2010-12-03 09:08:08Great climate metaphors
John Cook


UPDATE! There is now a website specially for collecting climate metaphors:


So rather than hide our light under a bushel, if you come across a great metaphor, I suggest you go post it there so climate communicators everywhere can benefit from it!

I'm starting a thread to collect great climate metaphors I've encountered in my travels - useful when you're talking to somebody and need to express the science in a short, pithy line that the average person can relate to.

For starters, illustrating the difference between weather and climate:

"Weather is like CNN and climate is like the History Channel"
2010-12-03 09:09:07Another good one from Scott Mandia about short-term trends
John Cook

If I measure the height of my six year old at the end of every year he is definitely exhibiting a growing trend. If I measure him at the end of every day for one week I might see no trend at all. I certainly cannot tell the world that my son has stopped growing!
2010-12-03 10:59:06
Andy S


Two favourite metaphors are:

a) The waves on a beach versus an incoming tide model, which works nicely as weather/climate analogy. It captures the cyclic nature of both. Waves are unpredictable from minute-to-minute yet reliable tide tables can be made for years in advance.

b)  The old chestnut that says just because forest fires were caused naturally in the past doesn't mean that they can't be started by arsonists today. It's a little trite but I have used it effectively once or twice with those people who get confused with this.

A good metaphor is needed for the consilient nature of climate (and other) science. Neither brickwalls nor multi-stranded ropes quite do the trick of illustrating this simply and effectively.

2010-12-03 19:33:05
Glenn Tamblyn


One I have thought of for the 'CO2 is a trace gas' argument

So adding sugar to your cup of coffee won't change the taste because it is mainly water?

2010-12-03 19:57:02Loaded dice analogy


I like the "loaded dice" analogy which Jim Hansen (and others) have been using to illustrate the changes in the likelihood for e.g. warm seasons:

For the 80's a dice with two red (warm), two blue (cold) and two white ("average") sides is used to show that the likelihood for a warm, a cold or an average season was pretty much even.

For today, the dice has four red sides and only one each in blue and white. This is just a bit more (67%) likelihood than we already have (60%).

The neat thing about this analogy is, that it can be used live during a talk about climate change to demonstrate what various graphics/charts imply via their bars or lines. In fact, I used this recently and it worked pretty well to drive the point home (I had two large dice made of foam, where one had been repainted ("loaded") accordingly).


2010-12-06 21:14:53Classic from Richard Alley
John Cook


In the first 60 seconds, Richard Alley explains Milankovitch cycles to a hostile Republican senator. Absolutely classic! Alley has always been a personal hero of mine, he's just such a character. This video has taken him up another notch in my estimation:

2010-12-07 03:41:23


On models (taken from Prof. Wasserburg):


As philosopher Alfred Korzybski once stated, “the map is not the territory”; the “map” is what we think resembles reality, and we should use it as a guide in our thinking and actions. One is well advised, when traveling to a new territory, to take a good map and then to check the map with the actual territory during the journey.


2010-12-07 17:07:01Unfortunately, this one was mine
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

I believe it was Trenberth who said that global warming has increased the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere by 4%.

That 4% increase is the equivalent of adding the entire volume of Lake Erie held in suspension in the air (if I did my math right).


No wonder when it rains, it pours.

2010-12-13 03:07:29
Bob Guercio
Robert Guercio
Climate is what you expect and weather is what you get.
2010-12-20 09:29:49


When you make a decision to buy or sell stock you never, ever base it on a few days of its falling because that may be a temporary fluctuation that could go back to normal or even rise some more. You should base your decision on two things. A 30 day chart of your stock activity and, more importantly, extensive knowledge about the overall health of the company.

Likewise, when making a decision about the validity of Global Warming, you must have at least 30 years of information in order to make sure that what is happening is a long term trend and not a temporary fluctuation.

