Interview with Mike Hulme on Climate Change and Consumption

Photo: Mike Hulme

Souvik Mukherjee and Josi Paz interview Mike Hulme on climate change and consumption.

Read more to find out his views on the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), on advocating a polycentric ‘messy’ approach to climate change, and on the role of the climate change ‘expert’.

TCS: How do you see your own perspective about the climate change debate, especially in relation to other perspectives, both academic and otherwise?

Mike Hulme: My understanding of climate change as a phenomenon and my beliefs about forms of political and action around climate change have altered considerably during my career (25 years and counting).  It is important to approach climate change as much as an idea of the human imagination as it is a physical construct to be studied and predicted. Both are important and in particular these two approaches get entangled.  My approach is therefore more attractive it seems to non-physical scientists than it is to physical scientists.  Some environmental campaigners and advocates also think that my position is too passive; others think I am a denier, whilst still others castigate me as being inside the corrupted and contaminated corridors of the ‘climate change establishment’.  So I get all types of reactions.

TCS: Conscientious/Ethical consumption as an approach has become more ‘popular’ nowadays, not only in the EU but also in countries, such as Brazil, where the consumer society has grown significantly. There’s a kind of consensus about the idea that consuming conscientiously can help in facing climate change. How do you view this as an expression of environmental concerns?

MH: Yes, but this is a tiny part of material consumption when measured globally.  Ethical consumption as a proportion of world gross production is tiny and on its own is not going to overturn the growth curve in carbon emissions.  For this, what is needed is huge investment to innovate and accelerate low carbon affordable energy.

TCS: You talk about a ‘messy approach’ to climate change instead of an elegant one. This seems to indicate that many actions and decisions should be put together independent of the United Nations. What is the role of United Nations in this given that the IPCC is part of it?

MH: I used to think that the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol were the only way to go.  I no longer think so, after 15 years of experience of failure. Climate change – the causes and the consequences – has to be fragmented into a diversity of different issues, each of which can be tackled in different ways, at different speeds and by different coalitions of actors. Stitching this all together into one mega-deal and one universal
negotiating process is crazy.  My position is called pragmatism, or polycentric if one prefers Elinor Orstom’s language.

TCS: In June, at the Southbank, in the Royal Society celebration, you said that ‘Climategate’ and ‘Glaciergate’ have unsettled the traditional notion of the expert. Is it not possible then to have ‘experts’ on climate change? Is the issue not that of media representations of the expert, as infallible, as objective, and as speaking the ‘truth’, which is problematised, rather than claims made by experts – which experts know are provisional, open to challenge and only as good as the evidence.

MH: Yes, I think there is a problem in contemporary society about people’s expectations of ‘the expert’. People are ambivalent in that on the one hand they want to defer to expertise that they trust in, and yet they find it increasingly hard to gain or retain the necessary levels of trust. This is a cultural phenomenon of the West (and maybe elsewhere, I don’t know) which applies to more than just science.  It is fuelled by new flows and accretions of ‘knowledge’ through social media and through the unsettling of some of the grand-narratives of the past.  Scientific knowledge is still too readily placed on a pedestal as though it were the only way to find meaningful knowledge about the world, and since science is presented as possessing high cultural authority by the elite, in a sceptical age people then find it easy to knock such knowledge off its self-proclaimed pedestal.  The IPCC is implicated here.  It is a one-size fits all process for establishing public knowledge around climate change and yet it is a monolithic and closed process of knowledge-making.  As people like Mark Brown and Andy Stirling have argued, we need plural and conditional knowledge emerging from multiple sites and processes of knowledge production to engage with a plural and diverse polity so that the fruits of democratic modes of political representation can be realised.  The IPCC is too hegemonic around climate change knowledge.

TCS: In your article in the recent TCS Special Issue on Climate Change, you discuss cosmopolitanism from Ulrich Beck’s angle, in your attempt to define how we see ourselves facing the challenge of climate change. Is it at all possible to be cosmopolitan in facing climate change, given the vast diversity of challenges faced by nations whose realities are very different from those of the US and the EU?

MH: Cosmopolitanism can mean different things.  What I was suggesting is that climate and weather have become more cosmopolitan – as has cuisine for example – because we travel much more than previously and, more importantly, we see all types of weather extremes on new media.  So we ‘feel’ that we are experiencing all the world’s wild weather at any one time.  This is a new experience of climate cosmopolitanism for human beings.  I’m not sure anyone has thought through the full implications of this.  It may become banal (to quote Beck) or it may enhance solidarity or it may again help develop a more conscious sense of the global climate (along the lines Ursula Heise in her 2008 book explores).  Either way I think it illustrates my point that the physical and imaginative lives of climate change are entangled and interact with each other.  This climate cosmopolitanism gives us new imaginative resources through which we hear and interpret the words of earth system scientists when they make their predictions.

TCS: The media is sounding more hopeful about the outcomes of the recent Cancun Conference and the participants seem to have reached a compromise. For you does this political reaction promise better times to come?

MH: No it doesn’t.  As one example see my short letter in Nature last week pointing out the unmet promises from the past about development aid from OECD nations – why does anyone think it will be better this time?  As David Victor said about Cancun – the illusion of progress was achieved by moving the goal posts closer to the ball.

Mike Hulme is Professor of Climate Change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and was Founding Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He has published over 120 peer-reviewed journal papers and over 35 books or book chapters on climate change topics. His latest books are Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity(CUP, 2009) and (edited) Making Climate Change Work for Us: European Perspectives on Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies (CUP, 2010). He is editor-in-chief of the new interdisciplinary review journal Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. [email:;]
Souvik Mukherjee is the Manager of the TCS Website. He is presently employed as Impact Research Fellow in the Humanities faculty at De Montfort University, UK.
Josi Paz is currently conducting research into consumption and climate change.
To access Mike Hulme’s article, ‘Cosmopolitan Climates: Hybridity, Foresight and Meaning’ and the rest of the articles in the TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates, go here

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