Disagreeing with Hulme

Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity

Ultimately there’s an opacity in Mike Hulme’s recently published book Why We Disagree About Climate Change.  We are too much engaged with the idea of fighting climate change as a physical reality, he concludes. We are science-saturated but spiritually impoverished. We need to engage with climate change in ways which focus on what we want to achieve for ourselves and humanity.  Climate change is not an environmental problem to be solved so much as an idea which we can use to examine our cultural values and renegotiate our wider social goals about how and why we live on this planet.

Hulme is a climatologist who during the 1990s was actively engaged in the study of climate change, particularly in work on modelling.  He says that he accepts the reality of anthropogenic global warming and that its risks are important and serious.  From 1999 he spent seven years leading the Tyndall Centre, established as an interdisciplinary enterprise where scientists, economists, engineers and social scientists, work together to develop sustainable responses to climate change. He describes this as the time when he began to see that climate change meant very different things to different people, depending on their political, social and cultural settings. The book is largely an exploration of that phenomenon.

Early in the book Hulme seeks to delineate the space legitimately belonging to science and to point to its limits. He specifies three limits in particular. Science always speaks with a conditional voice. Further, when scientific knowledge becomes a public commodity it will have been shaped to some degree by the processes by which it emerges into the social world and through which is subsequently circulates.  Finally, we must not hide behind science when difficult ethical choices are called for. Some of our decisions will be beyond the reach of science.

Applied to climate change it’s not clear to me that any of this affects the core message of the science.  I don’t detect any undue certitude in the scientists I have read.  Uncertainties are usually highlighted, and insufficient knowledge recognised.  Certainly the science can receive some rough and ready treatment when the media fails to convey some of its complexities or hypes up some of the possibilities, but most people who take the subject seriously should be able to make allowance for that. And evading ethical decisions by appealing to the science is an accusation rather too easily made.  If science has been driven to the conclusion that our actions in burning fossil fuel are causing global warming and if some of the possible outcomes are threatening human well-being now and in the future, a fairly immediate ethical imperative surely follows. Much of what Hulme says about the scientific process is unexceptionable, but he presses it harder in relation to climate science than I would have thought current practice requires.  He is, for example, “uncomfortable that climate change is widely reported through the language of catastrophe and imminent peril”. Does this mean he considers there are no catastrophic possibilities associated with climate change?  No imminent peril for those living in low-lying river deltas or islands?  Is he accusing some scientists of overstatement? Or does he regard such a presentation as a distraction from the spiritual challenges which climate change presents and which he considers we are avoiding?  I suspect the last, but he doesn’t really declare himself on what is a fairly crucial point.

Much of the book explores various dimensions of our lives related to human values, human psychology, and political concerns, with a strong focus in each of them on the reasons which make for disagreement over how to respond to climate change. In these chapters Hulme draws on the social sciences and offers interesting enough surveys of the factors which may predispose us to varying responses and disagreements.

The grounds for disagreement are not hard to find.  The hope that many of us cling to is that in the face of the perils of climate change we may be able to transcend those differences and find enough comon cause to lessen the threat posed by anthropogenic global warming.

Hulme holds out little such hope.  He criticises many of the goals which many of us would look to. It’s a comprehensive list. It includes the attempt to establish a universal policy target for greenhouse gases which avoids ‘dangerous’ climate change (his quotation marks); the desire for a single carbon market with worldwide trading; the desire to rethink ideas of consumption, growth and capitalism; the desire to minimise poverty worldwide; the desire to move research and development investment in zero-carbon energy on to a ‘wartime’ footing; the desire to establish a single global policy regime as a means of global climate governance; the promotion of geo-engineering technologies.  In his opinion such goals overestimate the abilities of economics or politics or technology to tame and master our changing climate.

He also criticises the notion that climate change is the overriding project of our generation. George Monbiot is quoted in this context, not with approval: “If we fail in this task, we fail in everything else.”  On the contrary, says Hulme, we should not place ourselves in a fight against climate change as the greatest problem facing humanity, which seeks to trump all others.

So what should we do?  This is the point at which to my mind he dissolves into a kind of spiritual generality.  I have no quarrel with someone who looks for deeper levels of personal engagement with the phenomenon of climate change or seeks a wider outcome than emission reduction, which is admittedly a rather prosaic matter.  But I don’t see why that should rule out our seeking common cause in a common sense attempt to lessen a looming, and yes possibly catastrophic, danger. As  I see it Hulme is exploring a byway.

12 thoughts on “Disagreeing with Hulme”

  1. Carol, my life expectation is a good deal shorter than yours I would judge, but on the other hand I have a lot more spare time available than most. How’s that for a sidestep?

  2. Thanks Bryan for a very informative review. I’ve seen that it is a recently published book and wondered whether it was worth the read. I have some time available – I may just take up the challenge.

  3. …yes, I lack the killer instinct (and I recall a failure of nerve under the high ball, to say nothing of all the other inadequacies which will flood back to me if I continue with this exchange.)

  4. Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book and I don’t know the context of the remarks I am addressing.

    Bryan, you quote/paraphrase Mike Hulme as saying that “Science always speaks with a conditional voice.” I am continually amazed by people who consider this a weakness. Don’t they realise that the knowledge systems that claim certainty & uncondtionality get to do so because they just make stuff up?

    I don’t claim credit for this stunning insight. Ophelia Benson has pointed it out many times on Butterflies and Wheels.

  5. Bryan, if Hulme doesn’t see “climate change as the greatest problem facing humanity”, does he mention exactly what problems he considers to be more important?

  6. Mark, I think Hulme considers that the conditionality of science is not sufficiently recognised in some of the responses to climate change. He is very resistant to the notion that science leaves us with little choice as to our response. This may be why he spent a good deal of space on the nature of scientific enquiry. I found no fault with what he said about the way science proceeds – although I am not a scientist I think I have long had sufficient understanding of scientific method to appreciate its inevitable incompleteness and uncertainty. But granted all that, it still seems to me that there is sufficient core understanding of climate change now gained to indeed leave us with little choice as to our response as rational and ethical beings. (Fundamental response, that is; the details are matters of policy.) To that extent I disagree with him.

  7. Bryan, that’s right. There is an obvious but apposite analogy with evidence on smoking being harmful – those with the most to lose continued to argue for the science not being settled, but a point was reached at which the weight of evidence suggested that it would be unethical not to take action.

  8. Andrew, he is not clear about this, or at least not to me. He appeared at one point to be flirting with the Lomborgian notion that climate change can wait a bit while we attend to global poverty (as if we are treating that as urgent!) He recognised Jeffrey Sachs’ criticism of this position on the grounds that we can both address global poverty and mitigate long-term climate change at the same time, but describes Sachs’ claim as cursory. I don’t think he has read Sachs’ Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet which is far from cursory in its treatment of combining poverty reduction with addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation. But Hulme doesn’t come down strongly on a preference for one over the other, and allows for the possibilities of some synergies.

    It is not so much that he claims other problems are more important as that he considers climate change has taken too much to itself, accreting what he describes as individual problems – unsustainable energy, endemic poverty, climatic hazards, food security, structural adjustment, hyper-consumption, tropical deforestation, biodiversity loss – and weaving them together in the meta-narrative of climate change. I presume this means he thinks the problems are better treated separately.

    I followed him into his plea that we stop treating climate change as a problem to be solved and treat it as an idea which can stimulate new thinking, inspire new artistic creations, provoke new ethical and theological thinking, galvanise new social movements, and so on. But I wasn’t persuaded.

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