A review of Why We Disagree About Climate Change by Mike Hulme
The Machiavellian Way
It is a truth, not widely proclaimed, that the principal founder of the modern social sciences was the notorious atheist Niccolò Machiavelli. After a change of regime cut short an illustrious political career in torture and banishment from his beloved Florence, he would sit at his desk at the end of his working day and contemplate what made society tick. In particular he wanted to uncover the internal causation of civil prosperity, and otherwise of civil dysfunction and decay. Late-night imagined conversations with the ancients were the inspiration for this marvellous renaissance of social science methodology, where the prevailing institutionalised dogmas were cast not in terms of their truth-value, but in terms of their social effect, their social power. Machiavelli did not use our words ‘ideology’, ‘episteme’ or ‘paradigm’ the way we now do, but he knew as much as Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Kuln, and as much as Goebbels and Mao, that those who prevail over what-is-taken-for-truth, are those who command society.
After his death, the secret and subversive writings of this Ishmael of the Renaissance were eventually sucked into illicit circulation and across the Alps so as to torment both Protestant and Catholic divines, some of whom must have delved the depths of this stark social analysis – we know this from the way they most clearly delineate its dangers. And his analysis of religion is what hit them with the most shocking force.
It was not that Machiavelli condemned the propagation of religious dogmas by the state. Rather, he agreed with the Roman historian Livy, that, in times of peace, the state-institution of religion is the principle means by which social leaders can keep society from tearing itself apart, even allowing it to prosper. But while Machiavelli praised the healthy social effect of the state-management of religions in ancient Roman (at least according to Livy’s fabulous account), he found the management of religion in modern Rome inherently self-destructive and irredeemably decadent.
From his unfettered pen flowed a most unspeakably damming assessment of the church leadership, a stark clinical analysis now well corroborated by our histories of these times. But this was no cause for cheer among the Protestants, for he also attacked the Christian religion itself, for inadvertently promoting this corruption and decadence. Such Christian teachings as turning-the-other-cheek, and the deferred to the after-life of reward for virtuous social actions, these only served to keep the virtuous down and trampled by those who could affect the appearance of piety even as they lost all sight of virtue in their pursuit of their own interested and this-worldly power. This placed in the firing line, as much the Roman curia, also Martin Luther – that once-young conscience-driven activist who had became increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian under the protection of his supporting princes. And so by the 17th century we find across the European states sporadically ravaged by internecine warfare and trying desperately to reassert their spiritual authority, that this brave Tuscan atheist with his powerful analysis of the realpolitik won the terrible reputation, as, himself, a diabolical threat to civil virtue and social order.
The idea of ‘the atheist’ in the writings we have from the 17th and 18th centuries is far away from what it is now. In all the Reformation disputes over doctrine and rites, it remained inconceivable that anyone could not believe in God and his reward or damnation in the afterlife. Even in the face of the sociology of religion given by the likes of Machiavelli, and later by Thomas Hobbes, the scepticism towards the underlying theology and its moral imperatives – a scepticism call atheism – remained not only unconscionable but also against any possibility of reasonableness. So when it did become conceivable that there were people out there (secret beyond condemnation) who had actually fallen into unbelief, it was inconceivable that they could come to their position by way of reason. If atheism was not mad then it must be evil. There could be no rational atheists, but only moral ones. That is, the unbelievers could only be those unrepentant sinners, perhaps in league with the devil, comforting themselves that there would be no retribution for their deeds.
It is a point of wonder and speculation among historians as to what these divines really thought: Was it really inconceivable to them that one could doubt the-whole-darn-thing, without being either mad or evil? There are those that are inclined to think that for many of these divines it was. So while the social science approach made it easy for those with no vested interest in the state-church dogma to become sceptical ‘free thinkers’ released from its tutelage of their reasoning, these guardians of the divine order, inhabiting a discourse remote due to persecution, were perhaps not so privileged. And in fact such a definite ideological divide (and one is draw to Marx’s analysis of class-based ideology here) is not so strange to us today, if only we turn from the old authority for truth to the new.
