Climate Change (AGW): Let’s take it seriously

Most of the books on global warming science and policy are pretty muddled, hysterical or dreamy by turns. Very few have real quality. Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change seems to be in a different class.

George Monbiot and Nigel Lawson have both written books which are at least very good in major parts, but elsewhere most climate change thinking is simply third rate, in the sense of being more or less poorly argued propaganda for the authors’ unexamined prejudices or perferences, most of which are not very useful. (I’d put James Lovelock and David King in that category.)

Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Cimate Change (Cambridge, 2009) is of a quite different sort. It is dryly written, and a little impersonal, to be sure, but it is challenging and a surprise. One feels that Mike Hulme has ended up, after thirty years’ thought, in a rather different place than he expected. I am pretty sure he is somewhere he didn’t expect to be even in 2006. Since he co-founded the well-respected Tyndall Centre and is now a professor of environmental matters at the University of East Anglia, this all matters. I don’t mean that he is an apostate, or that it would be an especially good or bad thing (granted that he’s a big player) if he were. I mean that he is important and interesting.

Put bluntly, Mike Hulme thinks almost all climate change thinking and policy (not the science) is pretty useless and perhaps even dangerous. (In 2006, he warned against climate policy hysteria, but nonetheless advocated action. In 209, he has gone much further.)

Here’s my reading of some of the messages in MH’s book with sepcial reference to climate change policy. (I have left aside some very interesting messages about greens and religion and so on.)

MH’s present formulations amount to a belief that whatever AGW turns out to be, the climate is not the kind of system which is readily amenable to benign influence and certainly not to the sort of control that most mainstream environmentalists, politicians, the media, and governments say they want to attempt. He believes that attempts to benignly alter the climate could only be too feeble to make a difference, or too draconian to be politically feasible, or so large as to pose the serious risk of unintended economic,social and maybe even climate consequences.

MH therefore suggests that we should either give up on current attempts to formulate amelioration policy, or at least abandon any argument that any politically feasible policy could deliver the sort of climate outcomes on which policy is presently predicated and promoted. Current attempts at policy would collapse if we agreed with MH what their consequences might be.

MH finds AGW to be very revealing. Whilst it may shape our world, our lives and our spirits, our attempts to formulate policy to deal with it reveal our failure to properly see the mismatch between AGM and the puniness of any plausible human response to it. We may have the technological power to have some benign corrective influence on AGW, but it would probably be slight. We don’t have the political will to much reduce our carbon footprint and even if we did we might be unpleasantly surprised by the redundancy of the efforts, or their unintended consequences.

MH proposes that what he believes to the proper moral, psychological and political responses to AGM would be very dramatic and might make climate change easier to live with, but it is not likely that those responses would be directed toward producing a rapid or real amelioration of AGW. It is obvious that present policy proposals are over-confident as well as puny. What really matters is that human arrogance crucially underlies both the causes of AGW and our policy responses to it.

MH’s point is that man’s response to AGW ought to transcend thinking about agency, efficacy or instrumentality. AGM ought to be the catalyst for a redesign of man rather than of a human attempt to redesign the climate he lives in. AGM should thus be seen reflexively. It’s about what AGM works on man, not what man works on climate.

MH believes that the proper response to AGW might or might not make mankind behave in ways which help the climate change, or help him live with a changed climate, but they would help him live himself.”

MH’s position is radical because it puts him outside of and at odds with the position of the environmentalists, mainstream political parties, and indeed everyone except the reviled sceptics or deniers. He is radically challenging the “Must Do Something” orthodoxy and I think that’s very valuable, especially coming from within academia and especially within the University of East Anglia (the academic home of climate change science, and even of cimate change alarmism).

On AGM policy, own position is very feeble compared with MH’s. It is that we probably ought to do something on AGW and do it in the belief that we are rehearsing for maybe doing more (or deciding not to) as we learn more. I am rather feeble because I think that we will only do what is cheap and convenient (and pretty useless in the short term) but I can’t decide the degree to which that is a moral disgrace (if at all). Even if it is quite a strong disgrace, I don’t much mind since I think even nice and quite good humans have a huge capacity for living alongside very large moral inadequacies.

I wouldn’t necessarily mind if humans rededicated themselves to a self-redesign (I don’t mind that part of their religious impulses), and did this redesign with regard to their relations with their planet as well as with their fellow-man. But I like man’s arrogance and I don’t mind his hypocrisy. I doubt he needs a radical transformation or will get one. Still, I  have spent a lifetime wondering what a transformation might all be like and don’t rule out that MH may be closer to describing it than most. I think the conventional green thinking is probably badly wrong, but I am not sure it is, and have tried to be useful to myself and others by erecting the best challenges I can to the green orthodoxy.

If MH is right on AGW and the rest, he may have pulled off an improbable trick. That is: he may have advanced green thinking by demolishing some if its most cherished beliefs.


Marcel Kincaid
What drivel. I note partcularly "MH’s position is radical because it puts him outside of and at odds with the position of the environmentalists, mainstream political parties, and indeed everyone except the reviled sceptics or deniers." But scepticism and denial pertain to science, not policy, and MH disagrees with them on the science. If the AGW "sceptics" truly were honestly sceptical, rather than being intellectually dishonest ideologues who form their empirical beliefs to conform with their ideology rather than with the facts, then their positions on policy, if the science were to become conclusive in their minds, would range across the spectrum, and there would be no particular reason to expect them to align with MH. But no, so-called "sceptics" who pejoratively label as "warmist" the 97% of climate scientists, including MH, who accept AGW wear their ideology on their sleeves and have no credibility on either the science or the policy.
Dear Marcel Kincaid, I think I see your point of view and won't argue with all of it t. Ideological prejudice is to be found all over this debate, not merely amongst the right-wing sort of denier But I do think there was merit in saying that MH's policy position is closer than one might suppose (perhaps even than he supposes) to those who doubt the efficacy of (say) hardline Kyoto. Discussing the efficacy of different responses to climate change is worth a shot, even if one agrees to differ about its causes (and even bits of its nature). I do think MH is at odds with the mainstream Kyoto-ism (though at today's date [late August] it's worthin noting how even the mainstream may soon splinter as it deals with the new Lomborg book).

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Publication date

01 December 2009