Different approaches to the climate problem


The approach people take to climate change varies widely. They can be distinguished e.g. by the importance they place on climate change (or trust placed in the science), and by the conditions they put on potential solutions or response strategies. This gives rise to four different response strategies to the problem, along two axes:

Some archetypical responses for each quadrant are laid out in this cartoon:

(*): To which the German Coastguard in need of English language training replies: “What are you sinking about?” Cartoon adapted from Jip Lenstra.

There are of course loads of varieties possible here. Some contrarians may say: The water looks pretty nice. Some scientists (and so called “merchants of doubt”) are in fact saying: We’re thinking (and are not sure what’s happening. Let’s wait and see). Libertarians may say that life boats commissioned by the government are not to be trusted. And some greens may dream up a world of mermaids.

There are some interesting dynamics between the different archetypes: Most arguments happen in the horizontal direction (belief vs disbelief in an impending climate catastrophe; trust vs distrust of climate science; liking vs disliking certain lifeboats), whereas most liaisons occur in the vertical (between people who share the same (dis-)belief in climate change, but differ in the restrictions they place on response strategies).

Arguments on the science occur between the two upper panels: Is the boat sinking? Arguments on the response strategy often occur in the realm of the lower two panels: What restrictions (if any) do we place on the lifeboats? Are other agenda’s playing a role (besides wanting to save our souls)? Sometimes, the lower two panels actually partner up, like in those cases where they share a dislike for a certain lifeboat (CCS for example). Naturally, if you’re on a sinking boat most people will let go of any restrictions. Perhaps we can turn that around: The more restrictions people place on the lifeboat, the less severe they apparently think the problem is (in comparison with other issues).

If you think the boat can’t sink (upper left), then it doesn’t make sense to invest in a life-boat (lower left). Unless you like the lifeboat for another reason, e.g. for energy independence or to avoid peak oil. That would be a typical lower left panel response: You want a specific boat, but you don’t care much about climate change. Burning coal is perfectly fine according to this mindset. If OTOH you think the boat is sinking (upper right), then it makes sense to get a life boat (lower right).

The reverse is also happening (much to the detriment of the discussion): Some people have such a strong dislike for the lifeboat (lower left), that they therefore deny that the boat is sinking (upper left). Others like green lifeboats so much (lower right), that they shout out loud that the boat is sinking (upper right) without actually understanding how or why or when. They are prone to exaggerating the problem.

These styles of argument (from bottom to top) basically argue the science as a proxy for what the disagreement is really about: Liking or disliking certain boats.

Gotta love analogies…

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32 Responses to “Different approaches to the climate problem”

  1. Brian D Says:

    This approach – formulating “the debate” in terms of rows and columns, loosely corresponding to degree of problem and degree of action taken, and pointing out that we’ve been focusing on the wrong axis – went viral in 2007 with Greg Craven’s work. This does something similar with cartoons and narrows in on a more detailed component (how people react to different solutions being an unvoiced motivation for how they react to the problems that call for those solutions), an important point that I think gets lost in the noise all too often.

  2. Tom Says:

    Okay, Bart–I’ll play. Based on IPCC reports, I do not believe the boat is sinking.

    I believe the boat has a leak that should be patched.

    My reading of what the IPCC has written is that climate change is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but does not rise to the level of a threat to humanity, human civilization or the planet.

  3. That sinking feeling : Stoat Says:

    [...] off from Bart. .pm_tools_small .pm_tool {display:block;float:left;height:20px;margin:0 0.5em 8px;} [...]

  4. That sinking feeling [Stoat] | Science News | Gakngurus Says:

    [...] Ripped off from Bart. [...]

  5. Steve Bloom Says:

    Oh, yet another Fuller thread. How tedious.

    Myself, I prefer lifeboats not riddled with holes, so there I am off the chart.

  6. facepalm Says:

    Tom, one point taken and one to differ:

    But as the earth will neither be destroyed nor mankind will go extinct, the ship will stay “afloat”.

