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Climate Change Isn’t Everything by Mike Hulme

Climate Change Isn’t Everything

Mike Hulme



It’s hard to decide whether Mike Hulme’s new book is: (a) a salutary warning to over-enthusiastic advocates of climate action, (b) a case of over-egging the pudding in regard to same, or (c) and despite  protestations to the contrary, a gift to climate deniers. The book has elements of all three, but I confess Hulme’s central assertion, that ‘climatism’ has emerged as a technocratic, pervasive and apocalyptic ‘ideology’ which explains all the world’s ills and claims pre-eminence in policy, strikes me mainly as a case of over-egging the pudding. I was going to describe this as the ideology of ‘eggism’, but that seems to be a thing already, so let’s call it the ideology of ‘overeggism’.

Hulme has been on a journey on this topic. His 2009 book, ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’, described climate change not just as a physical phenomenon, but as a potent idea ‘reshaping the way we think about ourselves, about our societies and about humanity’s place on Earth . . . it is used as a battleground between different philosophies and practices of science and between different ways of knowing.’ In a 2011 paper, ‘Reducing the Future to Climate: A Story of Climate Determinism and Reductionism‘, he argued that ‘the new climate reductionism is driven by the hegemony exercised by the predictive natural sciences over contingent, imaginative, and humanistic accounts of social life and visions of the future. It is a hegemony that lends disproportionate power in political and social discourse to model- based descriptions of putative future climates.’

The new book goes further. Climatism is not just an idea, but an ideology, like racism, feminism, nationalism or Marxism. Climatism sets up climate change as the ‘pre-eminent or decisive factor’ in explaining everything from war to the volume of hate speech on Twitter. It demands that climate action trump all other policy. Climate change is real, Hulme insists, and climate action is needed. But climatism perpetuates a ‘noble lie’, and possibly, we are led to think, perpetuates an ignoble one.

The book consists of an Introduction and six substantive chapters, plus a final chapter which attempts to head off objections. Each chapter has a summary.

Chapter 1 introduces the idea of climatism as an ideology, a ‘structured set of beliefs that interprets social and political worlds and that is used to guide human action in those worlds’. Specifically, climatism ‘frames the complex political and ethical challenges confronting the world today first and foremost in terms of a changing climate’. This has developed because of ‘climatisation’, the ‘process whereby issues that were formerly deemed largely or totally unrelated to climate start being analysed and understood predominantly through a climate lens’: war in Syria and Afghanistan, food security, migration, extreme weather events, even fashion and sport. How do we know? Evidence is offered: as examples, the UN Security Council has had sessions on climate change and the Indian Navy has a ‘green cell’ to help reduce emissions. And why has this happened? Because a climate narrative is good for publicity, helps secure funding, and diverts attention from underlying causes, like inequality or Government failure to build infrastructure. Climatism aspires to the totalising character of a ‘thick ideology’.

Chapter 2 asks how climatism arose, and points the finger at ‘a series of developments in the scientific and social study of climatic change’. There are ten of these ‘moves’, of which the most important is a focus on global temperature, based on work by Bill Nordhaus, and with all the strengths and weaknesses of another highly aggregated measure, GDP. Others are: reducing the history of climate only to its physical aspects; the growing dominance of predictive models; using the social cost of carbon to integrate climate change into economics; imagining the future only in terms of the future condition of the climate; making human adaptation to weather and climate variability contingent on precise predictions of the future state of climate; the emergence of the idea of the allowable carbon budget; attributing weather events of human-induced climate change; and ever-shortening time-lines. Taken together, these framings and fetishes make the narrative on climate change appear scientifically grounded, epistemically justified and hence inevitable.

