Warm Planet, Cool Heads

A new book warns against pushing all the world’s problems into the climate bucket.
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Mike Hulme, a Cambridge professor of human geography who has served on the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and holds a certificate for his contributions to that body’s climate science from when it was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, is no climate denier. And yet time and again in his new book he is at pains to preempt the charge that, actually, he is. “Again, don’t misread me,” he writes at one point, “climate kills and climate change is real.” Elsewhere in the book he describes human-caused climate change as a “scientifically well-established fact.” So why the anxiety that readers will say, as he anticipates, “you sound just like a climate denier”?

Reviewed in this article
Polity ~ 2023 ~ 208 pp.
$59.95 (cloth) $19.95 (paperback)

Hulme is worried because, in arguing that “climate change is a significant risk with uneven effects” but “not a collective existential one,” he rejects what he calls the “master-narrative of climate change,” which resides in the public imagination and some of the most powerful social and political organizations. “Climatism,” as Hulme explains, “is the settled belief that the dominant explanation of social, economic and ecological phenomena is ‘a human-caused change in the climate.’ It frames the complex political and ethical challenges confronting the world today first and foremost in terms of a changing climate.” This “ideology,” Hulme worries, has come to rule and narrow the way we think about climate change so much that the only alternative to it would seem to be climate denial.

Climate Change Isn’t Everything is a much-needed intervention to get beyond this false choice, one in which both options are not only wrong but dangerous, and to offer a better one instead.

Climatism is, for example, the belief that a drought caused by climate change was a major factor in the civil war in Syria that began in 2011 — a belief, as Hulme cites, that major media organizations as well as world leaders have touted. In 2015, John Kerry, then U.S. Secretary of State, said “it’s not a coincidence that immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record.” And, then-Prince Charles claimed that “there is very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria was a drought that lasted for five or six years.” It may or may not be the case that a drought contributed to the conditions leading to the Syrian bloodbath, but it is not in serious dispute whether those conditions or Bashar al-Assad’s political decisions themselves were the foremost factor.

Hulme cites several other examples of how “global geopolitical security has become climatized,” including the claim, according to one journalist, that “one of the decisive factors behind the Taliban’s sudden takeover of Afghanistan [in 2021] has been hidden in plain sight — climate change.” Similarly, Hulme shows how a religious history scholar attributes massive theological shifts in history to climatic “shocks.”

In the case of extreme weather disasters, news reports often attribute them to climate change when they would be better, or at least better mainly, understood as failures of infrastructure management. For example, devastation from the 2009 Cyclone Aila in Bangladesh, which Hulme says was widely discussed as caused primarily by climate change, “was due largely to unmaintained embankments and to the rapid influx of people into the most vulnerable coastal areas,” plus “the damming of major rivers and the pumping of shallow saline water sources for irrigation.”

Each of these cases involves serious misrepresentations of climate change. In the aggregate, they indicate a widespread tendency to look at a complex issue through a single lens. This climatist ideology, Hulme writes, is “most explicit in new social movements such as Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement or Extinction Rebellion.” But it is much broader than that: “Climatism has also crept into a more extensive range of businesses, charities, professions and public institutions, such as Amazon, Oxfam, the BBC and the World Bank.”

How did climatism start? This is the question to which Hulme turns next. A key moment in the story is the year 1975, when the economist William Nordhaus asked “Can We Control Carbon Dioxide?” For his answer, he sought to calculate the tradeoff between growing the global economy and controlling a global rise in temperature. Nordhaus, Hulme writes, became the “first to combine analytically these two measures: GDP and global temperature, one measuring economic activity, the other the condition of global climate.”

This, Hulme goes on to show, was when climate issues began to be thought of in terms of how fossil energy use led to a rise in global temperature. Achieving global “net zero,” to use U.N.-speak, eventually became the first and foremost goal of climate activism and policies. In this way, global temperature itself became “a proxy for human welfare,” an “index for capturing the full range of complex relationships between climate and human welfare and ecological integrity.” But as such, Hulme argues, it is “seriously flawed.”

When limiting the earth’s average temperature, or the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, becomes the overarching goal, we lose sight of other goals — such as the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals: among them fresh water, education, relief from extreme poverty, and freedom from slavery. Hulme shows, depressingly, that even well-meaning policies aimed at reducing overall climate change produce grisly tradeoffs between slowing warming and these other important aims — with the priority often becoming evident in the prominence of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change over other U.N. bodies with other priorities.

One searing example stands out: Hulme describes how in Sumatra over the last four decades, half the tropical rainforest has been cut down, partly to make way for plantations of oil palm, a biofuel crop. Indigenous Kubu people, holding no official claims to their land and forests, have seen their homes bulldozed and been pressed into slavery. The main culprit is climate policies such as the E.U.’s 2010 Renewable Energy Directive, which, Hulme writes, “stipulated that, by the year 2020, 10 per cent of road fuel for each E.U. Member State should be derived from renewable sources including, but not limited to, biofuels.” The results of the biofuels policy were later deemed a “crime against humanity” by a U.N. rapporteur, and the E.U. banned palm oil as a biofuel by 2021. But there is no way to unring the bell in Sumatra.

