At a news conference a few days ago, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced that July will go down as the warmest month on record. And it won't be remotely close.
"We don't have to wait for the end of the month to know this," he said, speaking on July 27. "Short of a mini ice age over the next days, July 2023 will shatter records across the board." Continuing, he said, "Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning."
Then he used a stunning metaphor to drive home what we humans are doing to planet Earth: "The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived."
Since my first story about climate change in 1984, I've heard all manner of rhetorical attempts to describe it in just a few words. But this one really took me aback. I've long believed that "doomist" rhetoric prompts many people to flee, rather than fight for a sustainable future.
There's a fair amount of support for this view. For example, Per Espen Stocknes, a psychologist and economist at the Norwegian Business School, has written extensively about it (for example, here), arguing that doomist rhetoric backfires. In a Ted Talk that's been viewed nearly 100,000 times on Youtube, he summarizes why he holds this view:
"Climate change is usually framed as a looming disaster, bringing losses, cost and sacrifice. That makes us fearful. But after the first fear is gone, my brain soon wants to avoid this topic altogether. After 30 years of scary climate change communications, more than 80 percent of media articles still use disaster framings. But people habituate to, and then desensitize to, doom overuse. So, many of us are now suffering a kind of apocalypse fatigue — getting numb from too much collapse porn."
Since he gave that Ted talk six years ago, severe climate change impacts like heat waves, wildfires and deluges, have become nearly impossible to flee from, literally and figuratively. With that in mind, I decided to seek opinions from climate scientists, climate communications experts, and journalists. Among a number of things, I asked them whether they found Guterres's rhetoric terrifying and off-putting, or motivating.
I expected that the scientists would take exception to the language, and I was right. But I was surprised that the communications experts held a different view. What follows is everyone's answers, very lightly edited for clarity and grammar, along with some replies to follow up questions.
"Doomist Rhetoric...Can be Paralyzing"
I'll start with Michael Mann, a renowned University of Pennsylvania climate scientist who has been very public about his views on the need to act quickly and decisively to eliminate the emissions of greenhouse gases that are heating the planet. In an emailed reply, he wrote:
"It’s a really good question Tom, and as you probably know, I’ve argued (e.g. in “The New Climate War”) that doomist rhetoric (and this verges on that) can be paralyzing rather than motivating. In this case, it’s tempered somewhat by a reassurance that it is still possible to limit warming to 1.5C and avoid the 'very worst of climate change.' But there is some tension here — it almost feels as if his assessment of where we are ('global boiling') is in conflict with that reassurance.
"I don’t like the use of 'terrifying' here either. It’s one thing to acknowledge that some people are terrified, in part because of some of the doomist framing that wrongly conveys that we’ve passed some tipping point or are experiencing runaway warming. But we should not feed that misperception as he does. The truth is bad enough. The planet is steadily warming in response to ongoing carbon emissions and that, as we have long warned, is leading to increasingly extreme and damaging weather events. We can prevent it from getting worse by rapidly decarbonizing our civilization. That’s the key point."
I then asked Mann what he thought of another term: "global weirding." Here's what he said:
"I think there’s something to the 'global weirding' framing. We’re seeing a type of weather behavior that we haven’t seen before, in particular the stalled weather systems that sit in place for weeks on end. This ties into some of our work on 'resonance’ of the jet stream."
You might be wondering what jet stream resonance is. Mann has written an excellent explanation for non-experts of that research, which shows how human-caused climate change can cause the jet stream to become very wavy and lock heat domes and other extreme weather events in place for extended periods. You can find it here. (And I included my own explanation in a story about European heat waves in 2019. Check that out here.)
'Global Boiling' Fails to Convey the Situation
As part of my survey, I also queried Kevin Trenberth, another renowned scientist who has been involved in climate research for decades. Nominally retired, he is still contributing to scientific papers and serves as a Distinguished Scholar with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. I anticipated that he'd take exception to "global boiling" on scientific grounds — and I was right.
