Book Review: ‘Why we Disagree About Climate Change’, by Mike Hulme

April 14, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

hulme coverIn mid 2008, long before the Copenhagen climate summit tanked or the University of East Anglia became synonymous with dodgy emails, Mike Hulme, a UEA geographer and climate modeller, and founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, went into deep reflection on the divisive nature of the climate change debate. The resulting book is fascinating, intriguing and at times frustrating.

First what the book is not. It is not a polemic, nor an attempt to ‘settle’ the argument with climate change deniers. It’s much more interesting than that. Hulme stands back and looks at the broader significance of climate and climate change, from the viewpoint of science, economics, religion, psychology, media, development and governance. If you want an intelligent take on the IPCC, the Stern Report, the disagreements between North and South – it’s all here. His intent is to show that the disputes over climate change are not just (or even mainly) about the science, which is in any case hugely uncertain. Rather they are deeply rooted in all aspects of the human condition.

Hulme identifies some useful typologies, usually in sets of four, for example ‘ways of life’ that influence how people perceive climate change:

Fatalists: nature is a lottery, there is nothing we can do
Hierarchists: experts can manage the outcomes if we get behind them
Individualists: it’s down to individuals and markets
Egalitarians: altruism and common effort, built on social justice, are the way forward

(Alarmingly, I veer between all four in the course of a typical week…..) These mindsets act as powerful filters of any debate and evidence, and are far more deeply rooted than the world of ‘evidence-based policy making’ is prepared to admit.

The book is wide ranging, provocative, and a bit elusive – it’s hard to pin down a single ‘big idea’, but here’s a selection of quotes that constitutes my best effort:

‘Climate change is not a problem that can be solved in the sense that, for example, technical and political resources were mobilised to solve the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion…. Instead, we need to reveal the creative psychological, ethical and spiritual work that climate change is doing for us…. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but what climate change can do for us.’

At first sight, this reminds me of those people who advocate ‘learning to love your cancer’ – science-and-religionmore a counsel of despair than a real option. But I think it’s better than that. What he is essentially arguing is that even if we learn to manage and limit climate change, we will have entered a new age, the Anthropocene, which will require a different relationship between humanity and the climate, touching on religion, governance, economics and much else. To update Heraclitus, from here on ‘there is nothing permanent except climate change’.

If that reality permeates every aspect of our existence, then climate change is no more a ‘problem that requires a solution’ than is, say, human rights or technological progress. He criticises the ‘siren voices’ of ‘The time to act is now’ that have ‘explained, cajoled, scolded, bullied, preached – pleaded even – society to take heed, to repent, to change beliefs, behaviours and practices’ as creating a ‘mega-problem demanding a mega-solution’ that has ‘created a political log-jam of gigantic proportions.’

Hulme ends with four ‘mobilizing narratives’ that neatly capture the diversity of the discussion:

‘The myth of Eden, born of nostalgia, tells us of our yearning to return to some simpler era. We are telling ourselves that in the active shaping of our climate, we have appropriated god-like powers, yet they are powers we are uncomfortable with.

The myth of Apocalypse, born of fear, tells us of our worry about the future. No longer is it the capricious climate gods whom we need to respect and appease to ensure our survival, but it is ourselves and our various appetite for material consumption that we now fear.

The myth of Babel, born of pride, tells us of our desire for mastery and control, a global domain over which we can create new instruments and institutions of control.

The myth of Jubilee, born of justice. Climate change opens out for us new ways of understanding the wilful and structural causes of inequality and injustice in the world.’

Climate change is so complex and omnipresent, and these narratives so incompatible that ‘if we pursue the route of seeking ever larger and grander solutions to climate change we will continue to end up frustrated and disillusioned: global deals will be stymied, science and economics will remain battlegrounds for rearguard actions, global emission will continue to rise, vulnerabilities to climate change will remain. And we will end up unleashing ever more reactionary and dangerous interventions in our despairing search for a solution [he’s no fan of biofuels or geoengineering].’

Is this an inspired picture of how to reframe and transcend climate change by internalizing it as an inevitable part of all our futures, or merely justification for an intellectual surrender that consigns millions of people in the poorest countries to an increasingly perilous life? Or both? I would love to hear what others make of the book.

April 14, 2010
Duncan Green