Saturday, 9 January 2010

Book Review: Mike Hulme, "Why we disagree about climate change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity".

Whether you believe that tackling climate change is the biggest threat to our planet, or whether you think it is all a con to squeeze more taxes out of a gullible public, the reasons you put forward for holding your views are not the real ones. You hold to your views because it suits you. That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Mike Hulme. He would probably (in fact, more than probably) be horrified that I have summarised it in this way so let me expand on it.

The opinions we hold on a particular issue are determined by a matrix of complementary perceptions. How do we view science? What do we value? What beliefs do we hold? What do we fear? How do we want to be governed? The stand we take on climate change is shaped by our response to these different questions and helps to explain, for example, why global warming is generally viewed differently by the political left and the political right. The factors, which lead us to reach a decision on a political issue, are same ones as lead us to decide on all the other issues we have to face. This, as I am sure Mike Hulme would acknowledge, applies to author himself. As well as being a Professor at the School of Environmental Sciences of the University of East Anglia he is a committed Christian and many of his analogies have a biblical origin.

Hulme takes us through the questions I have listed above, and many others. For example in the section on risk he introduce two pairs of risk types. One of these pairs is situated/un-situated risk. Situated risk is when someone wants to build a waste incineration plant at the bottom of your garden; un-situated risk is the danger that the output from incineration plants all over the world will be dangerous. He second pair is affective/analytic. Affective risk is one you can actually experience, fumes from the incineration plant; analytic risk is one you only know about indirectly, published figures on the output of noxious gases from incinerations plants.

Climate change naturally falls into the category of ‘un-situated’ and ‘analytic’ risks. A lot of the effort of climate change campaigners has been to move the argument to ‘situated’ and ‘affected’ risks. Polar bears stranded on an ice floe far from safety are a ‘situated’ risk. Similarly, claiming that a large number of extreme weather events are caused by climate change increases the number of people for whom climate change becomes and ‘affective’ risk.
Given that Mike Hulme is a professor at the University of East Anglia, one of the world’s main centres for climate change research, the book is fairly balanced; in this he is being consistent with past statements where he has expressed worries that extreme language is having a negative effect on reactions to climate change. He also tackles one of the great taboo subjects in relation to climate change: population. After all total carbon dioxide emission can be considered as per capita consumption times population so why should all the effort be on the one (per capita consumption) not the other. China claims to have reduced its population growth by 300 million people as a result of its ‘one child’ policy. This, even at China’s relatively low per capita use, is equivalent to more that 5% of all carbon emissions and much more effective that Kyoto.

Despite this there are still few areas where his bias shows. In discussing participatory democracy he mentions the blog but not the more popular (although sceptical) He quotes Eric Hobsbawm, the ‘British historian’, as saying, “Democracy, however desirable, is not an effective device for solving global or transnational problems.” What he fails to mention is that Hobsbawm is a life-long communist and once described Stalinist communism as a ‘worthwhile experiment’.

The last chapter, Beyond Climate Change, is in some ways the most intriguing. He introduces four ‘myths’ about climate change; the word myth is used in the anthropological sense of a deeply significant narrative about assumed truths. These are:
• Lamenting Eden – a search for an irenic state which existed before the fall,
• Presaging apocalypse - which sits well with eschatological calls to ‘repent as the end of the world is nigh’,
• Constructing Babel – referring to the attempt to build a city with a ‘tower that reaches to the heavens’ and signifying a desire to supplant God by human mastery of the universe,
• Celebrating Jubilee – based on the Jewish idea that every 50 years, soil, slaves and debtors should be liberated and humanity could make a fresh start.
Behind all these narratives is the pessimistic concept of a ‘wicked problem’; one which defies ‘rational and optimal’ solutions. As Hulme points out the world is now very much aware of the concept and threat of climate change but in reality little has been done. He suggests that climate change may be such a ‘wicked problem’.

Bjorn Lomborg is quoted three times in the book, always accurately and never in a disparaging way. As far as I can tell Lomborg is the only sceptic referenced in the book (though in one sense Lomborg is not a sceptic – he does not dispute climate change but only the much touted responses to it.) Could it be that Mike Hulme, a High Priest of climate change with privileged access to its inner sanctum, hold views not very dissimilar from those of “The Sceptical Environmentalist”? I doubt it but, as I said, the last chapter is intriguing.

I recommend this book.


Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9780521898690

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