In the West during the last half century, state-instituted religion has been usurped by state-instituted science as the ultimate source of legitimacy in contemporary society.* Did we really think that science was so special? That, as its power consolidated, by rule and by method, the institutions of science could resist the relentless pressure of corruption? And there need be no conspiracy and no blame. One of the first comments I recall when Climategate broke was the exclamation (by Steve Mosher perhaps): Hey, this aint no conspiracy, they really believe they are right!
Sure, they might have known they had to massage the data a bit, and protect it from misuse and abuse. But when the FOIA2009 file was unzipped, out tumbled the private emails showing to us all that any reasonable scepticism of the-whole-darn-thing would be genuinely inconceivable to many of the guardians of state-instituted Climate Change Science. Indeed, as much as the past explains the present, the present can enlighten the mysteries of history. The blinding dogmatism that we moderns associate with medieval religion — as so unimaginably foreign, and against which the founders of institutional science fought so bravely to rise above — this has by now, though the triumph of Climate Change Science, come to pervade every major institution of modern science.
Disagreements Permissible, Unmentionable and Inconceivable
We have invoked the muse of the sociological imagination in this blog-post to enable a sympathetic engagement with perhaps the most prominent promoter of social science method in the AGW Alarmism game. And the first thing the sceptical readers need know about Mike Hulme’s recent book, Why We Disagree about Climate Change, is that it is not at all about the disagreement we might first think. It is not, as is the interest of this blog, about trying to understand why some scientists could be so sure that humans are causing catastrophic climate change, and why others challenge the scientific grounds of this proposal.
As with the atheists of old, it is untenable, seemly inconceivable, that anyone might reasonably withhold assent at that level. Should we be surprised that the founding director of The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research regards any professed doubts about the need for action on AGW as either due to an ulterior anti-social motive (in league with vested interests), or only expressing an implicit disagreement in values? Like the moral atheists, the moral sceptics need to believe otherwise so as to persuade themselves there will be no retribution for their immoral excesses and their failure to act. At best, the sceptic uses reason to mask what is really a disagreement over values. This attitude to the critic is politically successful because, as with the treatment of the Machiavellian critique, it permits that doubt or disagreement over the-whole-darn-thing may be emptied of all legitimacy, deflected and reverted upon the critic ad hominem.
Consider, that when someone repeatedly puts an argument that is utterly unreasonable, do you start thinking of other reasons (motives) for them proposing it?, I do this, we do this, with family, friends and foe. It’s a tricky business for our egos each time we make such judgements and decide whether to act on them, but we could not function in society if we did not do so all the time. And scientific institutions need to deal with this problem too, which is precisely why styles, procedures and protocols have long been promoted to help dampen such distortions and bring the discussion back to the evidence. Hulme means no harm. It’s just that he has his gaze fixed fast on the Elysian Fields where society embraces Climate Change mitigation (however this might be achieved). And he bravely leaves the solid road of ‘hard’ science, with its long-established protocols, to take up the precarious relativism of the social sciences so that he can try to understand the disagreements of this controversy. Thus, he takes to the saddle beside Machiavelli and along the precipice of epistemological doubt.
But what needs to be said, and what we show in this blog-post, is that this heroic adventure collapses in a mess of words and deeds. Hulme’s book quickly descends into a confused and degenerate performance of sociological methodology. A victim of his own sloppy practice, unconstrained by the need to appeal to the evidence (or even to take a consistent line of argument), he seems unconscious of the way his own judgements of motive and value push his own vision of truth while oppressing others. Towards the end we even spirals off into a fancy for post-modernism! But Hulme’s attempt to escape the gravity of realism is half-baked, erratic and, most of all, unreflective. We need not blame Hulme, but it would be irresponsible not to point to the damage rort by such corruptions of the Machiavellian way.