    If the leak is not patched in time or not at all, there WILL be a threat to society and civilisation as we know it.

    “Just surviving” as a prospect for our grandchildren? Thats not enough for me, and I hope also not for you.

  7. Roddy Campbell Says:

    Who is “we”, as in “we’re sinking”?

    Is the Maldivian ship sinking faster or slower than the Canadian ship?

    Are they both in fact sinking?

    If the Canadian ship isn’t sinking, but Canadian coal power stations are firing torpedoes at the Maldivian ship, which might sink, where are we then?

  8. Jeff Id Says:

    How about – green lifeboats don’t float.

  9. Bart Says:

    Tom, Roddy,

    Reality may be a slow motion version of this boat sinking (not taken too literally – it is still a cartoon), who knows? Plus what facepalm wrote.

  10. Tom Says:

    The first thing you do on a boat with a leak is check it out. Some leaks are worse than others. Your actions are predicated on what you find out.

    We’re still doing that. We don’t know the answers yet.

    So what do we do? Nothing. Obviously not. A ship alters course, radios the current situation, musters the repair team, makes sure it has repair materials.

    We should institute a fairly low tax on carbon ($12/ton) and promise to re-evaluate it against benchmarks every 10 years. We should commit large sums of money to technology transfer to the developing world. We should continue to support renewable sources of energy and methods of improving the efficiency of the machines that consume energy.

    And we should continue to check it out.

  11. adelady Says:

    Tom, I think you have it the wrong way round. Starting at such a low figure _knowing_ that you must keep on increasing it if that figure doesn’t do the job is a recipe for more and worse problems if it is wrong.

    Why? Because every time an increase is needed we have to go through this decision-making exercise, again and again and it will be in harder and harder circumstances.

    Do it the other way and start high(ish). If it’s inadequate then only one, rather than repeated, decision needs to be made to up the ante. If it turns out to be on the high side, we then have the luxury of working out how best to deal with the surplus cash and give everyone a lovely tax reduction as well.

  12. Tom Says:

    Adelady, you’re perhaps forgetting that we live in a real world where most people are reluctant to approve of new taxes. At $12/ton, governments in the developed world can use existing mechanisms to lower things like employment taxes to achieve revenue neutrality–which would be the only way to get this into existence.

    Once it is in existence, it is far easier to adjust as circumstances warrant.

  13. frits Says:

    Very insightful, thanks.

  14. mandas Says:

    Looks like Tom wants to continue to check out the leak, even when the boat is at the bottom of the ocean. Want to borrow my scuba gear Tom?

    How about this as an approach. The boat is starting to sink. Look, we discovered a leak. Let’s patch it before its too late so we don’t take on too much water.

    Rather than your approach. The boat is starting to sink. Look, we discovered a leak. I bet it’s natural and not our fault so let’s not worry about it.

  15. Heraclitus Says:

    Here’s my interpretation of the timeline:

    “If you’re crossing the Atlantic watch out for icebergs.”

    “Look out, there’s an iceberg ahead.”


    “We’re leaking.”

    ["But it may not be a leak and leaks can be caused by many things."]

    “To the lifeboats.”

    ["But most people want to get to America, let's keep going."]

    ["There aren't enough lifeboats. Let's wait until we get to America and we can see if it's worth putting more lifeboats on then."]

    ["There's no leak, we're not sinking."]

    ["Those lifeboats won't float out there."]

    “No, really. To the lifeboats.”

    The band plays on.

  16. Bart Says:

    Rearranging deckchairs comes to mind

  17. Tom Says:

    Didn’t you guys just spend two weeks playing that game on an earlier thread?

    This was your metaphor, not mine.

    Almost all boats leak. Surprise! Most leaks are not serious. Caulk ‘em and forget ‘em.

    If you’re out on the ocean and you spring a leak, you have to fix it with what you’ve got.

