Just two years ago, Mike Hulme would have been about the last person you’d expect to hear criticising conventional climate change wisdom. Back then, he was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, an organisation so revered by environmentalists that it could be mistaken for the academic wing of the green movement. Since leaving Tyndall – and as we found out in a telephone interview – he has come out of the climate change closet as an outspoken critic of such sacred cows as the UN’s IPCC, the “consensus”, the over-emphasis on scientific evidence in political debates about climate change, and to defend the rights of so-called “deniers” to contribute to those debates.
As Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, Hulme remains one of the UK’s most distinguished and high-profile climate scientists. In his new book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, he explores how the issue of climate change has come to be such a dominant issue in modern politics. He treats climate change not as a problem that we need to solve – indeed, he believes that the complexity of the issue means that it cannot be solved, only lived with – and instead considers it as much of a cultural idea as a physical phenomenon.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing to hear from a climate scientist writing about climate change is that climate science has for too long had the monopoly in climate change debates. When we spoke to him on the phone, Hulme cited as evidence the 2007 protests against Heathrow’s third runway, where marchers made their case by waving a research paper at the TV cameras under a banner bearing the slogan “We are armed only with peer reviewed science”. [The paper wasn’t actually peer-reviewed science – see Bootnote]
“To me, that’s the most dispiriting position,” says Hulme. “For these people who feel so passionately about this, their ultimate authority is a report from a group of scientists, and they’re saying ‘this is where we stand, forget about our moral concerns, forget about our ethical positions, forget about whether we are Right, Left or centre, forget about whether we are Christians or Buddists, no, none of that matters.’ The only thing that matters is that they’re holding a report from peer-reviewed science that in itself justifies their position.”
And it’s not just protesters who are hiding behind the authority of science. World leaders are doing it, too.
“Uncertainty, and things like that”
Hulme despairs over the comments made to the Copenhagen climate conference in March by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then the Danish Prime Minister. Rasmussen told delegates that “science should be the basis for decision-making in this field”, and asked scientists to keep it simple, “not to provide us with too many moving targets…and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.”
“That’s just classic,” says Hulme. “Here’s this politician telling the scientists ‘we can’t do this without you. Give us the numbers. But by the way, make them simple, and make them precise.’”
Hulme believes that this dependence of politics on science expects too much of science’s ability to explain and to predict, and that this is a burden that science cannot carry. Science is exposing its vulnerabilities, he says. And in overselling itself, the risks are very substantial. “It’s like the classic case of the dodgy dossier”.
Making politics disappear
He stresses that he has little problem with the basic scientific understanding of climate change. It’s just that, if progress is to be made in debates on how to respond to that knowledge, they need to be opened up to other disciplines, from the arts and humanities, for example – and to good old-fashioned politics and ideologies.
“However much we agree on the fundamentals of the physics of climate change, there are huge ethical, political and ideological differences that remain about what climate change signifies for society”, says Hulme. “And if one pretends that we can gloss over those, converging on a single political position, where there is no party political debate and differentiation, then we’re losing some of the essential dimensions of climate change that we have to engage with. It narrows down debate rather than opening it up.”
Which is why Hulme has opposed the idea of UK cross-party consensus. “Climate change can only be understood from a position of dis-census, rather than artificially solved by creating consensus,” he says.
Similarly, while he is sympathetic to the ambitions of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he is critical of the way it is widely cited as the last word on climate issues.
“It’s won theNobel Peace Prize for goodness’ sake – it can’t be challenged!”
He also regards the IPCC as too selective in terms of both the geographical regions from which it draws its knowledge and in its academic scope.
“It is hugely dominated by the natural sciences, economics and engineering. The social sciences hardly get a look in, and the humanities none at all. For example, it does not include anthropological understandings of weather and climate or any historical perspectives on how societies and climates have interacted historically.”
“If climate change is the biggest issue facing the future of human civilisation, to use the rhetoric, then surely a body charged to assess what humans know about climate change should actually be assessing all forms of knowledge.”
