Mike Hulme “Why we disagree about Climate Change”

ISBN 978-0-521-72732-7. “Why we disagree about climate change – Understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity” by Mike Hulme. Published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. The review copy is the 392 page paperback which includes Foreword, Preface, 10 Chapters, Bibliography and Index. The author is no climate change denier nor zealot. He spent seven years leading the Tyndall Centre before moving on to work at the UEA (University of East Anglia) School of Environmental Sciences as a genuine Professor of Climate Change. He has published real peer-reviewed research on the topic as well as prepared reports for the UK Government, the EU and the IPCC. There is probably nothing he doesn’t know about Climate Change. Hence his choice of topic is therefore interesting and brave. Not for him another shock-book packed with climate porn and worst-case scenarios. No, this is a reaction against any extreme views. Hulme’s work is at the same time both sublime and infuriating. This book is packed with valuable insight but it leads us to conclude very little about how we can proceed. The author argues that “Climate Change” is different from “climate change” in lower case. There is the science and then our perception of this science and resulting policy.

Whereas climate change is a scientific issue “Climate Change” is a social issue. It is both mirror and magnifying glass. In it we see ourselves and we must use it as a mechanism to better understand ourselves. This is a work of modern philosophy and it may well not be an easy read to many. Many a ‘warmer’ may prefer the simplistic guidelines in James Hoggan’s “Climate Cover-up”. Hoggan prescribes the lack of progress in climate change negotiations to cartoon bad guys. Hulme strips down the sociological construct down to its bare bones to reveal the real reason why we can never agree about Climate Change. There are no simple bad guys. Everyone is part of the problem because we all understand Climate Change differently. We see it through a lenses of our cultural and personal expectations. The arguments will never be won by science because it is no, ultimately, a scientific problem with a prescribed “solution”. Instead we have a sophisticated, multi-dimensional and multi-layered problem which tells us as much about our human society as it does about the interplay of sun, ocean and atmosphere. We all have different viewpoints upon the risks. We all fear different things. “Facts” get re-interpreted through the looking-glass of man-made climate change. For example 15,000 people died in France in August 2003 due to high temperatures. This was amplified through the press as a climate-change-related disaster. Yet in 1976 France suffered 6000 premature deaths due to a heat wave and no one even noticed. The statistical anomaly was only spotted in retrospect and was never commented upon.

Hence “Climate Change” has become a football for everyone with an “issue”. Environmentalists see it as an environmental issue. Human rights campaigners see it as a global justice issue. The economists see it as an economic problem whilst politicians see it as a governance issue. It is all of these and none of these. Hulme walks through all the phenomenon that are in the mix; from science to economics, from faith to psychology, from communication to sociology and beyond. We don’t disagree on Climate Change because we receive different science. We disagree for the same reasons we disagree about everything else. According to Hulme this disagreement is actually healthy as it helps us learn. Our society is now unable to even assimilate the very concept of scientific uncertainty. The situation is so bad that scientists (via the IPCC) feel the need to invent certainty in some desperate measure to induce action. However, it is all to no avail. We keep arguing and nothing every gets resolved. Each year we are exalted to cut our emissions by 10% or told that we have “ten years to save the planet”. Each year a thousand ideas rise and fall in the areas of “dangerous climate change”, carbon markets, civic environmentalism, poverty minimisation, zero-carbon technologies, international treaty, geo-engineering and so on. But what is it all for? What is the purpose of our species upon the plant? Why are we here? Which one of the many aspirations within our ‘battle’ with climate change are we trying to obtain? Is it a stable climate or a more just world? Is it reformed economic policies or the preservation of some lost Eden? Since we don’t know what we want then we will never agree. Our climate will always be different from the one we want.

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” awoke the modern environmental movement. Since that time they have relished winning nearly every battle only to lose the war. Despite thirty years of campaigning on a million micro-issues they were completely out-manoeuvred by the rise neo-liberal economics. By the end of the 20th Century we had ripped a hole in our ozone layer, asset-stripped the planet of its fossil fuel reserves and changed the planet’s climate. By any measure this is a mortifying failure. And yet we still fail. We fail to reach any agreement on an international treaty to deal with the problem. This, argues Hulme, is precisely because this is not a problem that can be solved with any single treaty. This book will make your head spin. If you have the patience to get to the end of it then you will be none the wiser about how we resolve the deadlock. On this essential point Hulme fails to deliver any killer-punch. We learn why we disagree but it isn’t sufficient enough for us to understand by what method we should actually agree. This is Hulme’s point – we will never agree. Hence we need a multitude of approaches that allow smaller groups to agree, then take it one baby step at a time. Novelist Ian McEwan explained it thus: “We are a clever but quarrelsome species – in our public discourses we can sound like a rookery in full throat”. Precisely. There you have it – Climate Change as theology. Disturbing.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

Comments are closed.