"I do not like the term 'global boiling' as that implies water," he told me in an email. "And I have repeatedly used 'global heating' to distinguish what is happening from 'global warming.'"
The word "warming," he noted, generally refers to rising temperature. But the planet is experiencing much, much more than that. Like heat building up in a pot of water on the stove, our greenhouse gas emissions are causing heat to build up in the climate system. Global temperatures are indeed rising as a result. But that heating is also causing "drying and evaporation, leading to more drought and wildfires, and more water vapor building up in the atmosphere, and so stronger rains and flooding," Trenberth explained.
Gueterres was speaking metaphorically, of course, when he used "global boiling." And it does capture well the feelings many of us are having about this summer's widespread, brutal heat. So on its surface, Trenberth's criticism may seem too narrow and technical. But as a journalist, there's no way I'm going to use "global boiling" as a way to quickly label what's going on. Why is that?
It may (or may not) be a good way for a global leader to try to galvanize action. But scientists and journalists alike have a different mission: Even when we're using shorthand and metaphors, we have to be as accurate as possible, lest we jeopardize the public's trust. And with that in mind, I find Trenberth's "global heating" compelling because of the way it encompasses more than just hotter temperatures. It extends as well to drought, wildfires, heavier downpours, and flooding.
"Brilliant Climate Communicator"
The Secretary-General of the United Nations has a very different role to play than a journalist, including prodding world leaders to act much more aggressively on steps to mitigate and adapt to climate change. So arguably, "global boiling" could be an effective way to do that.
To explore this question, I knew I had to ask Ed Maibach for his perspective.
Maibach directs the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. And he co-directs a major polling project (with Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz) called Climate Change in the American Mind. In 2021, he was ranked by Reuters as the most influential scientist working on climate change at America’s public universities, and seventh overall out of 1,000. (Kevin Trenberth and Michael Mann were close behind.)
Here is his emailed reply:
"I think Secretary-General Guterres is a brilliant climate communicator. He delivers simple, clear, fact-based messages, often reinforced with powerful metaphors, so that everyone will understand exactly what he is saying.
"He is coming from a place of deep concern and bravely speaking truth to power — because he is speaking directly to the world’s political leaders. These two qualities demonstrate that he is authentic. Authenticity is a powerful asset in effective communication.
"Lastly, his approach is unexpected for a senior bureaucrat, given that bureaucrats almost never speak in plain, direct language. By being unexpected, he is much more likely to gain and hold people’s attention.
"I don’t believe he is attempting to terrify people, but rather to wake us up to the realities of humanity’s perilous situation and the urgent need to change the policies of nations worldwide — for the better."
I followed up, asking Maibach this: "How can global boiling not be terrifying? Saying the planet is boiling seems on its face terrifying. I would find it so if I didn't know that it's scientifically inaccurate. How am I wrong about this?"
"He is terrified, and rightfully so, but I don’t believe his communication objective is to terrify. I think he’s seeking to inject urgency into the policy process so that political leaders have less license to continue 'kicking the can down the road.'
"I heard yesterday that 130 million Americans are currently experiencing extreme heat. We aren’t literally boiling, fortunately, but many of us feel we are boiling. He is choosing his words in an effort to capture that feeling. People feel first, and then they think. Effective communicators strive to capture the feeling because people are more likely to listen and think if the communicator gets the feeling right. "I am open to the possibility that everything I’ve said is wrong. Ultimately, I would love to see someone put it to an empirical test."
Breaking Through the Fog of Distraction and Inertia
In addition to Maibach, I also knew I had to check in with Susan Joy Hassol, another very well known and respected climate communication expert.
Hassol directs Climate Communication, a non-profit science and outreach project that operates as a project of the Aspen Global Change Institute. (By way of full disclosure, she serves on the advisory board of an environmental journalism program I direct at the University of Colorado.) Here is how she responded when I asked whether she found Guterres's rhetoric terrifying and off-putting, or motivating:
"I’m not sure it’s fair to say he is 'trying to terrify people.' I think he’s trying to break through the fog of distraction and inertia, and alert people to the true urgency of action. I agree that our situation is terrifying, given what's unfolding all around us and the slowness of action. Continued expansion of fossil fuels is, as he has said, insanity. We must phase out fossil fuels ASAP and that starts with no new fossil fuel development, and yet the industry is expanding at home and around the world. We are in the midst of a climate emergency and should act like it.
