threat, and as a result may be ill-prepared to make important personal and societal decisions necessary to deal with it. This dissertation explores the practicality, usefulness, and effectiveness of metaphors as a means of enhancing public understanding of climate change. Three sequential studies were conducted to develop, test, and refine a set of science, metaphorical, and ‘science + metaphorical’ explanations of four basic climate change concepts: the frequency of extreme weather events; the increasing rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the enhanced greenhouse effect; and the difference between weather and climate. In the first study, in-depth interviews were conducted with experts (n = 12) to explore the adequacy of the ‘science + metaphorical’ explanations of the climate concepts, each expressed in approximately 520 to 650 word essay. Overall, the experts were intrigued by the metaphors and viewed them as a promising way to explain and connect to lay audiences. The expert feedback was used to revise each of the explanatory essays. In the second study, in-depth interviews were conducted with non-scientists (n = 30) to explore how helpful and clear the essays were to a lay audience. The non-expert participants identified the metaphors as helpful to their understanding of the topic climate change concept. While the non-experts appeared more confident in explaining climate change after reading the short essays, the metaphors were infrequently rearticulated in their improved and more detailed explanations. The essays were edited again to clarify points of confusion identified in these interviews. The third study was an experiment which members of the public (n = 1523) were randomly assigned to read about one climate change concept explained using one of three explanation types (science only, metaphor only, or ‘science + metaphor’). There was some evidence that the ‘science + metaphor’ explanations worked as hypothesized in improving participants’ understanding and increasing belief certainty that climate change is happening. However, the differences observed between explanation types for the four climate change concepts were mostly non-significant. In total, the results of this dissertation suggest that metaphors may be useful in explaining climate change concepts to lay audiences. Additional theoretical and practical implications for the three studies are also discussed.



Environmental studies, Analogy, Attitude change, Climate change, Information processing, Metaphors, Science communication