mike hulme

Mike Hulme is professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and was the Founding Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research from 2000 to 2007.  His general research interest is global climate change – especially representations of climate change in history, society and the media, climate scenarios, and the interaction between climate change science and policy.  
His latest book, published in May, is called Why We Disagree About Climate Change and he has edited the forthcoming book Making Climate Change Work For Us which is a synthesis of the research findings of the EU FP6 Integrated Project ‘ADAM: Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies’.  He has earlier prepared numerous climate scenarios and reports for the UK Government, the European Commission, the IPCC, UNEP, UNDP and WWF-International.  He has published over 120 peer-reviewed journal papers and over 35 book chapters on these and other topics, together with over 240 reports and popular articles about climate change.  He is editor-in-chief of the newly commissioned Wiley’s Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change and co-editor of the journal Global Environmental Change.
Read more at www.mikehulme.org

learning to accept re-created climates

Why are we so frightened of a change in the climate?  Why do we want our climates to stay the same, to offer us the same old weather we have grown up with?  We welcome change and novelty in many other areas of our human experience: new technologies to captivate us, new places to visit, new people to love.  But we have decided – perhaps we have been persuaded? – that a change in the climate is dangerous.  Dangerous for us, maybe; dangerous for others, definitely.  We ask our politicians to act, we march on the streets in protest, we struggle with our carbon footprints.  We fear the clock is ticking.  We echo the call to ‘stop climate chaos’.  We want the security, the comfort, of a stable climate.  We want the seasons to return to what they were.  We want the ice-caps to grow back.  We want to be free from the fear of flooding.

The myth of the lost Eden
But why do we want all this?  Why is the Copenhagen climate conference claimed by some to be the ‘last chance to save civilisation’?  It is because of the myth of Eden, a truth-laden picture-story which embodies the idea of loss, lament and a yearning for restoration.  In this lament, climate becomes a symbol of the natural, of the wild, a manifestation of Nature that is (or should be) pure and pristine and is (or should be) beyond the reach of humans.  Climate becomes for us something that is fragile and needs to be protected or ‘saved’, familiar goals, which have fuelled the Romantic, wilderness and environmental movements of the West over two centuries or more.  Changing global climate (inadvertently) through human actions becomes a threat to this last remaining remnant of the wild.  British sociologist Steve Yearley has suggested that we are concerned about climate change not so much because of any substantive diminution of human or non-human welfare that might ensue, but because of the strong element of symbolism involved.  We are concerned about anthropogenic climate change because our climate has come to symbolise the last stronghold of Nature, the final frontier resisting our encroachment.

The problem with rational climates
Anthropologists and environmental historians suggest that the idea of Nature as a separate category - distinct from our interior worlds and therefore something that can be objectively studied by humans and hence physically ‘damaged’ by us – emerged powerfully only during the Western Enlightenment.  Those of us in such rationalistic societies have distanced ourselves from Nature, a position that simultaneously, yet paradoxically, opens up both destructive and romantic tendencies.  By ‘purifying’ climate, as Bruno Latour might say, we have allowed for projects both of domination and, more latterly, of re-enchantment.  Yet however one understands environmental and cultural history, there is no denying that the idea of wildness – Nature as separate - has been a persistent mode of discourse in rationalist Western cultures over recent centuries.


From the cover of Mike Hulme's book "Why We Disagree About Climate Change"


What the polar bear has to carry
In this Edenic myth we lament that by changing the climate, by losing wildness in one of the last ‘untouched’ places, we are diminishing not just ourselves, but also something beyond ourselves.  We are the poorer for it ... as too maybe are the gods.  This mythic position emphasises the symbolic over the substantive.  It is a lament which underpins the deep ecology movement, which surfaces in some forms of eco-theology and which permeates, subliminally, contemporary discourse about climate change.  The polar bear - that hackneyed icon of climate change - ends up not just worrying about its own survival, but has also to carry a huge additional weight on its shoulders, the weight of human nostalgia.  American photographer Camille Seaman’s recent haunting exhibition*  played to this lament: ‘The Last Iceberg chronicles just a handful of the many thousands of icebergs that are currently headed to their end.  I approach the images of icebergs as portraits of individuals, much like family photos of my ancestors.  I seek a moment in their life in which they convey their unique personality, some connection to our own experience and a glimpse of their soul which endures.’  

New hybrid climates
But we cannot return to this mythical pristine climate of the past.  We cannot go backwards in time.  Our climate is no longer natural; there is now no such a thing as a purely natural weather event.  The colour of the sky, the moistness of the air, the strength of the wind, even the (felt) warmth of the sun on our face are now all manipulated.  Not artificial, but manipulated.  By changing so substantially the composition of the world’s atmosphere we humans have not simply brought a new category of weather into being – ‘human weather’, for example, as distinct from ‘natural weather’.  No.  The planetary system which yields distinct weather at distinct times in distinct places is itself now different.  It is a hybrid system yielding hybrid weather.  Whatever the weather outside your window today - whether calm or storm, whether warm or cold - is a result of this new co-production of ourselves and the forces of Nature. 

We may call this new construction a ‘post-natural’ climate or a ‘different paradigm of naturalness’ (after Steve Yearley).  But whatever we call it we cannot return to living with a simply natural climate.  Climate is subject to the ‘hot breath of humanity’ – to use Ian McEwan’s memorable phrase - just as too are forests, rivers, seas and creatures, and just as too are creatures, microbes and nanoparticles.  Climate and these other companions are all ‘ours’, both in creation and in possession.  We humans are now an actor in the unfolding story of climate’s evolution – alongside the personal gods of the heavens and the impersonal dynamics of the oceans.  We are perhaps even the most important actor.  It is as irrelevant as it is impossible to find the invisible fault line between natural and artificial climate, between natural and artificial weather.  We are now and forever the co-creators of our new hybrid climates.  
Learning to re-think climate change
So does this matter?  Should we fear this new role?  Should we indeed be frightened of a change in climate?  I think not.  Or at least we need to learn to think not.  We need to ‘Rethink’ climate change.  And some pointers I offer.  First, we must embrace the idea of novelty – in our climates as much as in other forms of cultural innovation and change.  Novel climates are neither good nor bad.  They are simply novel and we must find ways – maybe new ways, maybe old ways - of imbuing them with meaning, value and utility.  Second, we will not ‘lose’ or deplete weather in the way that we may lose fish or deplete uranium.  Climate change will not diminish the variety or ‘volume’ of weather we experience – although it will change the sequences and patterns of weather and the distribution of places where different weathers occur.  Rather than depleting weather in some way, through increased human mobility and through new communication and virtual media this generation has in fact experienced more weather than did any of our ancestors.  We are the ‘weather-rich’ generation.  And, third, we must eradicate the notion of ‘re-stabilising’ climate.  In the dance between Nature’s chaos and human intent it is change and variability that will always prevail.  Climate stability is a chimera and is best lost from our political and scientific vocabulary.

We are not the lords of climate, exercising our vanities of mastery over Nature.  Neither are we passive serfs, longing for a return to an unchanging primeval climate.  Rather, we are intimate co-workers with Nature, jointly shaping our present and future climates and living – as always – somewhere in the creative spaces between knowledge and ignorance.


* www.camilleseaman.com - accessed 21 September 2009