Chapter 3 is about the use and misuse of climate scenarios, particularly the modelling which predicts an extreme, ‘hothouse world’ – in the language of the IPCC, Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, which predicts additional emissions of 8,000 Gt of additional carbon by the end of the century. This is entirely implausible because it implies continued heavy use of coal, which is not happening, and because emissions have already peaked in many countries. Emissions of less than half that amount are more likely. But a climatist ideology exaggerates risk and elevates climate to be a ‘more dominant factor shaping the future than is warranted’. Climate science is (perhaps inadvertently) complicit, by focusing reductively on climate and only on negative consequences of climate change. Further, climate science can be defensive, sometimes even secretive, in dealing with controversy or uncertainty within the science. Some philosphers have even advocated that ‘scientists embrace the equivalent of Plato’s ‘noble lie’, the knowing propagation of falsehood or deception . . . to advance an agenda’. ‘This’, says Hulme, ‘is a dangerous position to espouse’ – but there are examples in the climate world. Sometimes climate scientists may over-claim, in order to communicate more clearly, or perhaps, to secure funding.

Chapter 4 asks why climatism is so alluring. One reason is that it provides a master- or meta-narrative, a ‘comprehensive, coherent and persuasive account of the present and future state of the world’: a thick ideology indeed. This characterstic is rooted in four features of climatism: its totalising scope; its gnostic tone; its apocalyptic rhetoric; and its Manichean worldview. In other words, the special knowledge provided by climate science offers a vision of good and evil, with acopalypse on one side and salvation on the other. Many climate activists are in the firing line here: Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, Mayer Hillman, 350.0rg. XR . . .

Chapter 5 examines why climatism is dangerous. It is because pursuit of a single goal, a narrowing of the vision, ignores other social and economic issues, like those embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals. It can create perverse effects, as the case of EUEuropean Union biofuel policy illustrates: creating more deforestation in Indonesia, and havoc for the livelihoods of forest-dependent populations. It constantly emphasises the urgency of action – and by so doing, contributes to the depoliticization of issues, and to anti-democratic impulses. Technocrats rule in this world: ‘liberty, equality, pluralism and self-determination’ are all squeezed out.

Chapter 6 offers an alternative. ‘Wicked problems’, Hulme argues’, ‘need clumsy solutions’. This means being pragmatic and SDG-compliant – specifically (a) foreground uncertainties about the climate future, (b) replace hubris with humility, (c) replace metaphors about cliff-edges with gradual inclines, in which every 0.1 of a degree matters, (d) give space to a plurality of values and individual preferences, and (e) diversify goals to reflect ‘locally contextualised and specific social-ecological welfare outcomes’. Climate change, remember, isn’t everything.

Finally, Chapter 7 takes on objections to the argument. There are boxes scattered through previous chapters in which Hulme pre-emptively takes on critics (‘climatism is not about denying the reality of climate change’, ‘the book does not challenge the solidity of climate science’, ‘climate scientists are not biased or untrustworthy’). Here, he tackles five counter-arguments in more detail. First, that he thinks climate science is alarmist (he doesn’t). Second, that climate change is an existential risk (it isn’t). Third, that he underestimates the prominence of justice in climate change advocacy (no, he doesn’t because advocates do default to climatism). Fourth, climatism is valuable because it counters the ideology of consumerist capitalism (better to tackle that directly). And fifth, that he sounds like a climate denier of delayer (that’s irrelevant, work from the arguments). The peroration is that climate change is not a hammer looking for a nail. Stopping climate change isn’t the only thing that matters.

*  *  *

So, salutary warning, overeggism or a gift to climate deniers?

To take climate deniers first, the scope for cherry-picking and quoting out of context is huge. Presumably Mike Hulme knows this, which explains the ubiquity of disclaimers and boxes, as well as the final chapter. He is insistent that climate change is real, that the science matters, and that something must be done. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that selective quotation can be used pejoratively. For evidence, look no further than the article Hulme himself wrote in the Mail on Sunday on 25 June. ‘Stop blaming everything on climate change!’, the headline shouted, ‘Eco-campaigners link global warming to everything from divorce to the war in Ukraine - but this myopic view could be catastrophic’. For those readers of the Mail who do not bother to read the text, the six pictures which illustrate the article are all of climate protests, with captions saying things like ‘Group-think has taken over as climatism demands total allegiance, and has become an unchallengeable doctrine guiding individuals, institutions, cultures and social movements’. We really have to hope Mike Hulme does not end up thinking that writing the book was injudicious.

