Hulme: gone soft

Mike Hulme has added his ambiguous contribution to the climate change series on The Conversation. As per usual he’s in effect protesting that those who take the science at its face value are alienating the public. He offers an alternative to the first statement in the open letter from the scientific community which kicked off the series.

Here’s what the scientists said:

“The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in climate changes that cannot be explained by natural causes. Climate change is real, we are causing it, and it is happening right now.”

Here’s what Hulme offers in its place:

“The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes and aerosol pollution are all contributing to regional and global climate changes, which exacerbate the changes and variability in climates brought about by natural causes. Because humans are contributing to climate change, it is happening now and in the future for a much more complex set of reasons than in previous human history.”

The first one is more partial and provocative, he suggests. It may work well if the writers’ intention is to reinforce the polarisation of opinion that exists around climate change science or if they are using scientific claims to justify a particular set of policy interventions.

Then he makes this opaque statement:

“Yet there are important aspects of scientific knowledge about the climate system that are accommodating to more nuanced interpretations of uncertainty and which open up more diverse sets of policy strategies.”

His alternative statement apparently captures these aspects, and opens up different ways for audiences to receive and engage with the communication.

I won’t detail the various ways he thinks his approach can enable people to engage with climate change. I have no quarrel with anything which may help people take climate change seriously, if that is his intention. But the message from the science must not be diluted in the process, and the more I look at his alternative statement the more it looks like an evasion of the stark reality the science presents.

His suggestion that scientists who make such statements as those contained in the open letter are intending to polarise opinion or to push one set of policy responses is simply wrong. It looks like a thinly disguised version of the accusation of scientific alarmism. I have been endeavouring as a lay person to follow climate science for the past five years since I became aware that global warming was more than just another environmental problem which would need attention at some point. I would have been delighted to find that the issue was being over-hyped by the scientists. But in fact the science has struck me as cautious and restrained, almost reluctant in its conclusions.

Yes, it has had a polarising effect. But that is the decision of those who wrap themselves in denial. It is not the fault of the science which has delivered the unwelcome message.  Hulme talks about how the issue is framed, as if some sort of choice has been made by scientists to frame it in extreme terms. They have done no such thing. They have delivered sober reports, with due recognition of uncertainties. Indeed it is beginning to appear that, if anything, they have erred on the side of caution, as impacts which were thought likely to be further ahead are turning up ahead of expectation.

I don’t know what Hulme’s motivation is. I read and reviewed his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change and was left none the wiser on that point. But whatever he intends, he is wrong to imply some sort of framing intention in the communication of the science. If it comes across as alarming, that’s because it is alarming, not because the scientists have chosen to present it as such.

Just how alarming is bluntly stated by Joe Romm in a post on Climate Progress written for Independence Day. I read it on the same day as Hulme’s dismaying piece, and I had no doubt which better represented the scientific reality. Here’s what Romm said (the reference to “happiness” echoes the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence):

“But if we keep listening to the deniers and delayers, if we fail to sharply reverse our current emissions path nationally and globally, then we are headed toward 5°C (9°F) planetary warming by century’s end and 850+ ppm — with sea level rise of 4 to 6 feet or higher, rising perhaps a foot a decade or more for centuries, the U.S. Southwest and one third of the Earth’s habited land a permanent Dust Bowl, half or more species extinct, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone…

“Not bloody many people will be pursuing ‘happiness’ under those conditions. They will be desperately trying to avoid misery, when they aren’t cursing our names for betraying our moral values.”

11 thoughts on “Hulme: gone soft”

  1. Yes I read Hulme’s article too Bryan and wondered just what the point was that he was trying to make.
    I can see from an academic and intellectual point of view that there are many ways – he lists 6 – of approaching the problem. However, the fact of the matter is, that unmitigated AGW is such an alarming prospect, that quite frankly, the only message that will now do, is one of simplicity and stark reality along the lines of the open letter by the Australian Academics, which I very much support.
    As one commentator on the Conversation puts it – the people of Britain may be far more educated in the problem than the population of Australia are at the present time (although how one could remain ignorant of the consequences of AGW after years of drought and recent unprecedented flooding it is hard to imagine). Hulme’s message may be appropriate for a sophisticated audience who appreciate the nuances of the problem, but for a constituency currently struggling with the pros and cons of an impending carbon tax – now is not the time to indulge in niceties.

  2. To say “……exacerbate the changes and variability in climates brought about by natural causes” doesn’t even seem correct to me. If a solar minimum was to put a bit of cooling into the system then more CO2 wouldn’t exacerbate it, would it?

  3. Bryan – I think you misinterpret “It may work well if the writers’ intention is to reinforce the polarisation of opinion”. This is given in a hypothetical sense, i.e. if one wanted to further polarise opinion, then this is the strategy one would take. It is not an assertion that this is what is intended.

    It seems we are hard wired cognitively, to be more receptive to information that affirms our existing views or comes from a source that we identify with or trust, and we tend to dismiss information that creates ‘dissonance’ with our pre-existing mental models.

    While climate change is such an urgent and problematic issue, its threat and urgency make it less likely, rather than more likely to bypass cognitive filters. This is the message I think Hulme is trying to get past your cognitive filter.

    The complexity of the issue is also a problem for our cognitive capabilities – some of our tendencies make us complexity-adverse. Those who are able to get past the paywall might be interested in this paper: Doerner, D. 1980. On the difficulties people have in dealing with complexity. Simulation and Gaming, 11: 87-106.

