Using The Language Of Sports To Fight Climate Change Denial

We just endured our 2,021,857th snow storm of the winter here in New York City–or least it seems like we’ve had that many.  With the heavy snows and often frigid temperatures has come the reflexive, “it’s cold/snowing out, climate change is a hoax!!” nonsense.  Fox News has led the “War on Climate Change” (surprised?). Sadly, the more it snows, the more we hear climate change denial from more mainstream and/or apolitical voices, including those of some sportscasters.  Then, the “reality-based”, scientific and media communities come back with the correct, logical responsea cold winter does not disprove climate change.  But it seems to GSB that the fact-based rejoinder, while of course legit, is also a bit cold and dry.  To combat climate deniers, whether they be US Senators from Oklahoma or your Crazy Uncle Phil, use the tried and true sports metaphor.  

(Almost) everyone gets sports analogies: They’re simple, the common language of sports is much easier to get than the sometimes complex verbiage surrounding climate change, and the talking sports tends to bring people together (unless you’re at a pub near an English football match). Yes, sometimes they’re overused, especially by certain clueless bosses, but, in some cases, the well-placed sports metaphor does the trick.

Dealing with climate change deniers can be one of those cases. Why? Well, climate change is often an uncomfortable topic to bring up, especially if you’re in a conversation with someone you think/know is a climate change denier.  Even if you’re well-versed in the science behind climate change, it’s hard to connect with someone who likely doesn’t want to hear about the science (even if they claim they do).  Sports, one of the true common denominators of life (a 2011 ESPN study showed that 72% of Americans identify as sports fans), and is something most folks will get, including climate change deniers.

So let’s use sports as a way to make our point that one cold winter in one part of the world does not at all disprove climate change.  We can use any number of sports; football for starters.

This metaphor comes courtesy of Denver meteorologist Mike Nelson, in the run-up to the Super Bowl:  “The climate is changing/warming due to increased greenhouse gases. However, there is a big difference between weather and climate. Weather is one play in a football game. Climate is the history of the NFL. Climate change is adding Peyton Manning to your offense (the externality that changes the status quo) (remember, this was before the Super Bowl!).  Adapting that metaphor to deal with the unusually cold winter, you could add something like, with the Super Bowl result in mind “Now Peyton Manning will throw a bad pass or two in a game–as we saw in the Super Bowl.  And we can have a cold winter once in awhile.  But, over time, Peyton Manning is going to win a ton of games for you and over time, the planet is warming. 

You prefer baseball?  Even easier!  The comparison goes like this:  Climate is the history of baseball from 1869, weather is one at bat.  Adding steroids to baseball was analogous to humans adding massive quantities of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) to the atmosphere.  The baseball result, inflated home run records, was analogous to climate change.  We have a climate on steroids.  The difference is that, with steroids testing in baseball, no one has threatened the Ruth/Maris record, much less the dirty McGwire/Sosa/Bonds totals.  We’ve yet to take the steroids (GHGs) out of the climate system.

Sosa McGwire Cleveland

Sammy Sosa (l) listens as Mark McGwire (c, with glasses) testifies in Congress in 2005 about steroids use in Major League Baseball.  Sosa denied using steroids; McGwire didn’t answer.  Years later McGwire admitted to using steroids. (Photo Credit: Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“But what about the cold weather”, you ask.  Well, even during their great seasons, McGwire, Sosa and Bonds struck out!  Tell THAT to Uncle Phil (who I’m sure can’t stand McGwire/Sosa/Bonds!) the next time it gets cold and/or snows.

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7 thoughts on “Using The Language Of Sports To Fight Climate Change Denial

  1. It ALWAYS boils down to language. The side that controls the “words” controls the message. I hope sports analogies can help correct the problems in communications. After all, while we’re having a cold, wet, snowy winter on the east coast of the U.S. there’s a drought in California, record heat in Australia (with wild fires) and crazy extremes in “weather” are symptoms of changes in overall “climate.”

  2. Thanks for the comment, Candy. Yep, language is CRUCIAL to understanding a complex topic. And that’s why it’s incumbent on folks advocating for a strong response to the climate crisis to also not overreact or overstate the case when there’s unusually hot weather. In other words, one hot day or week is as inconclusive as one cold winter. It’s weather-as-part-of-the-long-term-climate-trend that’s important.

  3. In an interesting phenomena this year in the NFL, more teams won than lost. Just as we know that the same number of teams won that lost in a season, we also know that the world’s average temperature change is not more than one degree in either direction. When one area is hot, another is cold. Period. The only real changes relate to the average distance of the earth from the sun, due to changes in elliptical orbit, the heat radiated from the sun, and the greenhouse effect from an increase of gasses in the atmosphere. Obviously the oceans, which at 75 percent of the earths surface can hide or release enormous pools of heat. So the comment that it is a warm or cold winter in one region tells very little about the earth’s average temperature. This is 6 grade science, so clearly those in denial that the atmosphere filled with gases has not had a warming effect have the intelligence of less than a six grade child!
    Similarly, just because the average temperature of the earth has not changed statistically in the last twenty years, the average temperature is still one degree higher than 1900 and presumably some other effect is offsetting the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One degree does not sound like a lot, but the ice age was attributed to a 5 degree temperature swing? Clearly this post is superfluous as I am guessing very few of those in denial would be reading such a site, but felt that stating the obvious is never a bad idea. Oh by the way, my science knowledge is barely above sixth grade, so i am sure I have oversimplified the case …when I went to school we still believed the sun rotated around the earth….although perhaps some still believe so!

