If you type ‘the planet has a fever’ into Google, it will return 3,120,000 results. And none of them are about Peggy Lee. Or even Aerosmith’s later song with the same name.
It’s famous because Al Gore said it. But what does it mean? I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to deconstruct the misleading use of symbols in climate communications–so far we’ve looked at polar bears, Antarctic ice and sea level. This is a related exercise, but it’s about mental images.
If you’ve got a fever, you’re sick. You need to do something. (I still can’t remember–is it feed a cold and starve a fever or vice-versa?) This is exactly what Al Gore said when he addressed Congress in 2008.
“The planet has a fever,” Gore said. “If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don’t say, `Well, I read a science fiction novel that told me it’s not a problem.’ If the crib’s on fire, you don’t speculate that the baby is flame retardant. You take action.”
I don’t know if he was the first, but he certainly wasn’t the last. The phrase has been picked up and bandied about everywhere.
But Earth is not human. Anthropomorphizing it really means we can’t talk about it accurately and honestly. It doesn’t breathe, go to the bathroom or watch TV.
To say it has a fever means that you know what the right temperature is. Do we know that about this planet? That’s a serious question, by the way–I’m not being rhetorical. I haven’t seen anyone say that the global mean temperature cannot exceed 17 degrees Celsius or we melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. Typing ‘best temperature for Earth into Google returns 26 million results–and slightly fewer answers. Most of them are variations on ‘I don’t know.’
To compare a planet to a sick human really reduces the level of discussion you can have about it. Especially if objecting to the question gets you labeled a flat-earther denialist.
But it’s an effective way of controlling the discussion and the agenda. Once you say something like that, the immediate question that pops into peoples’ minds is ‘How do we cure the fever?’ How do we fix this indeed?
When the issue is framed in this way, we don’t even discuss climate change or global warming any more. We start defining what type and level of medicine we need.
It’s brilliant corporate communications. It takes command of the issue, defines the parameters of legitimate discussion and cuts the ground from underneath people who would even question basic assumptions. Absolutely brilliant.
And absolutely despicable. A debate born from scientific discovery with consequences that will affect every living soul on this planet gets hijacked for a silly game based on an inadquate metaphor. And it is done intentionally, to paint opposition as those who want the planet to stay sick.
There are variations that are every bit as bad. Some say those skeptical of part or all of the science are like smokers waving away the X-rays the doctor brings of their lungs. Or like people with high cholesterol justifying their next cheeseburger.
Those could actually be worse, as they imply death by inattention and ignorance. And, like the simpler fever, it changes the conversation and our perception of those engaged in it.
A lot of people want to talk about global warming in ways that don’t involve science. They use analogies, metaphors and plenty of hyperbole. They say that it’s because we don’t understand science.
I think instead it’s because the science is inadequate for their cause. Not that it’s wrong, not that it’s stupid. It just isn’t finished yet. We’re still in the data gathering phase, having developed new tools over the past 30 years. We’ve found defects in previous data collection methods, most famously by our host here.
We don’t need substitutes for the science. We need the real thing.