2010-12-20 17:50:34Two good metaphors
James Wight


Two good metaphors from "Dr. Jeff's Blog on the Universe":

If the Earth's 10-billion-year lifespan were shrunk down into the 75-year lifespan of a human, the dramatic rise in CO2 and all the associated changes have happened in the last 35 seconds of the 13,697th day.

Alcohol is a trace chemical in blood, but if it increases from 300 ppm to 1,000 ppm it has noticeable effects!

2010-12-21 18:49:00 Rebuttal to 'skeptics' "water vapor is more potent than Carbon Dioxide" argument.


Imagine two different campfires. One is a large bonfire (Representing water vapor.) and the other is a modest campfire (Carbon Dioxide.) right besides it.

Now imagine that you keep adding fuel to the smaller campfire. What will obviously happen is that the smaller of the two fires will eventually get bigger.

In like manner, adding Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere will increase the Earth's temperature regardless of how large a role water vapor plays.

2010-12-27 21:27:04Quote I read on twitter
John Cook

Saying snow disproves global warming is like saying birds disprove gravity
2010-12-29 09:38:07Quote from Climate Progress
John Cook


CP comment:

Weather is small scale and climate is large scale. Often things become much more predictable at larger scales. If I dump a load of sand over a cliff, I can’t tell you where each and every grain of sand will go, but I’m certain there is going to be a pile of sand at the bottom of the cliff.

2010-12-29 11:42:19I think you mean weather is micro processes and climate is macro processes
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

Coming from a mapping background:

  •   Small scales show larger areas at a smaller resolution, i.e., 1:1,000,000 or smaller are typical for a coastal surface navigation product chart
  •   Large scales show a smaller area in greater detail, i.e., 1:50,000 or larger is often used for harbor and approach charts

Therefore, the "bigger" the number the smaller the scale.

So it might be more appropriate to refer to it as:

"Weather is large scale and climate is small scale; large scale is up close and personal while small scale affects everyone"

With the greater data encompassed in the smaller-scale product, more trends can be discerned above the noise.


The same goes in satellite imagery analysis:  if one is windowed in too far (zoomed in to too large a scale), it is often difficult to fully decipher something.  Once you window out to a smaller scale, the noise goes away (the picture becomes more refined and less grainy) and voila!

The best recon imagery allows one to read the headline of the newspaper the guy sitting on the park bench is reading.  But it's only until you window out to a small enough scale can you tell if he's sitting in Red Square or in Central Park...


Sorry to be a such a major buzz-kill

2010-12-30 10:18:30Metaphor on time lags and climate inertia
John Cook


Another nice quote I read on an email list:

  • I think that one of the most important education tasks we could take up would be to get more mainstreamers to understand the immense lags we're dealing with.  Far too many of them think that if we cut back on CO2 emissions very quickly that the atmospheric level of CO2 would plummet to pre-industrial levels, and we'd be in the clear.  It's like a two pack a day smoker thinking that after 30 years of abusing his body with cigarettes that he can quit and have zero cancer risk over someone who's never smoked.
2011-01-13 22:44:02Can I suggest the following analogy for the “natural CO2 emissions” rebuttal?
James Wight


If you want to know someone’s financial situation, you don’t just look at their income. You also have to look at their expenditure.

2011-01-17 11:59:13Naomi Oreskes metaphor for rebutting Ian Plimer's 'CO2 comes from volcanoes' argument
John Cook


Just got the foreword for our book from Naomi Oreskes. Nice metaphor on Plimer's volcanic CO2:

Plimer speculates that invisible, undetected, underwater volcanoes are responsible for the increased atmospheric CO2.  Besides the obvious point that he is asking us to believe in something that no one has seen, felt, or observed in any way shape or form— he asks us to disbelieve what scientists have seen and measured.  It’s a bit like asking us to believe in Santa Claus after we have seen mom and dad putting the presents under the tree.
2011-01-17 19:53:38


Reminds me of the line by Groucho Marx (Duck Soup), on being caught in bed with his client's wife:

"Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

2011-01-20 15:11:34just a good quote
Peter Miesler

I know it's not a climate metaphor, but it is too a quote not to share:

"Critics of science ask good questions, even though they tend not to listen to the answers."