Moreover, says Hulme, no one is even quite sure what sort of knowledge it is that the IPCC, as a “boundary organisation” – part science, part politics – actually produces. Nor how the world at large interprets that hybrid knowledge. Even more fundamentally, he says, it is far from clear that the IPCC has actually allowed us to do “better science”:
“Or has it actually narrowed the way we frame and ask questions in climate change research?” Hulme wonders.
And yet even though the IPCC is an institutional experiment as much as a scientific one – and despite its occupying a position of huge influence in the world – few sociologists seem to be scrutinising its workings. This may in part be due to the fact that action on climate change is widely seen as a progressive goal, says Hulme, and being a generally progressive sort of bunch, social scientists might be reticent to impede proceedings, or to be seen to give succour to right-wing “denialists”.
“That’s an accusation that has been charged at me, that I’m simply lending ammunition to people who generally are politically conservative, and who want to discredit the basic physics behind climate change.”
In pushing to open up climate change debates to non-scientific disciplines, Hulme runs the risk perhaps of attracting accusations of not only “denier”, but also of “relativist”, which is almost as dirty a word in scientific circles. Hulme’s Christian beliefs might be a further invitation to ad hominem responses.
But any attacks that were aimed at him on these grounds would demonstrate his point nicely.
After all, much of the abuse that is hurled across the climate divide comes from those who like to believe that it is they who are dealing in a currency of proper science – bias and ideology is what the opposition does. Hence the vitriol aimed at Bjørn Lomborg over the years.
“It was interesting as to why he received such hate-mail from very well respected academics rather than simply engaging in the arguments,” says Hulme. “It became very very heavily and easily personalised, when actually Lomborg’s position is an entirely defendable position. I mean, you can disagree with it, and you can find flaws in his argument, but let’s find those flaws and let’s have a disagreement, rather than suddenly becoming reactionaries overnight. And I think there’s too much of that. And it’s an interesting question as to why it is that people feel that climate change is somehow is the issue beyond all other issues today that one has to stand on shoulder to shoulder and not allow any chink in because it would allow the powers of darkness to somehow gain the upper hand.”
For Hulme, for open debate to be possible, there must be a recognition on all sides that we all bring a host of values, beliefs and influences to the table along with our knowledge, expertise and training.
“If, say, Jim Hansen or Fred Singer and I sat down and looked at the same scientific evidence, we would come up with a very different set of proscriptions. Now, why is that? Is it because our scientific training is deficient, and he’s seeing more than I’m seeing, or I’m seeing more than he’s seeing? I don’t think it is. I think actually there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on here. And that’s actually what we have to get down to – to root out, and expose, accept, and work within these broader, deeper sources of disagreement.”
“To hide behind the dubious precision of scientific numbers, and not actually expose one’s own ideologies or beliefs or values and judgements is undermining both politics and science”, says Hulme.
A bigger debate
That his thesis has the potential to draw in and engage disparate climate change factions is suggested by the cover-blurb testimonies from an oil company advisor, a deep ecologist, a sociologist, and an environmental scientist. But Hulme has his work cut out. Even as he spoke to us, President Obama was declaring in his address to the US National Academy Of Sciences: “Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over”.
It’s not hard to get labelled a climate change “denier”. You don’t even have to deny that climate change is real, man-made and a problem. As Bjørn Lomborg, climatologist Patrick Michaels and political scientist Professor Roger Pielke Jr have discovered, you merely have to challenge the orthodox political policy responses.Or, like Climate Audit’s Steve McIntyre, dare to scrutinise the statistical workings behind influential climate research papers. If you stray from agreeing with the political prescription, you’re an immoral person.
So, how long, we wonder, before Mike Hulme attracts the same accusation?
Oops: the “peer reviewed science” waved at the cameras by the Heathrow protesters wasn’t even peer reviewed science. It was a report from the Tyndall Centre commissioned by the Friends of the Earth and The Co-operative Bank. See my earlier report here – and the Tyndall report here [PDF].