Why We Disagree on Climate Change (M.Hulme)

hulme coverMike Hulme is a professor of climate change and director of the prestigious and controversial research Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research  .  The book is not a book on the science of climate change.  If it were only about the science, Hulme argues, reaching agreement would be straightforward.   Rather, disagreements on the science of climate change are symptoms of much more fundamental differences in human nature.

Such underlying reasons include:

  • Different ways people look at science and understand its limitations
  • Different ways people see the relation between (scientific) knowledge and policy
  • Different ways people consider risk;
  • Different ethical positions people take about their responsibility for future generations and are willing to invest for future welfare (quantified in the ‘discount rate’)
  • Different beliefs in our duty to others, who’s responsible for climate change and our religions
  • Different world views, described by Douglas and Wildavsky’s Cultural Theory
  • Different ways people communicate about climate (no message is neutral) and interpret those messages
  • Different ways people think climate change should be governed.
Four Rationalities in Cultural Theory

Four Rationalities in Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory distinguishes four dominant world views, expressed by the intensity of bonds between people (individualist vs collectivist) and the extent to which people believe that few or many rules are necessary to control behaviour.

  • 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

The cultural dimension of climate change is also revealed by the language and images we use.  Expressions like ‘dangerous’ climate change, ‘save’ the climate, ‘tipping points’ and ‘fragile’ climate express different views on climate.  Greenpeace has used a range of images of the years, from the ‘climate change bomb’  to the polar bear to communicate climate change to different target groups.

In discussion on avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change, questions such as whose climate (small island states, Western Europe, Saharan Africa…), dangerous for whom and what climate is desired (pre-industrial, Holocene…) are often glossed over.

These underlying differences have created various ‘stories’ about climate change, inspired by 4 basic human desires:

  • nostalgia for a lost ‘ideal’ climate
  • fear for the unknown future
  • mastering and controlling nature
  • call to respond to social injustice

Climate change has become a central concept in development as well.  Climate change prominently features in calls for proposals or as a transversal theme in programmes.  At first sight, this might seem strange.  Does it make sense to invest funds in the welfare of future generations if current generations lack basic amenities such as basic healthcare and education.  Investing in the economic development of the poor will enable them to protect themselves better against any natural disasters.  Limiting fertility rates (as a result of economic development) is likely to do more for climate change than any planned ‘development’ intervention (as China likes to point out).  Climate change mitigation and development are frequently in conflict each other.  Projects under the Clean Development Mechanism rarely benefit the poorest.  Increasing trade is bad for the carbon level in the atmosphere but has lifted millions out of poverty.  The European decision to subsidize biofuels has pushed up food prices.

However, if you look at climate change as an idea (like ‘democracy’ or ‘terrorism’) that has as much to do with science as with culture, it makes more sense.  Climate change as an idea carries a variety of meanings and interpretations.  Then, climate change becomes a tool to advance development agendas of social justice, better functioning markets or public welfare.

As solution, the book gives some recipes from complexity science.  Rather than aiming to find one global solution, a variety of approaches catering to different world views, ideas about governance, science etc. stands a better chance at curbing climate change.  Climate change derives from various other problems, such as population growth, unsustainable energy, endemic poverty, food security, deforestation, biodiversity loss…  Rather than framing climate change as a mega-problem, requiring a mega-solution, Hulme argues that disentangling the issue, moving climate change to the background, is more likely to yield effect.

If you like an intelligent take on why climate change is about so much more than debates on science, then this book is for you.  For development people, discussions on the IPCC, the Stern Report and the disagreements between North and South are all there.  Duncan Green from Oxfam also has a fine review of the book.

One comment on “Why We Disagree on Climate Change (M.Hulme)

  1. […] rather than improbable events.  This is especially true in areas with high uncertainty like climate change. Not the median value of expected temperature rise is so much important, rather than the ‘fat […]

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