    Now, I don’t know how far you intend to stretch this metaphor, Spaceship Earth and all of that. But I do note that commenters are certainly inventing things they impute to me which I did not say and do not believe. But then, what’s new? It’s so much easier to demonize than engage.

    Until we know the sensitivity of the atmosphere to a doubling of concentrations of CO2, we don’t know much about the leak at all. And we don’t know. James Hansen doesn’t know. Richard Lindzen doesn’t know. Steve McIntyre doesn’t know. Bart Verheggen doesn’t know.

    The steps I have been advocating for over two years are what we all know we should do. Institute a carbon tax at $12/ton and re-evaluate it every ten years. Finance large-scale technology transfer to the developing world. Etc., etc. And none of you boat-happy kids ever address the fact that those solutions are the right ones for this time in history.

    More fun to play games with DiCaprio and Winslett, I guess.

  18. Paul Kelly Says:


    You’re going to have to come up with more realistic steps and more effective ones. Stop looking to politicians and governments for leadership. Look to the people. The other day Grist reviewed a book that explains why the top down approach won’t work, and that bottom up – however unpredictable and worrisome – is the only viable option.

  19. Susan Anderson Says:

    Great metaphor. Makes it really obvious, but it appears at least one frequent commenter has magic glasses on. I suggest a serious review of world weather over the last few years, and if you really think ten years of acceleration is not going to make things worse, I’d like some of what you’re taking. There is more energy in the system and we are seeing a level of extreme weather that is at the highest levels of predictions. Statistically you can dismiss each event, but you cannot ignore the trend and it’s getting bl**dy obvious. It is also costing a whole heap of money we don’t have. Prevention is cheaper than cure, and at some point cure will be impossible.

    But as to the merchants, they would talk about their investment and how we will all go broke if we fix the ship, how a scheme to establish world government and control your thoughts is using the sinking ship to dominate you, etc. etc.

  20. Tom Says:

    Paul Kelly

    I am happy to join you in a bottom-up approach. However, I do not believe a revenue neutral carbon tax is impossible. As for technology transfer, we do a lot of that already. Making it similar to the Millenium goals should not be all that tough.

    Because individuals can react more quickly than governments, hooray for you and your efforts! I do not think they are meaningless and I think they will have an impact as they spread through societies.

    Nor do I think governments and policies are impossible to influence. It just takes time.

    One of the huge mistakes made by the consensus team is to insist we don’t have time, which rendered the normal political process impossible. This was not just wrong–it was a serious, unforced error. It will take time to recover from this. (It’s okay–we have time!) But it will make individual and small-group efforts more important in the interim.

  21. Susan Anderson Says:

    In how narrow a world can anyone say the consequences are not already upon us.

    The Mississippi? Colombia? Northwest Canada (near tar sands?). Somalia, where the UN just cut food rations? Australia? China? Africa? Russia? Europe? The list goes on, and while each event has multiple causes, the trend is so obvious it is hard to believe anyone who looks can trust their blinders more than what they are seeing.

  22. Paul Kelly Says:


    My opposition to a carbon tax is not just that is currently politically unlikely, but that it is ultimately ineffective. A revenue neutral carbon tax is even more so. The purpose of a carbon tax is either to influence behavior or provide funds for alternative deployment /innovation. A revenue neutral tax does neither. Emitters pass the cost of the tax onto consumers and the consumers’ costs are offset through whatever credits and deductions are used to achieve neutrality. So there is no real incentive for behavioral change and no extra funds available for deployment /innovation.

  23. Ken Fabos Says:

    Perhaps a good proportion of Environmentalists want lifeboats that aren’t predictably expected to sink – or is this code for Environmentalists who are opposed to nuclear power? I think not nearly all do though recent events in Japan have raised the volume and the influence of those that do.