As to salutary warning, the problem is that there are many different advocates of climate action: natural and social scientists, policy analysts, campaigners, national and international agencies, governments, the general public, and so on. And there is a battery of criticisms, as detailed above. In this scattershot context, some pellets are bound to hit the mark, others not – some to chime with one’s own prejudices, others not.

For example, I am sympathetic to the critique that calls for climate action can be used as a front to advocate the overthrow of market societies (see my review of Naomi Klein’s climate book, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate’, or, for another  example, my review of Adrienne Buller’s book, The Value of a Whale). On the other hand, and this might be expected, given my long involvement with UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report, and my current role as one of the Chief Scientific Editors of that report, I am prepared to defend temperature targets, climate modelling, carbon budgets, least cost pathways to net zero, and the other elements of the international climate apparatus.

I suppose the answer is to be aware that debates about climate are multi-faceted and that the science can be misused. In that sense, the warning is justified. But this is the Hulme of 2009 and 2011, not the Hulme of 2022. Here, the argument is much stronger – and that brings us to climatism and to overeggism.

On that subject, overeggism is the ideological twin sister of climatism. Whereas ‘climatists’, adherents of a thick ideology, pursue one Manichean view, ‘overeggists’ pursue another. It is easy to imagine Mike Hulme, sitting in his study, scouring the newspapers and websites for evidence of  exaggeration or over-simpification about the role of climate change. ‘Ha!’, he will exclaim, scissors in hand and box file at the ready, ‘here’s another ridiculous claim I can use in the book’. Often, of course, he’s right, as for example on causes of the war in Syria. But sometimes he is not. For example, it is stretching the point to cite the fact the Security Council has had a debate on climate change as evidence of climatism. The SCScheduled Caste, as per Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution of India has debates on lots of things, including in the past HIV/AIDS, food security and the pandemic. In 2022, it held 292 public and private meetings and discussed 49 separate agenda items.

More generally, the overeggest claim that mainstream climate policy pays no attention to social and economic context and to non-climate priorities is simply not credible. Mike Hulme and I both have a background in development studies. It is certainly true that the climate and development worlds have in the past run on parallel and poorly connected tracks. That was probably true in the 2000s. At ODI, a development and humanitarian think-tank, we did not start working seriously on climate until just before I left, in 2009. But today? The literature is awash with references to climate compatible development, climate-smart development, climate-resilient development, just transition, and many other formulations of the same kind. Our own work on climate compatible development at CDKN, from 2010, was precisely about understanding and acting on climate change in tandem with other priorities. Even the World Bank has joined the party, with its recent Country Climate and Development Reports. If that is not the mainstream, what is? If Chapter 6 of the book offers a manifesto of how to do better, with six tests for the climate and development community, I would say we pass them with ease.

There is a final point, though. Climate change may not be ‘everything’, as Mike Hulme argues, but it is actually ‘quite a lot’. In the week that Hulme’s book was published, the world recorded its hottest ever temperature, smoke from exceptionally severe Canadian wildfires continued to pollute American cities, and more than a third of Europe was reported to be under drought alert. The independent UK Committee on Climate Change published its Annual Report to Parliament, noting inter alia that in 2022, the UK temperature trend was a full 1 degree warmer than the 1981-2000 baseline, and 2 degrees warmer than in 1880.

You don’t have to be a climatist or be obsessed about attribution to think that these are worrying signs. The UN Environment Emissions Gap Reports have documented year by year, with all the caveats and caution Mike Hulme would wish, the failure significantly to close the gap to Paris temperature targets. In June this year, Piers Forster and colleagues published an authoritative article documenting the increase in extreme weather events and showing that the remaining carbon budget is shrinking fast, because of the failure to cut emissions with sufficient speed. Mike Hulme may not like the data being presented in this way, and he is right that ‘climate is not everything’, but, to repeat, it is ‘quite a lot’.

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