Hulme goes on to examine whether climate science itself, not just climate communications and policy, is subject to some of the same institutional biases and social pressure — in other words, whether climate science is climatist. Sometimes it is, he concludes. A 2021 article by Roger Pielke Jr. and Justin Ritchie found the climate scenario called RCP8.5 — the scenario in which global warming likely reaches 4 or 5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century — is the one that many scientists use as a baseline for what will happen in the future if we don’t intervene. But that is a misuse of what was specifically defined as a worst-case scenario. And it has persisted even as recent estimates have downgraded its likelihood.

A related recent problem is when scientists willingly use models that show that warming over this century will happen faster than previously predicted, which they also know not to be a real change in prediction but just an artifact of how the models are structured. In large part, that structure comes down to the decision to simply average all available models for the purposes of gaming out future scenarios, rather than using those they consider actually most reliable. This situation is what climate scientists have called (hilariously) the “hot model” problem. As a journalist for Science put it, “many of these models have a glaring problem: predicting a future that gets too hot too fast.”

But even though many climate scientists recognize these problems, alarmist biases often distort research decisions and scholarly writing and then seep into policy and public narratives. One example in the book that underscores how even honest research can mislead is worth noting. Following the 2007 publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, the Dutch government was annoyed to find a factual error, showing 55 percent of the Netherlands as below sea level, when the correct number is 26. This prompted the Dutch Environmental Protection Agency to launch a thorough audit of the report to see if there were other mistakes. Hulme writes that no other big mistakes were found and that, on the whole, “the basic conclusion of the report was upheld, namely that many future impacts of climate change were serious.” So far, so good; it was an honest mistake.

But the Dutch audit did find something else: a distortion in how the report presented climate change in its “Summary for Policymakers,” the only part of the report that most people would ever read. In this section, Hulme writes,

only the negative impacts of climate change were highlighted. There was no mention of any benefits of climate change. The IPCC authors defended this selection as being consistent with taking a “risk-oriented” approach to climate change assessment. They claimed this was what the world’s governments had asked them to undertake.

The Dutch audit noted that the IPCC failed to make this approach explicit, and recommended that it do so in the future, by offering separate sections on positive and negative impacts of climate change. The IPCC, Hulme writes, has not followed this advice in its newer reports.

The story shows how bias can operate in climate science itself, even without any lying or intent to deceive, to give an erroneous impression and to inculcate a climatist way of thinking. It is not surprising, then, that when a BBC website offered educational materials that included scientific findings about how climate change would have both negative and positive effects for northern climes — longer growing seasons, easier access to the Arctic — angry scientists and activists demanded the positive elements be removed. The BBC complied.

Having told his story of climatism in the first half of the book, Hulme spends the second half in a different mode, assessing the issue. He looks at what the appeal of climatism is, why it is dangerous, and how we can find an alternate way of thinking about climate change.

Climatism is alluring, put simply, because it offers a grand narrative of heroes and villains with nothing less at stake than the future of earthly life. Like the 2021 movie Don’t Look Up, about an impending comet strike that is meant as a metaphor for climate change, it is apocalyptic, with sudden doom virtually guaranteed.

Furthermore, by pitting itself against climate denialism, it portrays itself not only as a fight between good and evil but between scientific fact and political lie. The origin story of this regrettable dynamic is in part very simple.

Hulme cites the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway multiple times, commending it for how well it covers “organized denial” of the reality or seriousness of human-caused climate change. One tactic of denial, which Oreskes has described elsewhere, is when in 1991 the Information Council for the Environment, an organization funded by coal companies, was taking out newspaper ads asking questions such as, “If the Earth is getting warmer, why is Kentucky getting colder?” Another ad read: “The most serious problem with catastrophic global warming is — it may not be true.” Of course, the truth of that statement depends on what one means by “catastrophic,” and “may not” is a sort of hedge. But what Oreskes argues is that these public communications campaigns were “designed to create confusion, to create doubt.” Similarly, a new Wall Street Journal piece argues, based on internal Exxon documents, that the oil giant has continued to “cast doubt on climate science and its impacts” even since publicly accepting, in 2006, that there is a link between burning fossil fuels and climate change.

Meanwhile, climate scientists and activists often play up the special place of scientific facts. As Hulme notes at one point, “this is why political actors defending the interests of the fossil-fuel industry focused so much of their attention in the 1990s and 2000s on seeking to discredit climate science and scientists.”

When faced with such opposition and deception, it is all too human to close ranks, form a group strategy, and go on the offensive far past the point that this is necessary. Hulme notes Michael Mann as a particularly vituperative climate scientist whose hunt for dissenters has expanded into ever broader circles, including Bill Gates, Michael Moore, and Naomi Klein, a mania “reminiscent of 1950s McCarthyism.”

The climate clock at New York’s Union Square, counting down to noon on July 21, 2029, when “the critical time window remaining for humanity to act to save itself and its only home from the ravages of climate chaos” closes.
Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr

The biggest danger in making climate everything, as noted earlier, is that much else that contributes to human welfare, and often contributes more directly, gets cast aside. But there is also a psychological cost. Climatism is dangerous, Hulme argues, because it produces disbelief.

