Why We Disagree About Climate Change is about the idea of climate change—where it came from, what it means to different people in different places and why we disagree about it. The book develops a different way of approaching the idea of climate change and of working creatively with it.
I deliberately present climate change as an idea to be debated as much as a physical phenomenon that can be observed, quantified and measured. This latter framing is how climate change is mostly understood by scientists and how science has presented climate change to society over recent decades. But as society has been increasingly confronted with the observable realities of climate change, and heard of the dangers that scientists claim lie ahead, climate change has moved from being predominantly a physical phenomenon to being simultaneously a social phenomenon.
Far from simply being a change in physical climates—a change in the sequences of weather experienced in given places—climate change has become an idea that now travels well beyond its origins in the natural sciences. It meets new cultures on its travels and encounters the worlds of politics, economics, popular culture, commerce and religion—often through the interposing role of the media. As it does so climate change takes on new meanings and serves new purposes.
In Why We Disagree About Climate Change I examine these mutations. I do so using the concepts, tools and languages of the sciences, social sciences and humanities and the discourses and practices of economics, politics and religion. Depending on who one is and where one stands the idea of climate change carries quite different meanings and seems to imply quite different courses of action.
These differences of perspective are rooted much more deeply than (merely) in contrasting interpretations of the scientific narrative of climate change. Our discordant conversations about climate change reveal at a deeper level all that makes for diversity, creativity and conflict within the human story—our different attitudes to risk, technology and well-being; our different ethical, ideological and political beliefs; our different interpretations of the past and our competing visions of the future. If we are to understand climate change and if we are to use climate change constructively in our politics, we must first hear and understand these discordant voices, these multifarious human beliefs, values, attitudes, aspirations and behaviours.
“Our discordant conversations about climate change reveal at a deeper level all that makes for diversity, creativity and conflict within the human story—our different attitudes to risk, technology and well-being; our different ethical, ideological and political beliefs; our different interpretations of the past and our competing visions of the future.”
The idea of climate change carries quite different meanings. It is used to support different political, social and technological projects and seems to imply different courses of action.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has constructed a powerful scientific consensus about the physical transformation of the world’s climate. This is a reality that I believe in. But there is no comparable consensus about what the idea of climate change actually means to people or to human societies.
Four contemporary and contrasting ways of narrating the significance of climate change illustrate just some of the more salient discourses currently in circulation:
Climate change as a battleground between different philosophies and practices of science, between different ways of knowing.
Climate change as justification for the commodification of the atmosphere and, especially, for the commodification of the gas carbon dioxide.
Climate change as the inspiration for a global network of new, or re-invigorated, social movements.
Climate change as a threat to ethnic, national and global security.
All of the above suggests that far from starting with ignorance and ending with certainty, the story of climate change is a much more interesting one to tell. The full story of climate change is the unfolding story of an idea and how this idea is changing the way we think, feel and act. Not only is climate change altering our physical world, but the idea of climate change is altering our social worlds. And this idea is reaching farther and farther across these social worlds.
Rather than asking ‘How do we solve climate change?’ we need to turn the question around and ask ‘How does the idea of climate change alter the way we arrive at and achieve our personal aspirations and our collective social goals?’ By understanding why we disagree about climate change we will also understand better what it takes to live sustainably on a crowded finite planet inhabited by a quarrelsome species.
The account of climate change that I present in the book emerges from my own encounter with climate change over the last thirty years. This encounter started while I was a university student, continued during my time as a post-doctoral researcher and, more recently, has persisted through my roles as a professor, research leader, educator and public speaker. These personal and professional experiences have shaped the way I now view climate change. This journey is also worth noting because the period through which I have travelled—from the late 1970s to today—coincides with the transformation of climate change from an object of largely scientific professional interest into a topic of daily and worldwide popular discourse.
I should also state clearly my own position with regard to climate change in case I am misunderstood. I believe that the risks posed to people and places by the physical attributes of climate are tangible, and serious, and they need constantly improving forms of human intervention and management. I believe that the physical functions of global climate and, consequently, the parameters of local weather are changing (largely) under the influence of the changing composition of the atmosphere caused by an array of human activities. And I believe that changes in climatic risks induced by such global climate change are also important and serious. We do well to minimise these risks by reducing the vulnerability of those exposed to them and by minimising further changes to the composition of the world’s atmosphere.
Yet I do not believe that the way we have framed these goals—most significantly through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol—is the only way of doing so. Nor do I believe it is necessarily the most appropriate way. I feel uncomfortable that climate change is widely reported through the language of catastrophe and imminent peril, as ‘the greatest problem facing humanity’ that demands to trump all others. I believe that such reporting both detracts from what science is good at revealing to us and diminishes the many other ways of thinking, feeling and knowing about climate which are also essential elements in personal and collective decision-making.
