Mike Hulme has been a climate researcher since 1988, starting his career at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. He is now a professor of climate change at the very same institution and in 2009 published a book called Why We Disagree About Climate Change. He also founded the Tyndall […]

Mike Hulme has been a climate researcher since 1988, starting his career at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia.

He is now a professor of climate change at the very same institution and in 2009 published a book called Why We Disagree About Climate Change. He also founded the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in 2000, which he directed until 2007. We caught up with Mike as he made preparations for his Off the Shelf talk on 5th October.

What will you focus on in your talk at Off the Shelf?

What I will do is show how the idea of human-caused climate change, and what should be done about it, brings to the surface many of the reasons why people differ from each other: our different worldviews, beliefs, values and ideologies. Scientific knowledge of this phenomenon is still patchy at best and the uncertainties about the future mean that there is no single uncontestable course of action. We argue about climate change not because science is wrong or ambiguous, but because we hold different beliefs and visions about how we want the human world to be organised.

The idea of climate change as a cultural and ideological phenomenon is interesting. Have you taken a lot of criticism over it since your book was published?

Yes, I have had my critics, but I have had many more people welcome my ideas because they take climate change away from being a predominantly ‘science’ or ‘environment’ issue and turn it into a cultural, ethical and ideological one. This legitimises people to participate in debates and arguments about what should be done, rather than leaving them to feel like they always have to either defend or attack ‘the science’ before any sensible policy discussion can take place. My critics have accused me of a) making it easier for sceptics to attack ‘the science’, b) implying that we should ‘do nothing’ about climate change and c) being part of the green-red environmental socialist conspiracy which has invented human-caused climate change as a political issue. Needless to say, I think all three criticisms are false.

You have spoken before about minimising the use of alarmist language when discussing climate change. Is this because you believe the threat has been overstated, or just that it needs to be approached with a more level head?

It is very easy to overstate the risks of human-induced climate change and to imply that our scientific reading of the future is more definite than it can ever be. I have been involved in climate change research for 30 years now and have heard many dodgy claims, by both scientists and non-scientists alike (I’ve probably offered a few myself earlier in my career!) Often, people think that sexing-up scientific claims will lead to more political or public action. In fact, it is more likely to do just the opposite. The risks of climate change don’t need to be sexed up – just presented in a level-headed way which accepts that there is still a lot we don’t know.

Do you support widespread decarbonisation? Or is there a better way to react to a changing climate?

There are good reasons for developing reliable, low-cost energy supply technologies which do not rely heavily on fossil carbon fuels, quite apart from concerns about climate change. These reasons are air quality and human health, energy security, peak oil and fuel affordability. We need to broaden the arguments for decarbonisation away from climate change. The best way to decarbonise is to invest hugely in technology innovation – not to subsidise trivialscale technologies like wind and solar roof tiles, but to go for big breakthrough technologies around hydrogen, new nuclear, concentrated solar and fourth generation biofuels.

It seems to me that certain climate change buzzwords go in and out of fashion. Will this happen with carbon, do you think?

Yes, we have rather fetishised carbon I feel, ignoring the many other ways human activities alter climate: methane, HFCs, aerosols, soot, land cover changes, nitrous oxides etc. In fact, CO2 emitted from fossil carbon sources is only 40-45% of the human influence on climate. We need a much more piecemeal approach than being totally obsessed about carbon footprints.

Tell us about the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and its objectives.

I no longer run the Tyndall, having ‘retired’ four years ago. The Centre continues, although these days it is a much looser network of different university departments collaborating on the basis of historical interests in conducting inter-disciplinary research on climate change which is relevant for policy debates. The Centre has recently added Fudan University in Shanghai to its network.

Mike’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change talk will take place at the Sheffield Union Auditorium on 5th October.

Interview by Sam Walby.