2011-02-09 09:49:04If it walks like a duck
John Cook


In an email discussion, Scott Mandia made this point:

If increases in CO2 are not causing modern day global warming then two things must be true:

1.    Something unknown is suppressing the well-understood greenhouse effect (and doing so during massive increases in GHGs).
2.    Something unknown is causing the warming that mirrors the GHE.

So we can accept what we know to be true (AGW) or we accept two unknowns.

This is a good argument. I also like Lou Grinzo's paraphrase of this argument:

If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck then it's some other, undefined animal or thing impersonating a duck that's also mysteriously hiding the real duck.
2011-02-09 11:53:58Whodunit analogy
James Wight


In David Archer's book The Long Thaw, he uses the analogy of a murder mystery where all the evidence points to the butler. You can't convict someone else of the murder - say, the chauffer - without also unconvicting the butler.

2011-02-09 12:32:23Extreme weather and smoking
James Wight


As James Hansen has pointed out, when we talk about extreme weather, different emphases can give the public the impression of either “yes” or “no”, so how can we communicate the subtleties? I suggest an analogy with the link between smoking and cancer.

Can an individual smoker’s death from lung cancer be attributed to their smoking? No. Does smoking increase the risk of lung cancer? Yes. Would that smoker have died from lung cancer if they hadn’t smoked? Probably not.

2011-02-11 04:10:11Another cold, snowy winter in Eastern U.S.
Tom Smerling


So if the earth is warming, why is it again so cold and snowy outside (in the East and Midwest)?

Dr. Jeff Masters (Weather Underground) has an great metaphor for explaining the "Warm Arctic-Cold Continents Pattern."   A warm Arctic and weak North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) alter air circulation patterns.   In particular, the Polar Vortex winds that normally "trap" cold air in the Arctic weaken, allowing cold Arctic air to "escape" southward.  

"This pattern is kind of like leaving the refrigerator door ajar--the refrigerator warms up, but all the cold air spills out into the house."   http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1702

[For further explanation of this pattern, see:

-- NOAA  http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/future/warm_arctic_cold_continent.htm

-- Climate Central's story title "Arctic Paradox:   Warmer Arctic may mean colder weather for some."  http://www.climatecentral.org/gallery/graphics/arctic-paradox-warmer-arctic-may-mean-colder-winters-for-some/, with links to scientific sources.

-- And of course John's excellent http://www.skepticalscience.com/December-2009-record-cold-spells.htm]

2011-02-12 02:04:01"If 98 doctors say my son is ill...."
Tom Smerling


“If ninety-eight doctors say my son is ill and needs medication, and two say ‘No, he doesn’t he is fine.’ I will go with the ninety-eight. It’s common sense – the same with global warming.”   -- Former CA Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger

This one has several features of an effective metaphor:    It 1) explains the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, 2) conjures up a favorable "frame" (parenthood), and 3) comes from surprising source:   the Terminator himself.   (cited in T. Friedman's, Hot, Flat & Crowded, p. 138)

2011-02-22 08:49:51;-)
Peter Miesler

new... and improved, I hope

~ ~ ~

Watching the way “skeptical” groups like Marshall Institute, SPPI, Heartland and their media echo-chamber attack the IPCC makes me think of those long ago Texas Fence Cutting Wars.

These skirmishes were initiated by old time Cattle Baron’s who refused to recognize that the open prairie was disappearing and that fences and cooperation were the unavoidable waves of the future.