Why We Disagree About Climate Change is my attempt to articulate the reasons for these beliefs and to re-situate the idea of climate change more honestly as the subject of a more creative and less pejorative discourse.
Towards the end of the book I put forward four myths about climate change. I would hope people may recognise the truths about our relationship with climate change that each of these myths embodies. Each captures different aspects of ways in which humans see themselves, relate to each other and seek to live on the Earth.
We talk about climate change using the language of lament and nostalgia, revealing our desire to return to some simpler more innocent era. We are uneasy with the unsought powers to change global climate we now have. This is the myth of Eden.
We talk about climate change using the language of fear and apocalypse, revealing our endemic worry about the future. But we have lost the sense of transcendent mystery and gratitude that once offered us conduits for defusing these fears. This is the myth of Apocalypse.
We talk about climate change using the language of pride and control, revealing our desire for dominance and mastery. Climate change now offers us a global domain for such mastery, but we lack the wisdom and humility to exercise it. This is the myth of Prometheus.
And we talk about climate change using the language of justice and equity, revealing the inescapable call for humans to redress revealed injustices. This is the Themisian myth. But climate change also reveals the limits of our individual moral agency.
The value in offering these mythical stories that underpin our discourses about climate change is that they allow people to explore issues now hidden because not seen. If we continue to talk about climate change as an environmental problem to be solved, if we continue to understand the climate system as something to be mastered and controlled, then we have missed the main lessons of climate change. If climate means to us only the measureable and physical dimensions of our life on Earth then we will always be at war with climate. Our climates will forever be offering us something different to what we want.
I argue that 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 or asbestos in our buildings. We need to approach the idea of climate change from a different vantage point. We need to reveal the creative psychological, spiritual and ethical work that climate change can do and is doing for us.
By understanding the ways climate change connects with foundational human instincts of nostalgia, fear, pride and justice we open up a way of re-situating culture and the human spirit at the centre of our understanding of climate. Human beings are more than merely material objects and climate is more than merely a physical category. Rather than catalysing disagreements about how, when and where to tackle climate change, we must approach the idea of climate change as an imaginative resource around which our collective and personal identities and projects can and should take shape.
“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 emissions will continue to rise, vulnerabilities to climate risks will remain. And we will end up unleashing ever more reactionary and dangerous interventions in our despairing search for a solution to our wicked problem: the colonisation of agricultural land with energy crops, the colonisation of space with mirrors, the colonisation of the human spirit with authoritarian government.”
In the concluding chapter I look beyond the mere physicality of climate change as an environmental problem to be solved. I argue that because climate change is a ‘wicked problem’ it does not lend itself to a solution—whether to elegant solutions or even clumsy ones.
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 emissions will continue to rise, vulnerabilities to climate risks will remain. And we will end up unleashing ever more reactionary and dangerous interventions in our despairing search for a solution to our wicked problem: the colonisation of agricultural land with energy crops, the colonisation of space with mirrors, the colonisation of the human spirit with authoritarian government.
Rather than placing ourselves in a ‘fight against climate change’ we need a more constructive and imaginative engagement with the idea of climate change. Solving climate change should not be the focus of our efforts any more than we should be ‘solving’ the idea of human rights or liberal democracy. It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change—the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and material flows that climate change reveals—to re-think how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come.
As a resource of the imagination, the idea of climate change can be deployed around our geographical, social and virtual worlds in creative ways. The idea of climate change can stimulate new thinking about technology. It can inspire new artistic creations in visual, written and dramatised media. It can invigorate efforts to protect our citizens from the hazards of climate. The idea of climate change can provoke new ethical and theological thinking about our relationship with the future. It can arouse new interest in how science and culture inter-relate. It can galvanize new social movements to explore new ways of living in urban and rural settings. And the idea of climate change can touch each one of us as we reflect on the goals and values that matter to us.
These are all creative applications of the idea of climate change, but they are applications that do not demand global agreement. Indeed, they may be hindered by the search for agreement. I argue that they thrive in conditions of pluralism and hope rather than in conditions of universalism and fear. And nor are they applications that will lead to stabilising global climate—they will not ‘solve’ climate change.
Mike Hulme is Professor of Climate Change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and was the Founding Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research from 2000 to 2007. He is editor-in-chief of the newly commissioned Wiley’s Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. His books include Climates of the British Isles (1997), Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009), and the forthcoming edited volume Making Climate Change Work For Us. He was a convening lead author for the IPCC Third Assessment Report.