Mike Hulme has a new essay that some are promoting on Twitter. He suggests that he is a human extinction denier and objects to the climate emergency narrative. Although I have my own concerns about some of the extreme rhetoric, I found his esssay rather irritating.
Firstly, I think it largely mis-represents the position that he’s criticising. Existential doesn’t necessarily imply the end of the human species. It can refer to other species, some of which seem clearly to be at risk, or to our global civilisation, which some do indeed think is inconsistent with substantial warming.
I also think it falls foul of deficit-model, or linear, thinking. It seems to suggest that there is some logical way to address this issue and that those who promote the existential, or climate emergency, narrative are failing to understand this. I do wish that we could carefully assess all complex situations and then make sensible decisions, but it’s my understanding that this isn’t a realistic way to develop policy. Many factors can influence how we do so, including people promoting extreme narratives.
The essay also highlights that climate change raises a host of ethical, historical and cultural questions that are at most tangentially connected to any scientific findings. This is certainly true, but what it seems to fail to acknowledge is that those he’s criticising may have indeed considered this and that it is these ethical, historical, and cultural issues that have driven them to the position they now hold. People are, of course, free to disagree with their judgements, but why not simply say so, rather than writing something that suggests that your criticism is based on some kind of intellectual authority?
I also think the article produces some rather confused descriptions of our scientific understanding (which is a little odd, given the credentials of the author). For example, it says
Climate prediction science is fundamentally based on probabilistic forecasts which underpin the quantification of risk. There is a range of possible values for future global warming. It is as false scientifically to say that the climate future will be catastrophic as it is to say with certainty that it will be merely lukewarm.
The dominant factor that will determine how much we warm, and hence the impact of the resulting climate change, is how much we emit. I agree that we can’t say that the climate future will be catastrophic, but the more we emit, the more likely it becomes that our climate future will reasonably be described as catastrophic. In a sense this is the key issue; should we limit our emissions in order to reduce the chance that our climate future will be catastrophic?
To suggest that the outcome is simply part of a probabilistic forecast seems to completely ignore that the outcome largely depends on what we choose to do. Much of the climate emergency narrative is motivated by a desire to influence our choices so that we limit our emissions and, hence, ultimately reduce the impact of climate change. Mike Hulme’s essay seemed to completely ignore this pretty basic issue.
I sometimes get the sense that some view this as essentially a binary situation; a world with climate change compared to a world without climate change. It isn’t. It’s a world with a climate that will continue to change while we continue to emit CO2 into the atmosphere. How much it changes depends largely on what we choose to do. Clearly there are many factors that will, and should, influence how we respond to this. The basics are, however, pretty simple – how much we emit will largely determine how much the climate will change and, consequently, will determine the impacts that we, and future generations, will have to learn to deal with.
Even though there are potentially serious consequences to exaggerating the risks and promoting an extreme narrative, there are also potentially serious consequences to delaying addressing climate change. I think there are valid criticisms of the existential/climate emergency narrative, but I didn’t really find Mike Hulme’s critique particularly compelling. Maybe someone can convince me that there’s more depth to it than it seems.
Am I a denier, a humen extinction denier – Mike Hulme’s essay.
Existential threat? – post I wrote about climate change being an existential threat.
The benefits of acting now, rather than later – post I wrote about the benefits of reducing emissions sooner, rather than later.