"It’s like the difference between alarmist and alarmed. An alarmist is someone who unnecessarily alarms people. But we should be alarmed. What’s happening is truly alarming.
"People should be both worried and hopeful. If they’re not worried, they’re not paying attention. Hope can be found in the clean energy transition, which is in motion, but is not happening fast enough. In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act lends hope, but it’s only a start, and there are those trying to dismantle it. I believe that we CAN do what’s needed, but I have doubts as to whether we WILL do it. There is evidence that such feelings help mobilize climate action. I try to make clear that the obstacles to action are not physical or technological, they are political."
After hearing the enthusiastic support for Guterres's metaphor from both Maibach and Hassol, I felt I needed to hear from folks with different perspectives. So, I got in touch with three others.
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"This is Spinal Tap" (seriously, read on...)
The first was journalist Andrew Revkin, whom I've known since 1981, when we worked together at a science magazine. For a long time, Revkin covered climate at the N.Y. Times, where he launched the influential Dot Earth blog. More recently, he developed the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University's Climate School, a post he stepped down from recently. He also launched the Sustain What webcast and Substack newsletter.
Revkin was unequivocal in his criticism of Guterres's "global boiling":
"All he has is rhetoric. There’s nothing else he can do. So I understand why he said that. But it’s like the scene in 'This is Spinal Tap.'”
The movie Revkin is referring to is a mockumentary about rock and roll, and the hilarious scene focuses on an amplifier that doesn't top out volume-wise at 10; it goes all the way to 11.
"It’s absurd," Revkin said of the approach. "I think that kind of rhetoric is counterproductive, and it won’t accomplish what he wants to do. It's demonstrably ineffective — as has been the case for decades."
In short, Revkin agrees with Michael Mann (and me) that turning up the amplifier to 11, as it were, just won't work very well.
Think about it: You can continue redesigning an amplifier to go louder and louder, and add numbers to the volume controls — you can go from 11 to 12, and as high as you want. But now that we've gone from global warming to global boiling, where do we go next as the climate continues to warm? Maybe "global baking"? Then "global scorching"? And on to "global roasting," culminating in "global broiling"?
Then what? Turn up the amplifier until our eardrums burst?
Revkin next made the point that the complexities of policy are what need attention, not rhetoric. "The only way we will make real progress on emissions is if rich countries finance the energy transition for poorer countries — and not just the transition. We are going to need vastly more energy than we're using now."
If you're thinking there is very little chance of that happening, Revkin agrees with you. Will "global boiling" as a rhetorical tool for speaking truth to power, as Ed Maibach put it, help change this dynamic?
"Our Fear of Fear May Be out of Date"
I next spoke with Leslie Dodson, a brilliant former television journalist who now co-directs the Global Laboratory at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Dodson has written and published on embodied, immersive and experiential activities to help people make decisions about climate change. She has also worked on humanitarian engineering in the developing world.
"We as climate communicators have lived in peril at the idea that a strong message will turn people away," Dodson told me during a phone call. "We've thought, 'Don’t shock people because it freezes them into paralysis.' But maybe the research that shows this needs to be updated. Because things are really very different now from when that research was done. Our fear of creating fear might just be out of date."
Dodson sees utility in trying as many approaches as we can. "If a policy maker at the U.N. is willing to give us a new way to think about climate change that’s blunt, I think that’s good. It's going to take all of us talking about this challenge all the time to make progress."
She's in favor of a diversity of voices. "I welcome it. Scientists don’t have a lock on the narrative. No single statement is going to summarize the complexity of the situation."
Toward the end of our wide-ranging conversation, she said, "put as many messages into the system as possible. And if we can have the help of virality, that’s great. I don’t see the exercise of condemning [Guterres's] message as fruitful."
