The significance and meaning of climate change

Submitted by PaulHampton on Sat, 26/09/2009 - 17:34

Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, is probably the best overview of the subject published in recent years.

Hulme heads the Tyndall Centre, an essential reference point for cutting-edge climate research, bridging university and policy fields. But this book is far from academic. The exposition is clear, the arguments coherent and stimulating. It is a provocative book, without being bellicose. In short, it is a rational assessment of the issues from which socialists can learn much.

What is climate change?

The World Meteorological Organization defines climate as being ‘the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity and precipitation’. The more pithily definition is that ‘climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.’ (2009 p.4, p.9)

This definition reflects an old, yet persistent idea of climate as a stable property of the natural world. But Hulme argues that this conception is no longer adequate, “because we have come to believe that climate, just like weather, is constantly changing”. (2009 p.61)

Climate change, understood to mean “past, present or future change in climate, where the predominant cause of this change is human in origin”, shifts the whole debate about climate away from natural science towards its social significance. Hulme argues that climate change “is the story of the meeting of Nature and Culture, about how humans are central actors in both these realms, and about how we are continually creating and re-creating both Nature and Culture”. (2009 p.xxviii)

I think this is right. Climate change has become the key narrative at the beginning of the 21st century around which social, political, economic and moral issues are framed, across the globe, within and between nation states, right down to the regional and local level.

Discourses about climate change

If the idea of climate change is about society as much as it is about nature, then it is a contested idea that possesses “a certain plasticity”. One of the best features of the book is the way it explains the way climate change is interwoven with existing debates and discourses.

Hulme argues that climate change has become a battleground between different philosophies of science, a justification for the commodification of the atmosphere, the inspiration for a global network of new, or reinvigorated social movements and a threat to ethnic, national and global security. (2009 p.xxvii)

But the social meaning of climate goes much deeper, into the realm of ideology. Climate has been used for example to justify racism. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in 1775: “The inhabitant of the temperate parts of the world, above all the central part, has a more beautiful body, works harder, is more jocular, more controlled in his passions, more intelligent than any other race of people in the world. That is why all at points in time these peoples have educated the others and controlled them with their weapons.” (2009 p.19) Similarly, Victorian imperialists and early 20th century climatic determinists such as Ellsworth Huntington used climate to justify conquest and subjugation.

Climate has also been part of the ideology of the “mastery of nature”. Thus after WWII the US government embarked on a military-driven scientific weather modification programme that continued into the 1970s. It included attempting to disrupt the Vietcong with cloud seeding during the Vietnam War. Similar plans were pursued by the USSR, in line with Stalin’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature, which included reforesting huge tracts of the Russian steppe, diverting rivers and climatological warfare. The Maoist doctrine of the ‘war on nature’, which included attempts to eradicate sparrows, has continued with the present regime, which has indulged in cloud seeding over Tibet and apparently over Beijing for the Olympics. (2009 p.23-4)

At the greener end of things, climate has functioned as part of the ideology of “wildness”, where nature is perceived to pristine and therefore in need of being “saved”. The debate around Bill McKibbin’s book The End of Nature (1989) reflected this lament. Finally, climate acts as a metaphor for the system’s stability, or instability, depending on one’s taste. A stable climate is viewed as a public good, with change perceived in terms of pejoratives such as “climate chaos” or “tipping points”. Hulme argues that, “the discourse about the societal perils of climate instability remains dominant. Civilisations evolve in benign environments, but through poor resource management – often exacerbated by climatic change – societal failure follows”. (2009 p.30)

However, “there is no simple mapping between climate change and the fortunes of civilisations”. Climate change has also acted as a stimulus for innovation and societal adaptation for some thinkers such Toynbee. Hulme points to “substantial evidence” in support of the idea that climate-driven changes in the environment over evolutionary time-scales were responsible for “hominid speciation, enlarged cranial capacity, and cultural innovations”, as well as “the morphological shift to bipedality, behavioural adaptability and intercontinental migration”. (2009 p.31-32)

Hulme extends this treatment to what he calls the “four myths of climate change”, which he links to the “human instincts of nostalgia, fear, pride and justice”. The term ‘myth’ is used in “the very specific anthropological and non-pejorative sense of revealing meanings and assumed truths”, not as a falsehood. (2009 p.340) The four myths are: lamenting Eden, presaging apocalypse, constructing Babel and celebrating Jubilee.
The religious overtones are deliberate (Hulme confesses his Christian faith), but actually the arguments work perfectly well as secular myths too.