The main effect of Hulme’s epistemological relativism is similar to other post-modernist abuses of social science method, namely, to permit the freedom to criticise on all sides while hiding your ground from which you criticise, and upon which you might be attacked. So he raises alarmism against inaction, but yet objects to alarmism. (If there is no reason to be concerned, then why act?) He attacks apocalyptic exaggeration, but yet celebrating it as one of the four great narratives of the Climate Change movement. He disagrees with those who say the science is settled, and yet that is exactly what he mostly presumes and partly defends in the oh-so-sure but grossly over-simplified grounding in the evidence of his Chapter 2. Where is his epistemological relativism here? Turning the page to Chapter 3 and we know the hard science approach is over when Hulme opens with the sceptical science of Singer and Avery in what looks like a roughly edited expanded version of the Guardian article previously discussed here. This singular mention of a challenge to the-whole-darn-thing (Climate change is natural – we can’t stop it) is flung into the whirlwinds of the value-based knowledge systems of the mitigation movement – the windy narratives that variously stir the masses into action as they drive across the hard and silent landscape of Climate Change dogma.
Perhaps this is indeed some kind of strategic guerrilla warfare to strengthen the AGW position outside the constraints of hard science protocol. Or perhaps it only expresses the nervous jittering typical of those fixated in a type of adolescent insecurity that graduate ‘theory’ schools tend to prolong and exacerbate. I do not care to decide. But Hulme’s lack of self-reflection has a great advantage for our own Machiavellian purposes. For it frees him from the strained justification for AGW mitigation through its pretended grounding in the natural sciences. This freedom permits Hulme to reveal to us some of the motivational dynamics of the environmental science culture that seems to be driving the Climate Change movement.
We can be grateful for this testimony of ‘disagreements,’ not for what it says, but for what it shows. Hulme’s insider ‘narratives,’ like the Climategate emails, opens a window to Climate Change Science as an ideology that is, to the believer, utterly sincere and undoubtedly virtuous. Such writing provides an opportunity denied us in our fragmentary reading of the past, and so while Why We Disagree about Climate Change is a long and laborious read, it might invigorate the reader to its special importance as ‘living history’ if we evaluate it under a new heading: with help from Robert Burton and Aynsley Kellow we may read it as The Anatomy of Virtuous Corruption.
The Knowledge of Power
The most striking aspect of Why We Disagree about Climate Change is not so much how little disagreement it deems permissible, but the ways it subverts disagreements inconceivable. In the first place this is achieved through the presentation of the indisputable facts of the science –the foundation of the science upon which the dispute is waged. And we find that, whether with calculated evasion or a crisis of faith, Hulme only partially obscures a foundation built of wafers and straws.
We have heard many times in the media the line ‘the science is simple’ with reference to the undisputed fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but in Hulme’s account of the history of ‘The Discovery of Climate Change,’ he does admit that alarm over emissions is only warranted on the basis of the proposed high levels of positive feedback in the climate system. (Of course, this supposed positive feedback has always been kept in dispute within sceptical discourse.) But later Hulme needs to establish the ground of agreement upon which dispute may arise, and this is how he does it:
Many of the disagreements that we observe are not really disputes about the evidence upon which our scientific knowledge of climate change is founded. We don’t disagree about the physical theory of the absorption of greenhouse gases demonstrated by John Tyndall, about the thermometer readings first collected together from around the world by Guy Callendar, or about the possibility of non-linear instabilities in the oceans articulated by Wally Broecker.
What a curious grab-bag! Hulme had already said himself that Tyndall’s main conclusion upon the evidence was that it was primarily water vapour that is keeping the sun’s warmth in. And this conclusion was strengthened early in the 20th century when experiments showed that the infrared bands that CO2 affected would already be all but opaque due to natural levels of CO2, and that anyway, most of these same bands were already blocked due to the nature humidity of the air.
