Climate Change and the Medical Analogy

Paul C. Stern speaking at "Climate Change Demands We Change Why Aren't We?"
© David Bergman

I’ve often used the insurance analogy to promote action in response to the threat of climate change: since the potential exists for a fire to damage or burn down your home, you’ve probably taken out fire insurance along with removing some of things that might cause the fire and, perhaps, have placed a fire extinguisher or two around. In climate change parlance, these are forms of mitigation and adaptation.

And that’s in response to the mere threat of a problem, not the reality of an oncoming fire. In the case of climate change, according to the IPCC and others, we’ve moved from threat to actual occurrence.

But perhaps there’s a better analogy. At a recent New School conference (and this makes two successive posts emerging out of conferences at The New School, where I teach), Paul C. Stern drew a medical analogy. Climate scientists, he said, could be seen as the equivalent of medical doctors diagnosing a patient, with the patient being the planet. Expanding the analogy, humanity is the guardian of the planet. Having sought multiple opinions, the vast consensus is that the patient is suffering from “a serious progressive disease” -- anthropocentric climate change -- and we, as guardians, need to address the problem.

As with medical diagnoses, one can treat causes or symptoms. With climate change, addressing the causes is termed mitigation, as opposed to addressing the symptoms, which is adaptation. Typically it’s better to work toward mitigation since, if is successful, adaptation is unnecessary. However we don’t know whether it’s too late to effectively prevent catastrophic climate change impacts, and that means we need to work on both mitigation and adaptation.

These metaphors are needed because, as more than one speaker at the conference noted, many people have a hard time getting their heads around the issues of climate change. As Columbia Earth Institute prof Elke Weber stated in the opening panel, “we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the required response.” There are a multitude of goals involved, some of which are conflicting and one result is that we don’t feel in control. In a line I especially liked, she said “there are no silver bullets, only silver buckshot.” Which is another way of saying we need to pursue both mitigation and adaptation.

In the concluding panel, NYU Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy Dale Jamieson expanded on the difficulty we have grasping the complexity and urgency of global warming. “[Climate change] is not just a really hard problem, but an unprecedented problem.” We try to “fit it into boxes,” but because it is unprecedented, that doesn’t often work.

These analogy “boxes” may not fit perfectly, but the fact that climate change is such a “wicked problem” makes analogies all the more important in enabling us to deal with the problem.

A version of this post originally appeared in

Tags: Ecological Economics | Economics | Education | Environmental Policy | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Science | Global Warming Solutions


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