Why We Disagree About Climate Change

Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009) by Mike Hulme is an interesting book that discusses different opinions about climate change and why people hold them. It doesn’t live up to the title, the opinions covered are mostly opinions that start from the belief that climate change is, if not the most pressing problem the world faces then certainly close to the top. Bjorn Lomborg and Ted Nordhaus are mentioned, but only in passing. The book looks at various positions and thoughts about climate change and how they reflect the values of those who hold them.

What I was expecting was a climate scientist addressing more of the concerns of the scientific skeptics such as Steve Mcintyre, Richard Lindzen and Pat Michaels regarding the scientific uncertainty and looking at what Bjorn Lomborg, Ted Nordhaus, Richard Toll and Roger Pielke Jnr say on the economics of mitigation and adaptation.

The book starts by looking at the social meanings of climate by looking at how climate was referred to historically and how the concept of different places’ averages becomes climate. Then the book looks at the science of looking at climate change. Hulme looks at how 18C science discovered that the earth’s climate had changed in the past. The historical account of people noticing changes is also remarked on. Then the discovery of the various greenhouse gases is detailed. The modern rediscovery of climate change first in the 1970s with global cooling and then in 1988 with global warming is also described. Hulme has graphs of the explosion in reasearch papers.

The book then looks at the performance of science chapter, a chapter that is disappointing. Hulme looks at how the C02 doubling figure has remained similar at 1.5 to 4.5 C but with little certainty really added. Hulme describes this as science not providing the answers that people want. Here he could differentiate between some parts of physics and other more statistically based science such as medical science where results are weaker and are more often overturned. Hulme describes Climate Science as ‘post-normal science’ which is a term coined by Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz to described science where the facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent. Hulme talks about consensus here and is very honest when he also points out that scientific consensus has regularly erred, sometimes seriously, such as with the sterilisation of the mentally ill in the 1930s and beyond. Hulme looks at how Science is used in society and refers to the models described in Roger Pielke Jnr’s The Honest Broker.

Hulme then looks at the endowment of value and how George W. Bush dismissed addressing climate change. He then looks at the economists who have addressed climate change and the effects that are normally looked at by economists, namely the cost per tonne of C02 and the discount rate used. Hulme goes into the enormous uncertainties in the normal economic assessments of climate change. The cost per tonne has been assessed at between $40-120 per tonne and $310 by Richard Tol and by the Stern review respectively. Hulme also looks at more radical analyses by various environmentalists where any anthropogenic climate change is seen as absolutely intolerable.

Hulme also looks at how religion has looked at climate and also the quasi-religous statements that come from parts of the environmental movement. He also looks at how we address our fears. Hulme goes on to look at the communication of risk and quotes various scientists who are quite comfortable in raising factually questionable scenarios in order to encourage the action they desire on climate change.  Hulme also addresses development, one of the fundamental issues in climate change as energy use increase by the developing world will greatly exceed most developed world C02 emission reduction. He also looks at the way we govern and how democracy addresses the issue. The book looks at some of the green groups that oppose democracy and mentions academics who do see climate change as a path to a world government.

Finally Hulme sums up in chapter called Beyond Climate Change where he goes into how the climate will continue to change and how we will have to live with some climate change be it anthropogenic or natural and how we look at this will reflect our own values.

Why We Disagree About Climate Change is a remarkable book. Hulme calmly and knowledgably presents many points of view regarding climate change in a thoughtful, calm manner. It’s a book by someone who believe climate change to be a great threat that is very readable for anyone of a skeptical bent. The book also says something new in the way that it shows just how many viewpoints there are on climate change even though it doesn’t go into detail of the various skeptical viewpoints.


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