As for the inundation in Thailand, in his op-ed for the Times Lemonick was careful to point out that the primary causes were an unusually heavy monsoon season exacerbated by the advent of a “king tide” (a twice-yearly global occurrence caused by an alignment of the Earth, moon, and sun). And the AP’s article about the IPCC report made the case that human factors beyond climate change, like “population growth, urban development, and river management,” also contributed to the crisis:

In fact, the report says, “for some climate extremes in many regions, the main driver for future increases in losses will be socioeconomic” rather than a result of greenhouse gases.

This point (explored in an October 13 New York Times article headlined, “As Thailand Floods Spread, Experts Blame Officials, Not Rains”) highlights another shortcoming of the heart-attack analogy. It is helpful to understand that dietary or genetic factors can both contribute to the odds of cardiac arrest, but doctors still need to treat patients. So the question becomes: are the symptoms mild enough that prescribing a bit of exercise will alleviate them, or is a more serious intervention like statins or a stent required?

You could try to extend the metaphor into the treatment of manmade climate change, but it quickly breaks down or grows too confusing to be useful. Reducing greenhouse gases, or climate-change mitigation, might correspond to better exercise, insofar as it would alleviate symptoms slowly (almost imperceptibly, at first), but systemically. Geo-engineering, or climate-change adaptation, might correspond to statins or a stent, insofar as it could (theoretically) alleviate symptoms quickly, but not systemically (and it might have deleterious side effects).

But that leaves out things like improved urban planning and sustainable development, or what might be called climate-change resiliency, as opposed to mitigation or adaptation. They’re sort of like exercise, insofar as everybody should be doing it as a matter of course. But they’re also like statins and stents, insofar as they alleviate symptoms quickly, but not systemically (not to mention that some elements of urban planning, like levees, are a form of geo-engineering).

If that seems befuddling, that’s because it is. Analogies like the one Lemonick suggested are great for helping readers understand some climate-weather concepts, like storm frequency and risk factors, but they struggle to explain others, like storm intensity and mitigation/adaptation options. So, while they are handy instruments in a journalist’s toolbox, reporters must also be mindful of their limitations.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.