Remedial Reading: Mike Hulme’s 2009 book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

Want to make any scientist you know feel shame and guilt? Ask them about some journal publication or book bearing on their research that they should have read, but haven’t. Scientists are brought up from their earliest experience to know thoroughly and acknowledge completely results from prior work. Might not be rule #1, but is certainly in the Ten Commandments for what we do.

Knowing the literature – keeping current – has never been easy. In the old days, there was a lot less published research to track. But scientists were few and far between, and communications were slow, especially across country- and language barriers. There were few journals, but these were not widely reproduced. Not every library subscribed to every journal. Hard to know who was doing what.

Fast forward to today. Journals are available online, increasingly open access, communications are rapid, but the pace of progress is dizzying. Information overload is the reality and the signal is drowned out by the noise. Artificial intelligence to the rescue! An example: google search of Watson goes to medical school offers a rich variety of links. Take your pick. You can learn how IBM’s artificial intelligence, starting a few years back, has begun helping oncologists stay up to date on diagnosis and treatment, in large part by tracking the thousands of contributions that are entering the relevant literature each day. The future looks bright. We’re told that IBM’s Big Blue filled a room; that Watson fits in the equivalent of a few pizza boxes; that within the decade the equivalent capability will reside in each and every smartphone. Each of us will be able to tailor that capability to our particular needs, including helping us stay current.

But think about it. Does that mean we’ll be free of shame and guilt? Hardly. Eight billion people are churning out mountains of new knowledge while our backs are turned. We’ll be forced to do serious triage: reading a paper or two each day or week. We’ll note a paper or two to look at later if time permits (which it won’t). All the while consigning orders of magnitude more material to some virtual dustbin in the cloud.

Shame and guilt could hit new levels.

That’s why remedial reading is a recurrent theme on LOTRW. (Oh… you haven’t kept up with this particular literature? You can start your search of prior LOTRW posts on remedial reading here.)

But you’ll have a happier experience if instead you acquire and dive into Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction, and Opportunity (Cambridge University Press, 2009.

As for me, I saw a review somewhere when the book first came out, and was immediately intrigued. When my copy arrived, took it home, in order to tackle it evenings and weekends. But one thing led to another. First it was on top of a stack of books; then a kind of sedimentation saw it buried under a layering of other books meeting a similar fate. Only after a recent move did it resurface, and even then it took covid-19’s stay-put-at-home regime to provide opportunity to pick up the book again and this time read it through from beginning to end.

Want to read a proper review? There are many to choose from; you can start your search here. But, in a nutshell: Hulme looks at climate change from several perspectives: physical/natural science; economics; philosophy; social psychology; politics; faith. He suggests it inappropriately trivializes climate change to see it as a big, complicated challenge but nonetheless merely a problem society must “solve.” Through this variety of disciplinary viewpoints he argues that climate change exposes deeply-held but diverse individual and community values and beliefs about what it means to “live on the real world” (my phrase, not his). Mike Hulme is a self-identified evangelical Christian; he closes the book by suggesting that much climate-change literature falls into one of four categories, to which he applies Biblical labels:

  • Lamenting Eden (mourning the loss of nature as it existed before the Anthropocene)
  • Armageddon (looking at catastrophe to come)
  • Babel (a kind of chest-thumping belief in the power of human technology)
  • Jubilee (framing in terms of social equity and environmental justice)

What a great taxonomy! But there’s much that makes this book special. For instance, other authors treating such a range of disciplines might have been forced (or chosen) to be a bit superficial. By contrast, Mike Hulme has taken the time over a span of decades to immerse himself deeply and professionally into these separate realms. He’s made the effort to thoughtfully synthesize those diverse experiences as he’s gone along. This shows. He’s been able to distill down a staggering amount of material into something more manageable and digestible, without any shortcuts or loss of saliency and credibility along the way. He doesn’t bury the reader in references. But those that survive are carefully selected and thoroughly annotated. What’s more, his writing style is crisp, flows well – in short, highly readable.

Scientists or professionals of any stripe have little excuse for reading germane material tardily. But it sometimes does confer benefits. From the standpoint of 2020 it’s easy to see that Why We Disagree About Climate Change has aged well over the past decade. The material still feels fresh, the conclusions remain on point. What’s more, the 2020 moment is a timely one, as the world is going through another cycle of pondering what to do and how to go about it, and as the United States looks poised to rejoin the global conversation after a four-year hiatus.

In sum, get yourself a copy and dig in! Read it when it first came out? You might consider a reread. Either way, if you’re reading this column, and have gotten this far, chances are good that having this book’s contents fresh in your head will make you more effective in your day job. Also, it’s likely you have your own stack of unread material you’ve been planning to tackle when you get the chance. Choose something from that store and dig in. You’ll be glad you did.

As for me, I’ll be reaching for the next unread book in my own continually growing pile, rising like a stalagmite from the floor of my man cave…

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1 Response to Remedial Reading: Mike Hulme’s 2009 book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

  1. Martina says:

    Bill,
    I love the “rising like a stalagmite from the floor of my man cave”. So much to read , one couldn’t even keep up even if that is all you do!
    Definitely will check the book out. Thanks.

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