Cancer Metaphor Lessons For Climate Mitigation


This spring I was diagnosed with cancer and I have just finished a treatment consisting of seven weeks of radiation aided by chemo therapy. Things look good now. I had a very treatable cancer; I have had effective treatment as quickly as possible. As a long time climate activist totally preoccupied with trying to get to effective climate mitigation my cancer has proven a very useful metaphor that’s grown like topsy. I’ve used the cancer metaphor to build a vehicle to try and move key decisions about effective climate mitigation from ‘too radical to consider’ into the Overton Window as ‘reasonable and worth consideration’. I hope to reach informed Canadians about what effective mitigation needs to be now:

Just like cancer, untreated climate change could be fatal.

First of all, the fatal danger from my specific very treatable cancer was lack of effective treatment — my cancer would grow and spread throughout my body eventually metastasizing upon a vital organ. I can think of no more fitting descriptor of our present climate change danger. Without treatment in a timely manner climate change could prove fatal to our present society, civilization or even humanity.

Dangerous climate change is the name for those climate changes that could be fatal. For close to three decades the world’s nations have agreed to keep greenhouse gas emissions below a precautionary ceiling so that the increase in global temperature doesn’t exceed 2C but effective treatment to reduce emissions has never been achieved. With emissions still increasing we are now closer to fatal than to cure.

Cancer treatment works but climate treatment has failed.

Secondly, I marvel at the effectiveness of the cancer diagnosis and treatment planning and procedure: the consilience of many differing medical specialists to determine what specific cancer the patient has and it’s state, the optimum treatment path considering the cancer and the patient, and then the execution of the treatment plan using state of the art science and tech by a very skilled and caring Cancer Agency still under the supervision of the specialists operating as a team. Contrast this with the input of the relevant climate science into governmental policy processes controlled by economically centered interests. Whose patient has a better chance of effective treatment and recovery?

For three decades powerful forces in our society have blocked needed climate treatment. Economic actors still have a veto limiting needed treatment. Effective climate mitigation requires climate science experts in charge of treatment.

Effective treatment for both cancer and climate requires a period of disruption.

Thirdly, my cancer diagnosis disrupted my life. I had to take extended medical leave from my job, stop playing my sports; I had to travel to Vancouver five days a week for treatment. My wife’s life changed substantially to caregiver, meeting note taker, nutritionist, driver and food push when I lost too much weight after chemo. Our lives were disrupted, had to be disrupted to get effective treatment.

Unfortunately our dynamic but fragile market-based economies have an unwritten rule against any systemic disruption. This is certainly understandable but considering that we have lollygagged and procrastinated and that we are deep into dangerous climate change, we need effective treatment — effective emission reduction of a scale now required — urgently, and that is going to have to mean disruption. Get your head around it. At least take time to consider what is at stake, what our responsibilities are, and how well emergency government worked in the allied countries during World War Two.

Disruption and pain today will save us from worse treatment tomorrow and catastrophe if left untreated.

The longer the patient and treatment system procrastinate the more difficult and disruptive the choice of therapies. Carbon pricing aided decarbonization could have done the emission reduction heavy lifting if we had begun in the 90s and we’d be close to cured and on top of climate change today — but we didn’t. Today, carbon pricing aided decarbonization is just pretend treatment; there is no hope of reducing emissions of a scale needed in the next crucial decade. What we will have instead is a slow transition that just keeps fossil fuels in the game for far too long — want another smoke too?

Effective climate mitigation now requires the regulation of what has become a possibly fatal pathogen — fossil fuels. Reducing fossil fuel production and use quickly, globally, can still be effective treatment.

There is still hope. There is still time for effective treatment.

But we need a much better process for evaluating climate dangers, what effective treatment is possible, and then, finally, the proper governmental framework to stabilize the patient for the duration of the treatment. I personally think that we need a regulated wind-down of all fossil fuel production and use based upon a state of the art carbon budget (McGlade and Ekins). The potential of renewables is extremely hopeful — if we find a way to agree to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Read deeper:

Part one in the series: Effective Climate Mitigation — Or Just Pretend? An Open Letter to Pam Goldsmith-Jones, MP
Part two: Dear ENGOs: Stop Supporting Fake Mitigation
Part Three: Climate Change Could be Fatal: An Open Letter to Canada’s Business Community
Part Four: Effective Climate Mitigation: An Open Letter To Prime Minister Trudeau

Bill Henderson is a frequent contributor on Climate Change in


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