This is what the amateur Guy Callendar challenged in the late 1930s with his revival of CO2-forcing, now as an anthropogenic effect. And that is what was in dispute with his Met Office critics after they called him in to make his case. (The reader can find this in Fleming’s history [review], commended by Hulme in his Further Reading as the finest single account.) So then why is Hulme on about the undisputed facts of Callender’s collected ‘thermometer readings‘? We know that in the 1960s with a new set of data the Russians (Budyko after Vinnikov) only roughly matched Callender, noticeably giving his temperature peak after 1900 as now in the decade before. And in the 1980s, with new data and new analysis, James Hansen removes a northern bias that had previously served to exaggerate the 1970s cooling. But Hulme surely knows that not Callendar, nor Hansen, nor Al Gore, not anyone has yet found the global armpit by which a thermometer reading can establish the presence of a global fever. [more on global temp graphs]
Thermometer readings alone say nothing about the point at issue, namely how much the whole globe is warming; and the dispute running hot at the time of his writing was about selection, adjustment, homogenization of these readings. Most curious is why Callendar is not listed here for his fame as the first to propose that much of the recent warming is driven by CO2 emissions. Perhaps this is because the IPCC consensus is now that this CO2-forcing only kicked in after the cooling of the 60s and 70s – that is, after Callendar’s theory fell victim to the snowy winters of the early 1960, and after Callendar was dead.
If Hulme is sincere in this proclamation of what ‘we don’t disagree about,’ then he reveals himself ignorant in his chosen field of expertise, pretending to knowledge, but only swimming around a surface of propaganda. Could it be that he, like our divines of old, is dogmatically immunised from the reasoning that might lead to doubt about the-whole-darn-thing? This is how it appears however much I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then consider how he finishes with the possibility of non-linear instability in the oceans. With the qualification of ‘possibility,‘ this statement is reduced to the trivial. Trivial but indisputable. Yes Dr Hulme, I agree, it is true: The oceanic oscillations might suddenly flip into chaotic fibrillation and we might all die! To all appearances this ‘agreement’ is included to advance scare-mongering on a spurious appeal to established facts. If we dismiss the idea that Hulme is but a victim of dogma, then we are drawn to the conclusion that here is yet another example of an AGW alarmist knowingly distorting and obscuring the facts of science (including here the facts of history) in order to advance his virtuous cause. He means no harm: like the divines of old, he wants to save us from the sins of our excesses. But in doing so he effects a travesty of modern science.
Another insidious way that Hulme affects the subversion of disagreement is the distortion of language used to describe the very debate. We are already familiar with this in the loading of the term ‘Climate Change’ as a contraction of runaway-anthropogenic-global-warming. With this contraction the previous study of geological and historical climate (or ‘climatic’) change, as a natural phenomenon, is subverted. Hulme tells us that the first book he read on climate change was Climate Change: Present, Past and Future, which was the 2 volume magnum opus of Hubert Lamb, one of the great founders of historical climate change research, and the founder of the Climatic Research Unit where Hulme later came to work. While Hulme has interpolated ‘Change‘ into the title of Lamb’s book, it is indeed implied, but what Hulme does not tell us (nor Wikipedia after Trevor Davies) is that Lamb remained publicly sceptical of the theories of human-caused global warming, present, past and future, right up until his death in the late 1990s.
Without as much as a backward glance, Hulme comes to define ‘climate change’ as:
…a past, present or future change in climate, with the implication that the predominant – but not exclusive – cause of this change is human in origin.
Consider firstly how we hardly even notice these days that this definition includes the anthropogenic effects on local climate, such as urban warming. Acknowledged in climate science from its begins, the difficulties in isolating the Urban Heat Island effect on thermometer readings is a problem that has always plagued attempts to find a global signal in these readings across times and spaces of massive urban expansion. And then we must wonder at Hulme’s exceptions to human causation…Could he be thinking of the cooling in the 1960s and 1970s? Perhaps the warming from the 1880 to the 1930 as per Callendar’s temperature graphs? And what about the Medieval Climate Optimum that he read about in Lamb? Finally, as already noted, Hulme implicitly restrains this meaning even further, for the disagreements about ‘Climate Change’ are only about its mitigation.
How Hulme really imagines the climate works is forever hard to pin down, as there are so many shifts in his musings over opinions and ‘narratives.’ But Hulme really does seem to be one scientist who upholds the notion found in policy documents that if we have control over emissions then we have our hands on the global thermostat. He does not ask what are the benefits of reducing emissions but: What are the benefits of keeping global warming to 2 degrees rather than 3 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures? And later he does not call for some kind of international EPA to deal with atmospheric pollution, but instead asks Who Governs Climate? Global climate is now widely seen to be in need of some form of governance.