2011-02-24 10:46:38Great response to the OISM 31,000 skeptic scientists argument
John Cook

Whose opinions count? I'd turn this around and ask: if your spouse has heart trouble and 10 topnotch heart surgeons tell you an operation is needed, but 30,00 random people sign a petition otherwise, who do you listen to? Even if 10 brain surgeons say no, they are doctors also, but which group matters?
2011-02-25 12:34:18Another good angle on the OISM petition
John Cook


Excerpt from an email from a climate scientist:

  • When I give presentations, I include "imperson-gate" (non-scientists pretending to be scientists) on my top ten list of denialist misconduct.  and I show a slide with a small subset of Oregon Petition signers (all starting with the letter "A" and I tell my audience that I only made it partway through the first letter).  The ones I show all have "MD" or "DVM" after their name.  I tell the audience that I would never pretend to be a medical doctor or veterinarian in order to sign a petition, and that it is actually illegal to falsely pose as a member of one of these professions.  I ask them what they think would happen to me--a physicist with no medical training--if I claimed to be a physician and started providing medical advice or signing prescriptions.  Most people get that.

2011-02-26 19:06:23off topic
Peter Miesler

"imperson-gate" (non-scientists pretending to be scientists)

Oh that's good!  Post material even  {although I would extend it to include non-climatologists pretending to be climatologists.}


This is off topic but if you have links focusing on this, please share

2011-03-17 23:47:54
Glenn Tamblyn


Quote from Paul Watson - Captain of the Sea Shepherd, early founder of Greenpeace

(this is a paraphrase - for the exact quote, listen to episode 6 of 'In Gordon St Tonight' - ABC Australia http://www.abc.net.au/tv/adamhillsIGST/stories/s3159480.htm)

"Worms are more important than People. People need Worms, Worms don't need People. (and other animals). The Earth is like a spaceship. The Worms (and other animals) are the crew. We are just the passengers, along for the ride. The ship can survive without the passengers but not without the crew."

2011-03-19 11:14:44Quote from Democrat rep Inslee at recent hearing
John Cook

Let me address the argument that CO2 is benign because we exhale it. That's about as good an argument as saying a tsunami isn't dangerous because we drink water."
2011-03-29 20:56:14Quote from an email by SkS user 'fingerprinter'
John Cook

Obsession with global mean temperature changes due to a 40% increase in CO2 is a little like a heavy drinker and smoker who continually gets health check ups during their 20s. According to the current focus on global mean temperature, that person would take each positive health check as a green light to not only continue with their lifestyle, but safely assume that they could increase to a pack a day with 12 stubbies in the evening for the foreseeable future, since the doctor said they were in reasonable shape.  

Similarly, the obsession with regional climate projections - i.e. tell us what will happen to Perth in 2036 or we will basically take no action, is analogous to someone being informed that early exposure to UV greatly increases their risk of skin cancer, but fails to take that advice since the doctor cannot tell them where or when the cancer will specifically occur.  This is the second biggest example of leakage- the regional projections.

2011-04-08 14:22:30Possibly the simplest, most intuitive explanation of the difference between weather and climate from John Abraham
John Cook

What I tell people is that I can't tell you whether it will be hotter or colder five days from now but I can tell you it will be hotter in July than in January.  That's the difference between weather and climate.  I know that it isn't quite accurate but it is pretty good and an easy analogy.
2011-04-08 15:06:12


Models are unreliable.

I agree - they are often late for photo-shoots.


The climate has always changed.

Yes, it was a lot wetter in Noah's time.


Greenland was green.

The Oranje-Vrijstaat was orange.


The data shows no clear trend.

From May 31 1911 to April 15 1912 the Titanic's freeboard showed no significant downward trend.