In lamenting Eden, “climate is viewed as a symbol of the natural or the wild, a manifestation of Nature that is pure and pristine and (should be) beyond the reach of humans. Climate becomes something that is fragile and needs to be protected or ‘saved’”. On this view, by changing the climate humans believe they are diminishing not just themselves, but also something beyond themselves. (2009 p.342-43, p.344)

Presaging apocalypse draws upon categories such as ‘impending disaster’, ‘approaching tipping points’, ‘species wiped out’, billions of humans at risk of devastation, if not death’. This view has widespread purchase, first because of “the enduring human fear of the future which fuels these descriptions of a physical climate on the point of collapse”. Second it “draws strength from the new paradigm of Earth system science with its ideas of complexity, thresholds and tipping elements”. A third reason is “the frustration experienced by some campaigners and policy advocates due to the failure of international measures and agreements to start slowing down the growth in carbon emissions”. However, numerous studies show that fear may change attitudes but not necessarily increase active engagement or behaviour change. (2009 p.345, p.346, p.348)

On the other hand, constructing Babel, “this confident belief in the human ability to control Nature”, is “a dominant, if often subliminal, attribute of the international diplomacy that engages climate change”. This myth of climate mastery and control reaches its apogee with proposals for geo-engineering. Hulme dismisses this approach: “What is therefore proposed is a new, but now deliberate, great geophysical experiment with the planet. The only difference between this purposeful experiment and our ongoing inadvertent one is that we now have the ‘wisdom’ of Earth system models to guide us.” (2009 p.352-53)

Finally, celebrating Jubilee mean that “climate change is an idea around which their concerns for social and environmental justice can be mobilised. Indeed, a new category of justice – climate justice – is demanded, and one that attaches itself easily to other longstanding global justice concerns.” (2009 p.353)

These four myths are immediately recognisable in the climate movement. However they are also consonant with revolutionary Marxist characterisations of reformist politics. For example, adapting the categories of the Communist Manifesto, lamenting Eden might be called “reactionary environmentalism”, a backward-looking glorification of the past by which to critique the present. With presaging apocalypse, we recognise the familiar disjuncture of (eco) socialism with “barbarism”. Constructing Babel reads something like mainstream, neo-liberal “bourgeois environmentalism”, the attempts (including by NGOs) to use technologies and the Fabian-like efforts to work within the system to change things. Finally, celebrating Jubilee is some kind of “utopian environmentalism”, whereby normative visions of the future are used as a standard with which to critique the present.

Seven reasons for disagreement over climate change

The book includes a vivid account of the discovery of climate change, but the central chapters are organised around seven facets, or lenses with which to approach the subject. Hulme argues that we disagree about climate change because: 1) we understand science and scientific knowledge in different ways; 2) we value things differently; 3) we believe different things about ourselves, the universe and our place in the universe; 4) we worry about different things; 5) because we receive multiple and conflicting messages about climate change and interpret them in different ways; 6) we prioritise development goals differently; and 7) because our political ideologies and our views of appropriate forms of governance are different. (2009 p.xxxv-xxxvii)


The best chapters are those on the science and on economics. Hulme rejects the traditional, positivist view of science and embraces ‘post-normal’ science, where ‘facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent’. He is thus a realist on the IPCC, which serves the needs of government and policy: “The Panel was not to be a self-governing body of independent scientists… [it is a] hybrid or ‘boundary’ organisation.” (2009 p.78, p.95-96)

Although the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change is now well supported by evidence from direct observation, past evidnece and complex computer models, there is no sense in which uncertainties are completely eliminated. Instead, Hulme argues that “science – especially climate change science – is most useful to society when it finds good ways of recognising, managing and communicating uncertainty”. Some of this uncertainty “originates from an incomplete understanding of how the physical climate works”, while other sources “emerge from the innate unpredictability of large, complex and chaotic systems such as the global atmosphere and ocean”. A third category of uncertainty “originates as a consequence of humans being part of the future being predicted”. (2009 p.83)