    This is a complex and urgent issue, but simple approaches such as focusing on the urgency and severity of climate change just won’t cut it.
    We need smart strategies based on good science.

    We need to work with our cognitive vices, even though there is no guarantee that what we achieve will be sufficient. However, continuing with a strategy that is contrary to evidence is a “decision of those who wrap themselves in denial”.

    1. I don’t think I seriously misinterpret Hulme. Of course the scientists are not aiming to polarise opinion, but Hulme suggests this is all they achieve, and I might add that I think it’s something of a cheap shot.

      I understand that he is arguing for different approaches from those which focus on the urgency and seriousness of climate change. I have no quarrel with any approach that will result in reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. If tangential approaches work, by all means use them. But don’t expect scientists to meanwhile disguise the severity of their message. Hulme’s refashioning of the scientists’ statement looks very like a suggestion that things won’t be as bad as the scientists say they will.

      Here on Hot Topic I suggest that many of his six frames (though definitely not the mostly natural one) are aired. Certainly many of the books I review come at the topic in other ways than just repeating the seriousness of the scientific message. But that seriousness doesn’t go away, and that is what gives urgency to discussions of market failure or global injustice or over consumption or whatever – though I must say from his book it doesn’t appear that likes those discussions either, as I indicated in my review.

      1. I think the ‘climate change as as mostly natural’ frame could be particularly powerful, since it is consistent with a dynamic sense of resilience where the natural state of the system is one of change.

        Resilience thinking contrasts strongly with present control and efficiency approaches, and this frame may be useful for getting resilience thinking and climate change adaptation embedded into the mental models of decision makers.

        Dissonance gets in the way all to easily, and as a result learning opportunities are missed. We need all the learning we can get if we are to avoid a head-on with our ecological limits.

        1. I must admit that I think resilience is a very useful framing of the issue — particularly at the moment. We are committed to a considerable amount of warming (in the pipeline), and it is likely to be more damaging than perhaps expected, so policies that focus on coping are going to be an essential part of any sensible strategy. Acknowledging the need for resilience can be done without direct reference to climate change, which broadens the scope of the policy appeal. No east coast farmer is going to object to something that improves his/her ability to cope with drought or erosion, for instance.

          Sea level rise is somewhat different, since you have to accept that it’s going to happen in order to plan for it. I note that the NZ CSC’s Barry Brill, in his introduction to Bob Carter’s talk the the recent crank conference in Washington, included references to the NZ CSC submitting against allowances for SLR in a planning document. I’d like to know more about that…

  4. One of the big problems with the climate debate is that the deniers position is based on arguments that are not supported by true facts. On the other hand the scientists are constrained by not only telling the truth but are also compelled to say what they don’t know. In a public discussion, being able to lie freely and be supported by others is a very strong position.
    I don’t think scientists should lie but they could join the dots of evidence and point to a conclusion more positively.
    Its no good being half hearted when confronted with blatant and strongly presented lies.

  5. I think I understand what Hulme is trying to achieve and I agree there are different and scientifically correct ways to talk about climate change.

    But when I read his suggested paragraph I get the feeling he is being “to much of a scientist”. I fear that the eyes of much of the lay public and uninterested politicians would have glazed over before they got to the end, or read it three times to get all the information out of it.

    His contribution also requires quite a lot of knowledge to be fully appreciated. For example; how much does the general public know about aerosol pollution and how that affects climate? Or the magnitude of temperatures changes caused by natural variation in an interglacial? Not a lot I would guess.

    So personally, I’d go with the other statement.

  6. I think Mike Hulme is making the same mistake as all those geologists ‘gone emeritus’. He’s presuming he knows as much about messaging and group psychology as he does about his own area of expertise.

    The latest research on getting across the dangers of climate change shows that you should not avoid or dilute the seriousness of the danger. What you _must_ do is to match the danger message within the science with a similarly strong message that we also have the technical capacity to quickly reduce our CO2. If you push the science content without the power and control message, people are much more likely to resist, or deny, the climate science message

    A warning about something people feel they have no control over is either pointless or counter-productive. My feeling is that this dual message isn’t something climate scientists should try to deliver alone. Unfortunately, it’s really up to the media and others to put the whole package together. Paul Gilding’s really good at this. I just find his notion that we really won’t get our act together properly until we have a Pearl Harbour moment a bit depressing.

  7. I noticed a comment from Andrew Glikson, an Earth and paleoclimate scientist at Australian National University, following Hulme’s article. He provides the abstract for Hulme’s public lecture in Sydney a couple of months ago:

    “I suggest that our ultimate goal is not to ‘stop climate change’. We have mistaken the means for the end. Our goal is surely to ensure that the basic human needs of the world’s growing population are adequately met; that we move towards a development paradigm where we are living within our techno-ecological means and not beyond them; and that our societies are adequately equipped to withstand the risks and dangers that come from a changing climate – distinguishing whether those risks and dangers are natural or not is hardly the point. It is not more certain scientific predictions that we need; nor a charismatic leader to arise from ‘the east’; nor grand dreams of creating a global thermostat in the sky above. It is what Sheila Jasanoff has referred to as the ‘technologies of humility’ – ‘disciplined methods to accommodate the partiality of scientific knowledge and to act under irredeemable uncertainty’ – that will offer us the best prospects for taming the risks of climate change.”

    Glikson asks, in brief, how the “basic human needs of the world’s growing population” can be met if we don’t stop climate change and global temperatures rise above 2 degrees and questions the faith Hulme appears to place in adaptation under the extreme circumstances likely to prevail if we don’t rapidly transition from carbon emissions.

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