Hulme is forever subverting the question of Whether runaway AGW? with How to deal with it? and sometimes in ways that seem truly unconscious. Consider this: Quite radically different prognoses for addressing climate change emerge depending on what value system is adopted. I think he means: ‘Quite radically different ways of addressing climate change emerge depending on what value system is adopted.’ I think he means that because that is a major theme of his book. But by misusing ‘prognosis’ (or by inserting addressing), the question of Whether runaway AGW is the prognosis?, this is again subverted.
Next we come to the way Hulme subverts disagreement in blatant abuses of the social science method. This is mostly by an inconsistent and ambiguous use of post-modernist value-relativism which allows him to land some sharp value-laden barbs. A most striking passage comes within what at first appears to be a discussion of Climate Ideology from a neutral point of view. The section begins by saying The idea that the character of different races is shaped, or even determined by climate has been one of the more enduring in the intellectual history of climate. Here I am thinking of how I was taught at school about why the North Africans were tall and dark, why the Mongolians had almond eyes and the Sherpas large chests. But no, this section is called Racism, and he is referring to the climate determinism fashionable in the 19th century colonialism that served to legitimate domination and to reinforce negative cultural stereotyping. Oh yes, we all find that shocking don’t we. Sure this is old and naive he says but yet the deterministic philosophy underpinning such thinking can still lurk near the surface, and he then cites some contemporary research to insinuate its racist motivation. What I learned here is that I should never mention around the Tyndall Centre my love for the calming cultural influence of the practice of siesta in the warmer climes, nor the difficulty folks seem to have in undertaking book work in oppressive heat, and I would certainly not mention, even with a wry smile, Mike Moore’s theory that we have the air conditioner to blame for the rising influence of Southerns on the USA political scene.
This is scholarly political correctness at its worst, grounded, as it so often is, in a comic book understanding of intellectual history. And even that, he sometimes gets terribly wrong, like when he quotes the racist Kant in 1775, and placing him as the father of the Enlightenment. I wonder where this puts Voltaire and his English Letters of 1733? Or Diderot with his Encyclopaedia? It is curious that Hulme had just mentioned David Hume, for Kant famously claimed that it was the scepticism of David Hume that awoken him from his intellectual slumber. Perhaps there is a lesson for Hulme here, for this section of the book expresses a lazy prejudicial scholarship that one could only excuse if we found that it arose unchallenged from the stupor of a tropical afternoon.
We might at first think that for Hulme it would only be the views of the sceptics that are beyond reasonable assent – and so attributable to ulterior motives. But he seems to have a similar attitude to those on his side whose claims of the science are more alarming than his. In a chapter called The Communication of Risk, under the heading of Linguistic Repertoires, he draws quotations, by way of example, from two scientists (Risbey and Read) where they both clearly say that by raising the alarm of ‘climate catastrophe’ they are calling it as they see it. For them the prediction of ‘climate catastrophe’ is not rhetoric but science. Hulme will not allow this, and he effectively accuses them of exaggeration and lies. In a boxed section he quotes himself (referring presumably to the IPCC scenarios he helped compose):
The IPCC scenarios of future climate change…are significant enough without invoking catastrophe and chaos as unguided weapons with which forlornly to threaten society into behavioural change.
Hulme does not criticise his fellow Alarmists because it is unethical for scientists to exaggeration or lie about the science, but because this level of alarmism is ineffective in persuading the masses to action. Later, in criticism from which he does not exclude himself, he suggests that the construction of Climate Change as ‘the mother of all problems’ might have been a mistake, and that in doing so perhaps we have out manoeuvred ourselves. It seemed to me that he had just performing such a ‘manoeuvre’ himself…before a quick change of tack. But for some folks I know, they are saying it is the mother of all problems because that is how they see it. For many of my greenie friends, when they say so, this is no manoeuvre, it is just speaking the truth as they understand it – or as they have trusted that the expert scientists have seen it. They follow Hulme in rejecting Lomborg’s proposal that it is only one problem among many because they have been told by the trusted scientists that it is paramount. Now Hulme seems to be telling my friends that they are the foolish victims of scientists pretending to the authority of science, while in fact deceiving them with propaganda.