Hulme states that there are three limits to science that must be recognised. First, “scientific knowledge about climate change will always be incomplete, and it will always be uncertain. Science always speaks with a conditional voice, or at least good science always does”. Second, “we must recognise that beyond such ‘normal’ scientific uncertainty, knowledge as a public commodity will always have been shaped to some degree by the processes by which it emerges into the social world and through which it subsequently circulates”. Most importantly, “the separation of knowledge about climate change from the politics of climate change – a process that has been described as ‘purification’ – is no longer possible, even if it ever was. The more widely this is recognised the better”. (2009 p.106-107)

Critique of neoliberal climate economics

The chapter on economics summarises the neo-liberal view of climate change and the ecological critique of it pretty well. The neo-liberal view, associated with William Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern, sets up climate change within the conventional neoclassical welfare economics perspective.

Nordhaus starts from the premise that greenhouse gas emissions are an externality, meaning that “the driver or household is imposing these costs on the rest of the world today and in the future without paying the costs of these emissions”. On this view the climate is a “public good”, where those who fail to pay cannot be excluded from its benefits. (A Question of Balance, 2008 p.12) Similarly, the Stern Review defined the issue in terms of externalities, where those who produce greenhouse gases do not face directly the full costs of their actions, and the climate is a public good, where those who fail to pay cannot be excluded from its benefits. (The Economics of Climate Change, 2007 p.27) It is on this basis that Stern described climate change as “the greatest market failure ever seen” – meaning that the market was still central to its solution.

The approach proceeds to a cost-benefit analysis, a technique in which all the favourable and unfavourable effects associated with a policy change are identified, quantified, and evaluated in monetary terms. The social cost of greenhouse gases is one of the principal outputs from these assessments. The social cost of carbon is the estimate of the monetary value of world-wide damage done by anthropogenic CO2 emissions, or the monetary value of the global damage done by emitting one more tonne of carbon at some point in time. Armed with estimates of the social cost of carbon, mainstream writers set about devising policies and evaluating instruments – essentially through the price mechanism. This generally means tax changes or a tradable-permit system.

Nordhaus summed up this approach in pithy fashion: “Whether someone is serious about tackling the global-warming problem can be readily gauged by listening to what he or she says about the carbon price”. He argued that economics contains, “one fundamental inconvenient truth” about climate-change policy: for any policy to be effective in slowing global warming, “it must raise the market price of carbon, which will raise the prices of fossil fuels and the products of fossil fuels”. Raising the price of carbon will apparently achieve four goals: provide signals to consumers; provide signals to producers; give market incentives to investors; and economise on the information required to do all these tasks. On this view, “the ‘carbon footprint’ is automatically calculated by the price system”. (2008 p.22, pp.20-21)

The main propositions behind the mainstream approach to climate change have been subjected to systematic ecological critique. Clive Spash has criticised the concept of an externality as failing to recognise how economic systems operate. Given that firms are meant to maximise profits and individuals seek their own best interest, “the pushing of damages onto others and avoiding the associated costs is to be expected as a normal and prevalent activity of a successful economic agent”. This means terming pollution an externality, “is to engage in double-speak of Orwellian proportions”. For Spash, pollution is internal to the economy and economic activity, and especially so if the system is as self-serving as mainstream economics assumes and describes: “Profits are maximised by making use of all the ‘free gifts of Nature’ that are available, passing along costs to other agents (especially competitors) and avoiding as many waste disposal costs as possible”. (Greenhouse Economics: Value and Ethics, 2002 p.5-6)

Critics of the mainstream view also take aim at cost benefit analysis. As Hulme puts it: “Because changes in climate affect all regions, the costs and benefits have to be worked out at a global scale; and this is rarely achievable in any policy context… because we are uncertain about many of the risks that climate change may cause, it is very hard to put numbers on the consequences of these risks, even for monetised assets…. And, finally, because climate change is a long-lived phenomenon – operating over decades, generations and centuries – how we value the distant future becomes an essential, if not the essential, component of cost-benefit analysis applied to climate change.” (2009 p.116)

