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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The differential impacts of metaphor on climate doomism Johnstone, Caitlin


In the face of the growing threat of the climate crisis, concerns have emerged around the notion of climate doomism. Doomism refers to the belief that it is now too late to take ameliorative action to avert catastrophic climate change. The end result of this view is comparable to the result of climate scepticism; doomism produces inaction. In this thesis, I investigate the possibility that common metaphors used to describe the climate crisis could inadvertently promote climate doomism. I hypothesise that metaphors which characterise climate change as a binary switch, from a non-impacted world to an impacted world (e.g., we are heading for a climate change cliff edge) are more likely to foster doomism than metaphors that characterise the crisis as an ongoing process (e.g., we are navigating the climate change minefield). Similarly, I hypothesise that metaphors which do not feature an active human agent are more likely to promote doomism than metaphors which foreground the role of human participants. I test these hypotheses using an empirical survey-based methodology. Participants read a brief paragraph which characterises the climate crisis as either a cliff edge or a minefield. The paragraphs are further manipulated to either foreground the role of a human agent or omit this agency. After reading the paragraphs, participants are asked three questions intended to assess feelings of urgency, agency, and feasibility in relation to the climate crisis. Doomism is defined as a high report of urgency, paired with a low report of feasibility and/or agency. I find no significant impact of the condition manipulations on urgency and agency scores. However, the minefield metaphor is seen to significantly increase the participants’ perception of feasibility as compared to the non-metaphorical control condition. That is, participants in this condition are significantly more likely to believe that the climate crisis can be successfully addressed. Similarly, participants who see human agency foregrounded are significantly more likely to report high feasibility scores than participants in the control condition. By increasing feasibility scores, these metaphorical presentations reduce feelings of climate doomism. I discuss the implications of these findings for climate change communicators.

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