2011-04-20 09:46:11Explaining how much CO2 we emit
John Cook


Borrowed this from Mike Mann:

I like to report co2 emissions in units of adult male elephants. i've found this to be an effective analogy that always gets a laugh--a laugh of nervous sudden awareness--from an audience.

the average American emits roughly 20 metric tons of carbon per year.  That's two very large adult male elephants (I learned this in a talk by Mike Garstang in our Penn State meteo seminar a few weeks ago---Garstang studies communication among elephants in Africa, and how it depends on the properties of the boundary layer; funny what useful information you can learn in a seminar. Garstang had happened to mention, in passing, that a large adult male elephant weights weights as much as 10 tons. I had been mulling over good analogies to use in reporting emissions, and so when he happened to mention this it hit me--this is the perfect unit of carbon emissions).
And this is a very cool resource allowing you to compare CO2 emissions per capita for all the different countries.
2011-04-22 21:05:52
Mark Richardson

[URL=http://denialdepot.blogspot.com/2011/03/memo-to-republicans-dont-bother-voting.html]DenialDepot[/URL] with an excellent one.


Absolutely brilliant IMO :p

2011-04-23 07:27:27More weather vs climate
John Cook



I always describe weather as the environmental conditions that exist right now and climate as the historical average for the date. As climate (averages) changes over time, the probability for specific types of weather changes as well. But there are many other, more clever distinctions made through analogies by colleagues in the American Association of State Climatologists, including:

climate trains the boxer, weather throws the punches
climate is like your baseball batting average, weather is your current time at bat
climate tells you what clothes to buy, weather tells you what clothes to wear
climate is what you expect, weather is what you get
climate is the Dow Jones Average, weather is an individual stock
climate is my personality, weather is my mood today
climate is the tide, weather is the individual wave
climate is the traffic, weather is an individual car

2011-05-02 23:33:17On ceding leadership on clean energy to China....
Tom Smerling


When the conversation turns to the coming "clean energy revolution" -- and how we're missing an opportunity to lead it --  this one-liner from Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat & Crowded always elicits some some knowing smiles and nodding heads:

"If you like buying oil from the Saudis, you'll love buying solar [technology] from the Chinese!"

2011-05-03 00:29:54Smoking analogy helps illustrate many points
Tom Smerling


The smoking analogy seems to be working well with audiences, and not just for explaining the disinformation campaign    

Time lag between cause/effect:  


  • If you wait to stop smoking until you have a tumor, it's too late.


Denial, change:   


  • We're not wired to respond to distant, abstract threats, expecially if it requires changing some habits now to avoid damage later.    Think about how hard it is to persuade teenagers quit smoking because they might get cancer in 20-30 years.



2011-05-14 03:09:41More humor, anybody?
Tom Smerling


I've recently done some experimenting with injecting humor into speeches and interviews.

It's worked great.  Even hostile interviewers/audience members have to laugh, and even against their will they are emotionally "on your side" for a while.  

Appropos to that, I loved logicman's April 8 post  "Models are unreliable.   I agree - they are often late for photo shoots!"

Anybody got some more quick one-liners like that?

2011-05-15 02:18:11One-Liner
John Hartz
John Hartz


"What happens on Mars, stays on Mars."

Note: This is a take-off on a popular US saying, "What happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas."

2011-05-16 12:48:28
Alex C


Don't know if anyone has said this yet, but this should be a bumper sticker (you'll get the pun in a second):

Telling the future by looking at the past assumes that conditions remain constant. This is like driving a car by looking in the rearview mirror.

This would be ideal for anyone who tries to bring up the "climate's changed before" argument.

2011-05-20 14:50:24Explaining chaos
John Cook


Specifically, this is a lovely exchange by Michael Ashley about Svensmark's cosmic ray theory but I just like it to put the chaos argument in perspective:

> With reference to Svensmark, I've come up with a small analogy that I
> have used to try to illustrate the significance of Svensmark's (and
> other denialists) ideas:
> Consider a tree covered with leaves. Suppose that one leaf has become
> detached from the tree and is in the process of falling towards the
> ground, while occasionally being buffeted by small breezes. Suppose
> further that we slow time down so that it takes 100 years for the leaf
> to fall.
> (1) AGW theory is analogous to scientists saying "We think that
> gravity is the most importance force on the leaf, and eventually the
> leaf will hit the ground".
> (2) Svensmark says "I've noticed that leaves have small amounts of
> naturally occurring iron in them, and this iron will be affected by
> the earth's magnetic field and result in the leaf changing course.
> This is much more important than gravity."
> (3) Scientists say to Svensmark "That is a beautiful and ingenious
> theory, but when we crunch the numbers it appears that the magnetic
> forces are too small, and in any case you haven't shown why gravity
> can be ignored."
> (4) Svensmark does laboratory measurements of leaves coated in
> iron-fillings in a vacuum under intense magnetic fields and
> demonstrates a deflection of 0.1 millimeter. He again claims that this
> effect is more important than gravity.
> (5) Scientists reply to Svensmark "An interesting experiment, but you
> are a long way from proving that your hypothesis has any significant
> influence, or that gravity can be ignored". Repeat variations on (4)
> and (5) for 13 years.
> (6) Meanwhile, Plimer says "I look at the overall picture over long
> time periods and it is clear that the tree is full of leaves,
> therefore the leaf is actually falling upwards."
> (7) Paltridge says "I know of many respected scientists who think that
> the hypothesis that gravity has a major effect on the leaf is just
> nonsense."
> (8) Carter says "Look! the leaf slowed its rate of descent just then!
> This falsifies the entire gravity theory of falling leaves."
> Now this analogy isn't perfect, but it is actually rather close to
> what is happening with the climate debate. AGW isn't some random
> hypothesis pulled out of thin air that may or may not be correct. It
> is a direct consequence of very fundamental laws of physics. It is as
> likely that AGW will be proven incorrect as that gravity isn't an
> important effect on falling leaves.

2011-05-25 09:14:12On responding to citations of Spencer, Lindzen, other denier scientists
John Cook


From John Abraham:

"Imagine you have a tumor and you go to a doctor.  That doctor says you have nothing to worry about, go home.  On the way home, you realize that this doctor has made many mistakes with his passed patients... told them they were fine but later they realized they had cancer and those patients have died.
Spencer/Lindzen/Christy are like this doctor.  They have a history of making very serious errors.  Continually they have said, "everything is fine" and it has turned out, time after time, that they were wrong.  They even admit they were wrong.  So, would you listen to one of these doctors or would you listen to a physician who actually has saved patients."
2011-05-25 09:56:03
Dana Nuccitelli

These last two are good.  It's possible that the doctor who is usually wrong is right for once, but it's not bloody likely, especially when his reasoning is crap.

2011-05-30 18:21:47Tidalwaves.
Glenn Tamblyn


I don't know if this a good metaphor, or a bit off-colour. WRT timelags in the climate and the precautionary principle.


"If you live on the coast in a tidal wave prone region, when a large earthquake happens do you head for high ground immediately or do you 'wait and see' if a tidal wave arrives before you start to run?"

2011-05-30 20:50:50


It's off-color. There's too much sex in it.

2011-06-10 03:12:04Lots of climate metaphors at www.ClimateBites.org (beta). Please give us your feedback!!
Tom Smerling


SkS climate communicators:    Please check out our new website, www.climatebites.org, and give us your feedback.   

Its still in beta, but we particularly value feedback -- and contributions -- from SkS'ers, because we see ClimateBites as a kind of a complement or "sister-site" to SkS (we link to SkS throughout , for the underlying science.)

ClimateBites is designed to be a grab bag of language tools.    The core is a growing collection of climate metaphors, soundbites, quotes, imagery, useful for communicating with general audiences.     (Click "Bites" at top menu.    For a sneak peek at what's coming next, click "Tools"._

FYI The site was born out of my frustration, upon leaving NOAA in 2008, at finding language, slides and scripts for translating science effectively to general audiences.    After gathering a bunch of material, colleague Don McCubbin and I decided to share it with other climate communicators.

Please stop by the site, register (you can be the first!) and click "About" at top to tell us what you think!    www.climatebites.org

Thanks, in advance,

Tom Smerling (aka dardas on SkS)