    Without the organised campaign undermining trust in climate science (and the proliferation of vocal opponents who swallow the facile arguments and dubious ‘facts’ it promotes hook line and sinker) there would probably be much greater acceptance of the problem and across the board willingness to get serious about tackling it – and that would probably see extreme green opposition to nuclear easily overwhelmed. So long as a big chunk of mainstream politics aligns with those determined to prevent widespread acceptance of the problem and prevent effective action the best we get is inadequate and deeply compromised policies with a coat of greenwash.

  24. Bart Says:


    A revenue neutral carbon tax would change the relative costs of carbon-intensive vs carbon extensive products and services, and in doing so could be expected to change production and consuption behavior (inasmuch as the elasticity allows).

  25. Bob Brand Says:

    Paul Kelly,

    There are several examples of a ‘carbon tax’ (or a somewhat similar taxation strategy) which both influence customer behavior towards a more responsible choice, as well as provide funds for deployment and development of low-carbon alternatives.

    One example is the ‘tax exempt’ status of low-carbon vehicles in the Netherlands. If they do not exceed 89 g CO2/km they can be bought free of BPM, as well as used without road taxation. After those fiscal measures consumer choice did shift heavily towards these vehicles.

    I would agree that it would be a mistake to have ‘carbon taxes’ added into the governments’ general budget, instead of it being earmarked exclusively for R&D and for the deployment of renewable solutions. Often people are willing to contribute to an urgent cause, as long as they can be *certain* the funds are being used exclusively for adressing the problem.

    Even then, I’d say that just looking at government for a solution would be wrong. Once there is an incentive, and an actual market, for low-carbon solutions private enterpise and innovation can kick in and try to capture that market.

    Pricing in the *future* cost of climate change into goods and services, instead of leaving them for later to be adressed out of the general means (the taxes of the population as a whole) also has the advantage of fairness – the producers and consumers who contribute to the damages also bear the cost.


  26. Roddy Campbell Says:

    Bart, you mentioned Facepalm’s comment in your reply to mine?

    So I went back and read it, and realised why I hadn’t noticed it, as it was wearing the Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak, namely ‘threat to civilisation as we know it’ and ‘our grandchildren’.


  27. Paul Kelly Says:

    Back on the possibly sinking boat, my archetype is everyone row as hard as they can toward shore.

    The pairing of no regret and no priority seems intended to put both in a negative light.

  28. Bart Says:


    The names of the four quarters are not covering all bases. The “no regret” names is definitely the weakest of the bunch, for lack of a better word. It’s meant to convey that only measures that are considered anyway for other reasons besides climate change are considered, ie climate change plays no role in the decision (thus low priority). This also means that a lot of restrictions are placed on solutions, since they have to have been chosen anyway without climate change (ie for economic reasons).

  29. Herman Vruggink Says:

    Cl scientist : We’re sinking !
    Sceptical: How do you know?
    Cl Scienist: We found a leak !
    Sceptical: How fast are we sinking ?
    Cl Scientist: Our fuel consumption is 50 tons a day, that equals the sinking
    Sceptical: So, what’s the problem?
    Cl Scientist: Our loading computer tells us our consumption will probably increase and according ship experts it is very likely the leak will be bigger very soon.
    Sceptical: What is our sailing time to our next Port?
    Cl Scientist: 12 hours sailing but it is not relevant to the leaking problem.
    Sceptical: I see, well, call me up when we are on the bottom of the sea or in port, i go to bed.

  30. Bart Says:

    Herman V,

    Good one, except I’d suggest one annotation, as per spaceship Earth analogy:

    Sceptic: “What is the transit time to our next habitable planet?”
    Cl Scientist: “There is none that we know of”
    Rational Sceptic: “Houston, then we got a problem indeed”

    Or: I like planet A
    (sorry, forgot the source)

  31. The Climate Change Debate Thread - Page 720 Says:

    [...] [...]

  32. Chris Says:

    Forget Titanic metaphors with their icebergs and lifeboats. A better analogy to the AGW aka “climate change” conundrum would be Chicken Little. Or a street hustler working a crowd with a game of 3-card Monty.

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