Best Books of 2009: Why We Disagree About Climate Change

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Why we disagree about climate changeMike Hulme’s “Why We Disagree About Climate Change” came out in May and was recently listed as one of the “Best Books of 2009″ by The Economist.

A former member of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University – home to the infamous “ClimateGate” e-mails – Hulme has been a polarizing figure for all sides in the climate debate.

“Too often, when we think we are arguing over scientific evidence for climate change, we are in fact disagreeing about our different political preferences, ethical principles and value systems,” Hulme told the Wall Street Journal about the leaked e-mails. “Climate scientists, knowingly or not, become proxies for political battles.”

With “Why We Disagree About Climate Change,” Hulme argues how the inevitable gaps and ambiguities of science have laid open a wellspring of emotion, rendering it impossible to disentangle scientific insight from politics and culture.

Hulme spoke with CleanTechies on December 18, shortly before Copenhagen closed.

CleanTechies: You were in Copenhagen?

Mike Hulme:  Only a brief visit last week, just 24 hours.

CleanTechies: What did you take away from there?

Mike Hulme: Well, what I took away from there were the 40,000 people who’d been attending at different stages during the two weeks. But no one can actually get a sense of the whole conference. There were just too many lines and individuals and positions entangled together.

CleanTechies: Was the conference too big?

Mike Hulme: I’m no politician. This is a big political conference and I wasn’t even at the COP itself. I was at another event in Copenhagen.  So I leave the ins-and-outs of the COP to proceed. I don’t think these forums are the right place – I don’t think they can ever achieve very much there.

CleanTechies: Why do you think conferences like these can’t achieve much?

Mike Hulme: Simply because the level of expectation has been ramped up so high. Politicians will always rhetoricize. What they’re rhetoricizing over are commitments to long-term reductions in emissions. So, to me, very little will have changed this side of Copenhagen compared to the other side of Copenhagen.

CleanTechies: Has your opinion on the topics covered in your book changed since it came out?

Mike Hulme: The book’s had a long gestation. It’s been in my mind for the last five or six years. It came out in May, so it’s been around for a while. I don’t think so. I would largely hold by everything I’ve written in the book.

I think one thing that has changed is that people want more to take away. They want a policy manifesto. They want the solution. They want to know, well, what do we do?  That wasn’t the purpose of the book. The book was never to lay out a policy manifesto. It was there to reflect on what has happened to this idea of climate change, why it does generate so much diversity and divergence and disagreement, and to give people the tools and equipment to help to make sense of these different voices on climate change. And also to maybe suggest in the end that climate change is the wrong project that we should be on. What people wanted was the ten key steps that we should take. Obviously, the Copenhagen fiasco is focusing people’s attention on, well, if this doesn’t work, then what do we do?

And so I suppose I’ve offered various people a number of things that seem to flow from my line of reasoning. Because my line of reasoning doesn’t take us to Copenhagen and big, multi-lateral deals to stop climate change. My line of reasoning would seek to break down climate change into a lot of different constituent elements, problems and issues and opportunities and allow those different constituent elements of climate change to be tackled in a much wider set of forums and using different types of policy frameworks. And actually selling to our public, as well.

One of the problems with this long-term project of trying to save the climate is that it doesn’t appeal or engage psychologically with individual people. It sounds either rather presumptuous to people or it sounds rather distant from them, both distance in space and time. It doesn’t really engage. People certainly wouldn’t see the benefits of them taking individual actions. The benefits will be invisible to them. And that isn’t a very engaging way of motivating and changing behavior. But I’m not a great fan of this whole process, as you can tell.

CleanTechies: Will there need to be an event on a larger global scale before people wake up?

Mike Hulme: A lot of people say this: “We need a super-storm to hit Washington, D.C.” or wherever else.  In Europe, we had one of these events in the summer of 2003 when a heat wave of remarkable intensity hit the continent and 30,000 people, mostly elderly, died prematurely. That was quite a remarkable event in ecological and public health terms. 

The problem with arguing that we need a big wake-up event is that, of course, any big meteorological event will always remain somewhat unclear, whether it’s linked to global warming or not. Scientists, at best, can offer a statistical answer to that. They can’t actually offer a definitive answer to it. So I’m not even a great believer that some great meteorological disaster would fundamentally or radically change people’s attitudes to long-term risks.

There’s been some interesting work done in the UK examining people’s attitudes to pro-environment behavior, people who’ve been flooded recently by a very intense flood event versus people who haven’t. And the argument being that those who actually have experienced first-hand the flooding would be more inclined to support and promote low carbon decisions and choices. But they haven’t. There are other factors that influence whether people engage in pro-environment behavior or not. It’s not just a case of them being exposed to a particular climactic disaster.

CleanTechies: What’s your take on the East Anglia e-mail problem? You taught there.

Mike Hulme: I worked in the climate research unit for ten years. I left quite awhile ago now. But, yes, I know some of the people involved. I’m not commenting on the details of individual e-mails or people. There’s an inquiry proceeding on it now.

I think the wider lessons for me are two-fold: one is that it shows how very politicized some of the climate science has become, the fact that people would revert to criminal action to find any evidence that they would claim is malpractice, people wanting to go to that extreme to engage on criminal action like that. But also it reveals that people who are working as climate scientists in the orthodoxy find themselves almost without wanting to or almost without knowing it, they find themselves pushed into situations where they become very defensive and perhaps rather over-reacting to approaches                                   from outside.

“Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity” (Paperback) by Mike Hulme (Cambridge University Press, May 25, 2009). Buy from Amazon.

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