Consider that a major part of climate communications is the setting of “deadlines,” such as the one intended in a doomsday-looking countdown clock above New York’s Union Square, spanning some 80 feet and ticking down to a date in the summer of 2029, when it claims that the earth will have reached 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and the time window for humanity to avert disaster will be closed. If you look into whether 1.5 degrees is a hard limit, after which adding any fraction will mean disaster, you will find that a spectrum is a better image than a ledge for thinking about these things. But it doesn’t matter: millions pass through Union Square, just as millions no doubt have noticed previous dates, now in the past, after which it was supposed to have been too late to act.

Climate change will cause things that one ought to be scared of, but that doesn’t make any given scare tactic an effective or honest rhetorical strategy. “The psychological effect of deadlines that are repeatedly missed, and hence either continually extended or else new ones created, is likely to be either cynicism, despair or apathy,” Hulme writes. “There are only so many ‘moments of decision’ that are believable, after which they become unbelieved.”

Climate science and communication has largely become an area in which even a thoughtful dissenter is vilified. Anyone being critical is treated as one of Them, rather than what, in science, would traditionally be understood as a healthy and helpful thing: a good-faith critic who can help with the process of perpetual openness and attempts at self-correction that make science scientific and liberalism liberal.

Hulme is making, ultimately, a very simple argument that ought to be uncontentious. Climate-change activists and campaigners often frame reducing global emissions as the broadest or biggest goal imaginable, but Hulme says that it is actually too narrow. In his discussion of “antidotes against climatism,” he argues that working to limit total warming — to set carbon budgets and reduce total atmospheric parts per million of greenhouse gases — is too small a goal. Climatist thinking, organized around net-zero goals, has caused international organizations like the U.N. to shun projects aimed at replacing the cooking system for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world with cleaner and safer technology. The reason is that doing so would mean replacing wood or coal or cow-manure stoves with liquid-petroleum gas stoves, and net-zero commitments have created barriers to solutions involving petroleum-based technologies. This despite the fact that switching from a wood or coal fire to petroleum would reduce total greenhouse emissions and, better yet, massively reduce deadly smoke that contributes to millions of premature deaths.

As Hulme sees it, climatist thinking here is getting in the way of actually helping millions of impoverished people survive and thrive. This is what happens when climate change is understood as something bad in itself, rather than bad because it causes harms including human suffering and death, animal extinction, ecological damage, and so forth. Unwinding that mode of thinking can help us focus on averting the bad things, which makes Hulme’s book a welcome corrective.

The stories and solutions in Climate Change Isn’t Everything also serve as a guide to civically healthy thinking about institutional science and policy more broadly. Hulme offers a number of insights into how a better discourse might move us out of the rut we’re stuck in, in which experts are regarded as either always right or always wrong, and all disagreement feels as though it needs to be resolved by achieving one unanimous answer rather than some procedure for compromise. “The important point for my purpose,” he writes, “is that the values that individuals or collectives hold with respect to what to do about climate change are neither singular nor infinite. They are plural.”

Science provides information, but not a single answer. Climate change is too big and complex an issue for that. It’s a “wicked problem,” and “wicked problems do not have a single strategic narrative nor do they lend themselves to solutions based on a set of converging values. They cannot be resolved by more empirical research or by an optimizing rationality,” Hulme writes. Different people should and will have different values and come up with different answers, because science does not have an answer to the question of how many GDP percentage points of growth the extinction of a species of sea corals is worth, or whether protecting American federal land from uranium extraction but then needing to buy the mineral from China is wise. So Hulme suggests we accept a “value pluralism” that sees climate change as real, yet as one problem among many, refusing to frame it either as an apocalypse akin to an approaching asteroid or as a fraud, and treating it instead as a massive issue that billions of people will wish to understand and address differently.

Hulme’s book is probably not for everyone; it contains too many sentences more fit for a dissertation than a popular book, like: “Forgotten was that this malleability of the idea of climate had enabled it historically to be enlisted in support of many different political projects — both the good and the bad, whether depictions of healthy climates or justifications for racism.” But the book is a welcome remedy for a climate discourse beset by scientization, the anti-democratic process by which “scientific statements substitute — or at least become a short-hand — for ethical or political reasoning and argument.”

By demanding a single answer for what to do about climate change, climatism seeks to depoliticize the issue. Hulme hopes instead to restore it to its proper political place in a democratic society, in which a plurality of both values and goals requires pragmatic solutions and compromise.

If Hulme’s advice could ever catch on, I suspect the humility and caution he preaches would lead to fewer Kubu villagers’ homes being bulldozed, while also not handing over the argument to those who claim climate change isn’t happening at all or that we shouldn’t do anything about it.

Nicholas Clairmont, “Warm Planet, Cool Heads,” The New Atlantis, Number 74, Fall 2023, pp. 94–102.
Header image: Wassily Kandinsky, Around the Circle / Wikimedia

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