The Prince of Climate Change
In the final post-modern flourishes at the end of the book Hulme outlines what he sees as the 4 ‘narratives’ of Climate Change: Lamenting Eden (nostalgia); Presaging Apocalypse (fear); Constructing Babel (pride); Celebrating Jubilee (justice). In explaining how these ‘myths’ manifest in the Climate Change discourse, Hulme has some strong words to say against those nostalgic for a return to Eden, and against others for wanting to building a Babel of climate control (Geo-engineering? — forget it!). But there is no mistake that he comes down mighty hard on those drumming up fear of an Apocalypse. As I read this — his so-called ‘religious’ approach to the discourse of Climate Change — I was rather thinking that he had anticipated some of my own analysis, namely that through Climate Change Science, the institutions of science have been corrupted by precisely the sorts of ‘narratives’ that they first explicitly fought to exclude [see here]. But then, as unexpectedly as it began, the storm of criticism dies down and all is forgiven. In the end he does not condemn the contamination of scientific discourse by such distractions. Instead he celebrates them:
It is stories such as these – embodiments of ‘fundamental truths about our assumptions of reality’ – that we need to re-create in our world. Climate change offers great story telling potential. The four myths I have offered should not be judged as either right or wrong. They should be recognised as stories about climate change; as mirrors that reveal important truths about the human condition [p.358].
We have erred, according to Hulme, in that we have until now considered climate change a problem to be solved, and thereby been too concerned with striving for a solution.
…climate change [is not] a problem waiting for a solution, any more than the clashes of political ideologies or the disputes between religious beliefs are problems waiting to be solved….Rather than asking ‘How do we solve climate change?’ we need to turn the question around and ask ‘How does the idea of climate change alter the way we arrive at and achieve our personal aspirations and our collective social goals?[p.xxviii]
Rather than catalysing disagreements about how, when and where to tackle climate change, the idea of climate change should be seen as an intellectual resource around which our collective and personal identities and projects can form and take shape. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change but to ask what climate change can do for us. [p.326]
Our professor of Climate Change sees, just as we do, the discourse of climate change invading ever discourse of our lives:
Climate change is everywhere. Not only the physical climates of the world everywhere changing, but just as importantly the idea of climate change is now to be fond active across the full parade of human endeavours, institutions practices and stories.
Writing as he does at its peak of influence (2008-9), he wants to promote and celebrate its rise to hegemony:
Climate change should not be seen as an environmental problem demanding a technical solution …we need to approach climate change as an imaginative idea, as idea that we develop and employ to fulfil a variety of tasks for us.
Climate change thus becomes a mirror into which we can look and see exposed both our individual selves and our collective societies.
As the book drew me towards its giddy climax, I was rather overwhelmed by the idea that we had taken off to some marvellous place where what Hulme calls climate change (lower case – the physical problem) did not really matter any more. In this ideal principality called Climate Change (title case – the idea), apocalyptic frenzy is something of which we might disapprove – but, fabulous as it is, we should certainly not challenge it with the facts. Our author had surely conquered the hard sciences with all their pretensions to power in the truth. And he has done this, not with the least penetrating Machiavellian analysis, but through bold Machiavellian political pragmatism. On closing the book there was no doubt in this readers mind that Dr Hulme had established himself as a Prince of Climate Change Science. With his success in rhetorically neutralising the destabilising influence of the sceptics doggedly appealing to the evidence-base, in his very practice of science, Dr Hulme has mastered the art of politics formulated by Machiavelli in his famous handbook for princes all those years ago.
*Quote from the Forward by Steve Rayner
There is much more to say about Why We Disagree…,and I hope to continue the discussion, either in the commentary below, or with a further post discussing such things as Hulme’s encouragement of the confusion of science with policy, and also his confused discussion of Risk. – BL
[UPDATE: See brief discussion of Hulme on risk in this comment on WUWT]
[18 & 25 July 2010 – corrections and minor modifications to the original post]