"I've Been Motivated and Terrified for Decades"
Last, but definitely not least, I spoke with one more exceedingly accomplished and smart friend, Daniel Glick. A journalist, book author, and river runner, Glick has covered climate issues for a long time, including a co-authored cover story for Newsweek way back in 1996, and a 2004 National Geographic cover story titled The Big Thaw. Glick has also worked as a science editor for the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment. (And he happens to be Leslie Dodson's partner.)
As with the others I spoke with, I asked Glick whether he found Guterres's rhetoric terrifying and off-putting or motivating, and also whether he thought it was an effective rhetorical strategy.
"I’ve been motivated and terrified for decades," he said during a phone conversation. "And I don’t need any more of that. I’m interested in knowing what language communciators can use that will create a groundswell of action. Because one of things we’ve learned is, yes, all of us can put solar panels on our roofs, but the scale of the response so far is not commensurate with the level of the threat. In communicating about that threat, we’ve tried terms like global warming, global weirding, climate emergency, and now global boiling. What’s going to land? I don't know. All these extreme events are happening and not getting through."
Later in our conversation, he told me about an insurance issue he was experiencing in the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, a devastating wildfire and urban conflagration near Boulder, Colorado in 2021. Fueled by drought and driven by hurricane-force winds, the blaze ultimately destroyed an estimated 1,084 structures, including homes, a hotel, and a shopping center — in December.
"This year, I couldn’t get one of the biggest insurance companies in the country to insure our house because of wildfire risk," Glick said. His and Dodson's home sits on the plains, relatively far from the forested foothills of the Colorado Rockies where the highest risk once was thought to exist. But then the Marshall Fire raced many miles to the east, out onto the plains — not far from their home. And now, apparently as a result, insurance is starting to dry up.
"So, the fact that Guiterres said 'global boiling,' well, good on him. Let’s give it a try."
Glick went on to talk about theories of change. One is change from the ground up, with citizens demanding action and policy makers eventually listening. "And then there’s leadership," from the top down.
He pointed out that as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Guterres leads the largest international body in world. And when he used that strong rhetoric during his press conference, "I’m sure it was a calculated thing. I don’t think he said it off top of his head. But will people besides the environmental minister from the Seychelles pay attention? I just don't know."
He concluded by saying he also doesn't know whether "anyone has the magic words to unlock robust, widespread, effective action on climate change. But I do not think it’s helpful to say that this is hysterical, and 'what comes after boiling'? What’s after boiling is widespread human suffering."
The Last Word
And now, I get the last word:
It's certainly arguable that Guterres was trying something very different from what we've come to expect from bureaucrats: blunt, simple, authentic, and un-hedged language, intended to speak truth to powerful world leaders so that they will finally do what's desperately needed to avert climatic catastrophe. But as I pointed out at the start of this column, Per Espen Stocknes told us six years ago that disaster framing was counterproductive. So why would even more of that kind of framing work now?
And that brings to mind this timeless quotation: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
But to tell the truth, I'm not even sure that Guiterres's blunt words were heard by large numbers of people. From an admittedly limited informal survey of news coverage I conducted, I think it's fair to say that the Secretary-General's "global boiling" comments didn't make as much of a splash in news media as he might have hoped.
For example, I could find almost nothing on CNN — just a tiny mention on the network's 6 a.m. ET "5 Things" podcast. Not unexpectedly, MSNBC did run his comments. Meanwhile, Fox News — which I expected to have gone overboard in mocking Guterres — actually broadcast nothing about it (at least nothing that I could find). Instead, they ran an Associated Press piece about July's heat with the Secretary-General's comments buried down low. The Washington Post ran the same story. As for the N.Y. Times, I found nothing whatsoever.
Perhaps this is because weeks of unrelenting brutal heat and other astonishing extreme weather events have left even journalists and editors numb.
I don't really know. But my hunch is that while Guiterres was indeed trying to speak truth to power, power wasn't listening.
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