Saturday, 15 November 2014

Hulme: Human Geography and the Many Voices of Climate Change

On Thursday, November 13th and Friday, November 14th Mike Hulme gave two public lectures at Carleton University. Hulme is a Professor of Climate and Culture in the Department of Geography at University of King’s College and after a career working as a climatologist at the University of East Anglia is now making a transition to being a human (and in particular a cultural) geographer.

Hulme designed his two talks to serve as a series, the second building on the first. The common thesis is that the deficit model of science communication is a failure and the only way to affect change in the world is to use the tools of the humanities. The deficit model refers to the idea that the more scientific facts people know, the better choices they will make. Hulme, following Hannah Arendt, argues that facts aren’t enough to act—that we, as humans, have to pass judgement on facts in order to construct meaning about our place in the world as active agents. Only then can we act.

The content of the first lecture focused on the IPCC narratives and its multiple critiques, beginning with Greenpeace’s 1990 counter-report. Soon, people from peripheral nation-states, particularly in India from 1991 onwards, argued that units of atmospheric carbon, while empirically identical, carry different moral weights based on whether they result from survival or luxury emissions. The next major critique came from China and other BRIC nations who challenged the categorization of the world into "Annex 1 Countries" and "Not Annex 1 Countries" at the heart of the Kyoto Protocol. Recently, in the West, alongside denialist critiques, a technocratic critique rose that argued that we should just take control of the climate using technology.

Hulme argues that there is no one way of understanding climate change and the reliance on the deficit model of science communication is a kind of ‘blind religion’ that ignores the varied and multifaceted way that humans see themselves in the world. Action must come, instead, from the application of the tools of humanities: mythos, logos, and narrative.

Scientists can’t ignore the lessons of religion, literature, art, and academic scholars of the humanities (I enjoy that he did not use the overused term ‘humanist’ that means radically different things to different people). In response to a question from a physical geographer, he argued that scientists need to take courses in philosophy, ethics, and history. They need to open their minds to and accept other ways of knowing and learning about the world. If they don’t speak the language (even if it’s all English) of their audiences, they’ve already failed.

The second lecture looked at different narratives that already exist around climate change. Hulme pointed directly to the lessons to be learned from historical geography and environmental history in uncovering multiple localized voices in the past and the present, especially regarding individual ideas of weather and climate. As aspects of the world everyone deals with in some way on a virtually daily basis, it is necessary to access individual and social understandings of these two phenomena.

Hulme argues that conceptions of a multi-vocal world are closer to reality and, following Rudiak-Gould, he finds three main ways of telling stories of climate change: invisibilism, visibilism, and constructivism. Invisibilists argue that we should “trust the experts.” They see climate change as a largely invisible phenomenon that is only accessible through climate science. Visibilists, on the other hand, demand that we pay attention to the world around us. Personal knowledge is the most important factor, especially in places the most affected including in the North and on Pacific Islands. 

Constructivists believe that climate change can be made visible to urban and Western communities through the arts using photoshop, poetry, theatre, film, literature, and all the other creative aspects of the humanities. While Hulme argues that all three ways of understanding climate change and science are useful and worthwhile, he seemed to imply that the constructivist school is strongest because it requires us to actively pass judgement on the facts and create our own interpretations that we then share with others.

At one point Hulme stated that “the world is never going to be inspired by one single—especially scientific—account.” Science is, of course, important but it’s not everything. Policy makers, technocrats, and scientists need to remember the multi-vocal nature of the world and to listen instead of imposing their own views on wider publics.

Edit 2014-11-16: made some typographical fixes. Also note that as a synthesis of my lecture notes, there's a good chance I miscronstrued some points, but believe I captured the spirit of the talks.