  4. John, great comment. Hopefully 6th grade science teachers (and those in lower grades) will provide instruction in climate science. A couple of thoughts on your comment:

    1. Actually, average earth temperature has increased steadily over the last 130 years, including the last 20, per NASA (and many other groups): http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012-temps.html.

    2. Heat radiated from the sun has stayed pretty static during the recent centuries, with solar energy declining slightly over the last 50-75 years. Also if solar energy/activity was the cause of climate change, you’d see tremendous warming in the outer atmosphere (closer to the sun). But temperatures in the outer atmosphere have stayed the same.

    3. Earth is not getting closer to the sun–nor, per NASA, is it’s orbit really elliptical (I thought it was elliptical, too)…”Despite what you learned in school about Earth’s ‘elliptical’ orbit around the Sun, that elliptical orbit is pretty close to being circular (not the extended oval you see in most books). The change of seasons is mainly the result of the tilt of Earth’s invisible spin axis, which is inclined 23.5 degrees in comparison to the axis of the Sun. Sometimes Earth’s axis is tilted toward the Sun and sometimes away from it — and somewhere in between for the rest of the year. It is this tilt ­ combined with the motion of the Earth around the Sun ­ that causes more or less light to fall on one hemisphere or the other during each of the seasons. This means that the amount of sunlight falling directly on a parcel of Earth changes throughout the year. It also means that days get longer or shorter, causing the Sun to warm part of the Earth for longer and shorter periods of each day.”

    4. Not that you mentioned it but some deniers say that climate change (and the warming of the oceans in particular) is due to the earth’s core getting hotter. But that would mean the deep ocean would be warming faster than the surface. But the opposite is the case.

    Per IPCC, NASA, NOAA and other bodies investigating climate change, most of the warming observed since the mid 1800s is human-caused.

  5. Agreed. The science is clear on this subject that human causes have increased temperature more than what they otherwise would have been. What do you know about the variability argument? Does the science also suggest that there is increased variability say in the US?

  6. These sports analogies are good ones, and have been used for some time in climate science circles. The only trouble with the analogy is that at some point, (perhaps already passed) climate change become irreversible. In your analogy, you say we have yet to take the steriods out of the climate system….. it’s true – but with climate change we can’t just wait around ‘tll the problem becomes visible. If we do, there may be no turning back. The other trouble with the analogy is that steroids make for more spectacular sports – so it’s possible that not all fans will see steroids as a huge negative – where there’s very little doubt that climate change will have wide ranging negative impacts. What would be the sports analogy of irreversible, negative changes (like a major shoulder injury to a quarterback – or a pitcher’s lost hand). I am supportive of anything that brings climate change into the discussion – and particularly if it makes a personal connection. Still I am concerned about analogies that understate the critical importance of the decisions we are making.

  7. Hi Matt: Thanks for the thoughtful comment and welcome to GSB! I’ll will try and address your points.

    On climate change having become irreversible: Seems to me that, yes, at least some human caused climate change is irreversible–or at least irreversible for hundreds of years. The recent IPCC report gets into the irreversibility idea, as summarized here: http://qz.com/129122/the-worlds-best-scientists-agree-on-our-current-path-global-warming-is-irreversible-and-getting-worse/. The question is, HOW irreversible and what can be reversed if humanity moves towards decarbonization–and how fast does humanity need to decarbonize. I’m no climate scientist (rather a keen but lay-person observer) but I’d say we’re woefully/critically/dangerously behind in our efforts to get to renewables, greater energy efficiency, less waste, etc. But I also think this generation and the next have significant opportunities to get things right so that the worst effects of the climate train wreck are avoided. Will we make those changes? And am I right that those changes can stave off the worst case? Stay tuned.

    On waiting around until the problem gets visible: I’m not suggesting this at all. In fact, I believe the opposite.

    On steroids in sports making them more spectacular: An interesting point, one that MLB tacitly agreed with when they turned a blind eye to the steroid-induced home run barrage of McGwire-Sosa-Bonds-Anderson of the late 90s-early 2000s. Baseball had lost a ton of fans due to the work stoppage of ’94-’95 and the missed World Series of ’94. So home runs brought fans back (“chicks dig the long ball”). I’m sure there’s still a segment of the population who just wants to see more records broken, but it seems to me there’s a bigger segment who wants to see clean(er) sports.

    On the sports analogy of the “lost hand”: For irreversibility, I think you’ve got it! As a Jets fan of a “certain age”, I might use the knee injuries to one Joe Willie Namath as both irreversible to his career and also, in some respects, to the whole dang franchise. My analogies (or are they metaphors?) were ways to use sports to get climate deniers/skeptics/disinteresteds to understand the difference between weather and climate.

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