A related criticism concerns the calculation of the social cost of carbon in terms of GDP. Hulme quotes Frank Ackerman: “The profundity of human and ecological loss implied in the portraits of climate change, especially at higher temperatures, is only cheapened and diminished by pretending that all of it has a price.” (2009 p.134) Hulme argues that because “GDP is limited to goods and services that have a market value”, as “an overall indicator of wealth, of human and ecological well-being, GDP is completely inadequate”. He quotes Clive Spash: ‘Traditional pro-growth policies fail to address the problems humanity faces, the necessary transition or the nature of widespread environmental change we are undertaking. All these realisations raise the question of economic activity “for what?”’ (2009 p.114, p.140)

Disappointingly, this chapter contains only one dismissive reference to Marxism. Hulme states, “In the context of climate change, Marxian economists would focus on differential access to power and resources between rich and poor; the latter being the powerless victims of climate change”. However he dismisses all schools of thought, from the neoliberal, to the ecological to the Marxist, “none of these frameworks are particularly well suited to analysing the economics of climate change”. (2009 p.113) There is a half-truth here. A rounded Marxist political economy of climate change has yet to be published, but this does not mean one is not possible or indeed that it would not provide a fruitful approach.

Climate ethics

Subsequent chapters, though not quite as sharp, nevertheless continue to provoke arguments. The chapter on religion is pretty unconvincing. It is difficult to see what faith offers climate activists, if they aim to build a rational movement. Climate change is of course a moral issue on top of everything else. However having spent the first part of the book bringing society back into climate, and climate back into society, it makes no sense to introduce an outside referent – indeed an entity (or entities for the pluri-theists) which is effectively a power outside of both nature and human society.

The main value of this chapter is the short but incisive critique of contraction and convergence (C&C). Michael Grubb, one of the first to put forward C&C summarised the scheme in the following way: “There is only one really solid basis for allocation. That is to recognise equal per capita entitlement to emission; and consequently, initially to allocate carbon permits in proportion to national population. The moral principle is simple, namely that every human being has an equal right to use the atmospheric resource. The economic principle follows directly – those who exceed their entitlement should pay for doing so. The practical effect is obvious: it would require the industrialised world, with high per capita energy consumption, to assist the developing world with efficient technology and technical services.” (1990 p.83)

For its best-known exponent Aubrey Meyer, C&C “is a policy framework that combines the precautionary principle with the principle of equity”. It has been explicitly approved by the UNFCCC as well as by a number of governments and non-government organisations (NGOs). C&C requires that a carbon budget is calculated for a safe climate, generally considered to by a 2ºC increase. Once a global “cap” on emissions is established, tradeable greenhouse gas emissions permits have to be allocated free to national governments on a per capita basis. Advocates argue that given the wide variation of countries’ per capita emissions, high emitters have to make the greatest cuts while currently lower emitters are allowed to rise for a period of development, until at some point (around 2040) these levels converge and then fall together. (Cromwell and Levene 2007 p.30)

However attractive this appears, Hulme points to some problems. He argues, “There are a number of philosophical and operational difficulties with C&C which have been well rehearsed in recent years. Central to these difficulties is the precise way in which the ‘equal allocation’ of the emissions right should be defined: Should historical emissions count in the apportionment formula? Should the allowance be emissions per capita or emissions per unit of production? Should land-use emissions be included? Others have criticised C&C for its implicit incentive for further procreation – national emissions quotas would grow as population expands.” (2009 p.166-67) We should add that C&C is, as it is currently conceived, compatible with the market mechanisms such as carbon trading that will not effectively tackle climate change.

Framing climate change

The main value of the chapter on the media concerns the issue of ‘framing’. The idea of ‘frames’ or ‘framing’ has emerged in social psychology in recent decades and has been particularly applied to how news, ideas and issues are reported in the media. Put simply, ‘frames organise central ideas, defining a controversy to resonate with core values and assumptions… They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible and what should be done’.

Hulme argues that “framing climate change as a failure of markets, for example, implies that it is market entrepreneurs, economists and businesses that need to take the lead in ‘correcting’ this failure. Framing climate change as a challenge to individual and corporate morality, on the other hand, suggests that very different cohorts of actors should be mobilised.” (2009 p.227)

The mainstream framing of climate change has become a central part of the dominant ideology – what Marx and Engels called “the ruling ideas of the epoch”. Contesting the way the ruling class frames climate change – in other words fighting on the ideological front of the class struggle - is a vital for understanding why government and business strategies are wrong and working out what sort of strategy is consistent with working class interests.

