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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Climate pandemic : understanding climate change through the politics of metaphor Wise, Meghan


Climate metaphors are cognitive devices that leverage our knowledge of a more common issue to make sense of a different, more complex issue. In this thesis, I use Conceptual Metaphor Theory and a climate justice lens to examine why a pandemic-based metaphor for climate change offers a more apt and just way of thinking about climate change as a consequence of fossil fuels over other common climate metaphors. In this analysis, I look at three climate metaphors—climate emergency, slow violence and war—through a high-level climate justice lens of right, fair and appropriate. I find the metaphor of emergency too vague to advance a meaningful understanding of climate change’s sociopolitical challenges and overall nature. The metaphor slow violence problematically distorts aspects of climate violence as a matter of vast timescales, rather than an issue of oppressive sociopolitical systems that mask climate harms inflicted on racialized and marginalized populations. War as a climate metaphor is fundamentally unsound due to extensive adversarial, binary and reductionist narratives that tend to create “Us” vs “Them” narratives and opens opportunities for justifying unjust actions to win a “climate war.” I then use these three climate metaphors to help situate and map out the climate metaphor “climate change is a pandemic”—positioning fossil fuels as the virus of a climate pandemic—to demonstrate how a COVID-19 pandemic model helps to capture and convey the urgency, speed, scale and sociopolitical dynamics of climate change. I suggest more research is needed to further understand how a climate pandemic metaphor influences public perceptions of climate change, how it might shape the types of solutions and policies mobilized for climate action and how this metaphor might help, harm or advance climate understanding according to climate justice principles.

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