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Third Story – Spring/Summer 2013
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Climate Change and Extreme Weather
VOLUME 27, NUMBER 3, SPRING/SUMMER 2013             

Climate Change and Extreme Weather
By John H. Tibbetts                                                                       back to main story  

Steriods and carbon dioxide – the wisdom of metaphor

Americans like sports metaphors.
“That’s a slam dunk.”
“You need to step-up to the plate.”
“They’re playing hardball.”

Metaphors are colorful and vivid, helping us find threads of meaning in a confusing world. When we use a metaphor, we try to translate an abstract idea into something familiar, concrete, and dynamic. Sports metaphors are especially powerful because they clearly express action when there seems to be so little.

Climate scientists have long used metaphors to describe global warming. The term “greenhouse effect” helps us visualize how the atmosphere captures a portion of the sun’s energy. Carbon dioxide, in turn, is called a “greenhouse gas.”

These metaphors are effective cognitive aids, allowing us to visualize a process that can’t be seen directly by the naked eye. But metaphors can mislead and over-simplify. So their potential effectiveness must be balanced against their potential for misuse.

These days, scientists and science journalists are using a sports metaphor to explain how global warming ­enhances the likelihood of weather-related disasters.

Carbon dioxide is one of the “steroids of heat-trapping gases” that increase global warming, according to a January 2013 public-review draft of a federal National Climate Assessment report to be finalized in late 2013.

In March 2013, members of an Australian government commission called on to address climate change and adaptation said that the nation should begin preparations for a ­“climate on steroids.”

Is an athlete injecting steroids similar to industrial society’s emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? In each case, adding certain chemicals to a particular system (a human body, the Earth’s atmosphere) significantly increases that system’s capacity to reach extreme events more frequently. 

Perhaps the most famous example of steroid use occurred from the mid-1990s to 2007 in major-league baseball. Remember Mark McGuire? After smashing home-run records in the late 1990s, he retired in fame and glory. But years later he confessed to having used steroids to increase his performance.

When McGuire was healthy during the first six years of his career, he had about 600 plate appearances and 33 home runs per year. Each time he came to the plate he had about a 1-in-18 likelihood of hitting a homer. But during 1996 to 1999, McGuire averaged 61 homers per year, raising his chances of hitting home runs to 1-in-10.

Using steroids allows athletes to build and repair muscle mass. It won’t allow a talented player to hit a homer every time at the plate. But in McGuire’s case, his steroid use allowed him to nearly double his likelihood of experiencing an extreme event—hitting a home run—whenever he batted.

Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, meanwhile, increases humanity’s likelihood of experiencing extreme events such as floods and storms.

As the surface of the Earth warms, it stimulates evaporation from the oceans, lakes, and soils. The atmosphere, then, becomes warmer and moister, creating conditions for more frequent and extreme weather: storms, floods, and heat waves. Ice sheets are also melting faster as the Earth warms, raising global sea level, which is increasing the likelihood of coastal flooding.

So, is the steroid metaphor an effective one?

“Different stories connect with different people,” says Chris Field, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University. “And people like baseball.”

But a home run is not a risk, he says. The most important thing for the public to understand, he says, is that climate change increases the likelihood of extreme weather events.

A major flood is dangerous and potentially deadly. A hurricane ­destroys homes and damages communities. But the steroid/sports metaphor, Field says, lacks this element of risk. “A home run,” he adds, “is a good thing.”

Not if you’re the opposing pitcher. 

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Last updated: 8/20/2013 10:40:56 AM
Third Story – Spring/Summer 2013


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