The chapter on development summarises the arguments on the Kyoto Protocol, and how aspects of it, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), actually function in practice. Over 1,000 CDM projects have been financed since 1997, a large majority of these located in the middle-income economies of China, India and Latin America. Hulme quotes German development expert Axel Michaelowa, who surveyed a large number of such projects and found that there were multiple conflicts between the objectives of climate mitigation and development policies: ‘Most climate-change-related [development] assistance flows into medium-income emerging economies, and only addresses poverty alleviation indirectly, if at all. The CDM as a market mechanism will not contribute substantially to poverty alleviation either’. (2009 p.277)


The chapter on politics has merit in describing different schools of thought. Hulme argues that carbon trading “emerges favourably from an understanding of sustainable development which operates under the label ‘market environmentalism’. This neo-liberal approach… ‘commodifying the environment’ – has become increasingly favoured in recent years.” He quotes Ian Bailey: ‘Neoliberal climate policies at the international level [i.e. carbon trading] is intensifying and producing new patterns of interaction between supranational, national and non-state actors’. (2009 p.300, p.303-04)

Hulme also warns of the rise of the “eco-authoritarians” – those who look to military or totalitarian states such as China to tackle climate change. He points to the book by Shearman and Wayne-Smith, The climate change challenge and the failure of democracy, which as the title suggests, chastises bourgeois democracy for its inability to grasp the climate nettle. (2009 p.308)

Another political approach, congruent with NGOs is “civic environmentalism”. On this view, “it is the non-state actors who take centre stage and who hold the key to effecting reductions in carbon emissions”. Hulme mentions “businesses, trade unions, city authorities, women’s groups, carbon offset companies – even the courts and celebrities” as effective agents of change. Such non-state actors “see themselves as more effective, more efficient and more rapid in tackling climate change than are nation-states, and they see themselves as more able to attend sensitively to concerns of fairness, democracy and participation than can the market”. (2009 p.305-06)

The book also mentions “eco-anarchists and socialists”, though only in the shape of Rising Tide. Hulme states that they “challenge the institutions of the capitalist state, seeking the fundamental transformation of consumption patterns and existing institutions to pave the way for a more equitable and eco-centric world order”. The limits of knowledge in this area are revealed by the comment that, “Such radicalism sits in a long tradition of political movements, such as the Second International at the end of the nineteenth century or the anarcho-syndicalists of the 1920s”. (2009 p.308) Whilst it is undoubtedly true that many climate activists are influenced by anarchism (and socialism), the book does not offer a systematic examination or critique of these views.

Beyond climate change?

The book finishes with reflections “beyond” climate change. Hulme argues that climate change is way beyond “a problem in need of a solution”, even if it defined as a “wicked” problem in need of “clumsy” solutions. A wicked problem is a situation defined by “‘uncertainty; inconsistent and ill-defined needs, preferences and values; unclear understanding of the means, consequences and impacts of collective actions; and fluid participation in which multiple, partisan participants vary on the amount of resources they invest in resolving problems’”. Similarly, clumsy solutions “demands that multiple values, multiple frameworks and multiple voices be harnessed together – clumsily, contradictorily – in our response to wicked problems… Earth system science may demand and find a unitary framework of explanation and prediction, but our social worlds resist such unifying frameworks”. (2009 p.334, p.338)

Hulme argues that climate change is not a problem that can be solved – either through elegant solutions or through clumsy ones. This seems to make excessive concession to postmodern language, without clearly setting out an alternative methodology.

However Hulme does suggest that “the idea of climate change should be used to rethink and renegotiate our wider social goals and how and why we live on this planet”. The issue is not about “stopping climate chaos”. Instead, “we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change – the matrix of ecological functions, power relationships, cultural discourses and material flows that climate change reveals – to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects over the decades to come”. (2009 p.362)

Such an approach has, in my view, many attractions for socialists. Using climate change as a narrative around which to restate, reinvigorate and renew socialism in the twenty-first century is a task we should set ourselves with utmost urgency.

Culture and Reviews
Issues and Campaigns

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.