Disagreement is always good – An Interview mit Mike Hulme

After the conference, author and professor Mike Hulme sat down with us to talk about his interests and views on climate change communication. We spoke about climate change as a catalyst for inequalities, the role of social movements and the importance of disagreement. This post will be in English to avoid translation workload and possible misrepresentations through translation.

Mike Hulme at a workshop during the K3 congress

Of all things, why did you choose climate change communication as your topic of interest?

My interest in the topic of climate change started in my undergraduate degree in geography, back in the 1980s. I grew especially interested in how scientific findings resonated with different audiences, which opened up much bigger questions about how society should be organised and how we should act.

Climate change is a catalyst for inequalities, a resource, an idea, which we can use to live better.

Climate change is a catalyst for inequalities, a resource, an idea, which we can use to live better. Different people already use it as a resource in different ways. It supports indigenous communities in demonstrating their right to be heard. Local urban communities use it as a way to take some ownership for their own planning decisions. Religious bodies consider climate change, rethink their message of religious thought and practice and conclude: this is a better way to live with the creation.

Climate change seems to be mostly a topic the political left discusses and deals with…

It shouldn’t be seen as it, but, certainly in Western Europe in the early stages of climate science, the left has gotten hold of the issue of climate change and brought it to the public. This is unfortunate because people of the political right then tended to protest against it since it was promoted by their opponents. Climate change is an issue that concerns everybody, even though we are probably not going to agree about what we are going to do about it – dismantling capitalism or trusting in the markets to come up with solutions.

Speaking of the political left, what do you think about Al Gore and his movies do you think they might be making the climate rift worse as Adam Corner wrote?

Human societies have always had prophets. They challenge a society about their ways of life. Since religions are weakened nowadays, it is possible that scientists are filling this gap left behind by prophets. In this sense, Al Gore might be seen as a prophetic figure questioning society: are you really living by the values that you hold true?

People tend to judge the credibility of a person on the basis of their ability to identify with them. It is not about what is being communicated but about who is the communicator.

But concerning ideological divides in the climate change debate, I think this is indeed a big issue. People tend to judge the credibility of a person on the basis of their ability to identify on a cultural or ideological level with them. It is not so much about what is being communicated but about who is the communicator. Gore is not seen as a trusted communicator by those who don’t identify with him.  So it is important that there are other people who are able to reach different groups – one positive example here is Catharine Hayhoe. As an evangelical Christian and a climate scientist, she is a trusted communicator for a group not reached by Al Gore. (Note: Hayhoe will be speaking in Oxford on Nov, 15)

In your keynote, you also mentioned the framing of climate change by Naomi Klein. She uses the term „Blockadia“ for movements fighting fossil fuel extraction with blockades and civil disobedience. What role do you see for this kind of social movements?

This is again an other example of how climate change can be used to mobilize different political interests. The divestment movement or 350.org are examples of powerful bottom up social movements that use specific political tactics in order to challenge fossil fuel vested interests: not through the mainstream parliament but through social movements and internet mass mobilization.  We have to have such interventions that challenge and ask questions. This is what is necessary in political life. Because we also have got other political interests that will defend their particular ideology. It is good that social movements use protest and dramatic public interventions to draw attention to the problem and hopefully broaden the political debate. Although, I am not a member of 350.org and, personally, I am a bit dubious that divestment is the solution to climate change.

Why do you think divestment is not a solution. What do you think should be done instead?

People make the comparison with other forms of political boycott, e.g. around apartheid. The problem is that fossil fuels are not inertly morally questionable. What burning of fossil fuel does – and we have had 200 years of the benefit of it – is provide cheap energy services. Fossil fuels generate an emancipatory public good, apartheid as a political system could never be claimed to be a public good. When energy service is denied – as it is to 2 billion people – it limits the access to health, education, sanitation. However, we know that there are detrimental consequences of burning fossil fuel. It introduces other costs into society. The dilemma seems to be much more nuanced here, it is not a case of a moral good versus a moral bad. So instead of running a campaign simply to divest, it would be better to run a campaign to invest in cheap, reliable and sustainable alternatives to fossil carbon.

Divestment is an animating movement but we should not think that it is going to resolve all the challenges that climate change presents us with.

In the end, the solutions to climate change have got to be much broader ranging. We have got to think about positive interventions around new technologies, climate protection to vulnerable communities, and about the problem of equality and social justice which is not going to be addressed simply by removing the fossil fuel industry. Again, it is an animating movement that takes it’s place in the public sphere but we should not think that it is going to resolve all the challenges that climate change presents us with.

Hulme during his keynote at the K3 summit

For your last book, you researched the larger political context of climate change and how the climate was viewed by past societies. What were your most important findings?

It is important to remember that the challenge of climate change has not been invented in the 80s. In one way or another, humans have always struggled with their weather, it’s never been safe and secure. There has always been an anxiety about climate not performing in a way that would be beneficial for us. Past societies have dealt with this fact by telling stories and myths about it. Many examples for this can be found in the bible. The current climatic change is different in its nature, its scale and in the fact that it is caused by human activity. Our responsibility is taking on a different form, since it is our consumerism that is changing the climate. It is interesting, though, that ancient cultures have connected human behaviour with weather in their stories, so the narrative is not a new one. And there have been human induced changes to the climate in the past. For example, domestication of animals caused higher methane emissions that also changed the climate. Of course people back then didn’t know about methane, but they already had a sense of how human behaviour affected the environment.

To conclude with the topic of communication: What is your impression of the K3 congress? What did you like, what did you miss?

I missed the fact that I can’t speak German, so I lost a lot of the more interesting conversations, hence my ability to judge is limited. What I gathered was the diversity of attendants from people who work in think tanks, journalism, NGOs, local governments, research institutes, university. Hopefully, that type of conference creates a place for people to meet and exchange ideas that otherwise would not have happened.

What brings Austria, Germany and Switzerland together is the shared German language, which is a particular form of cultural expression.  The conference would have dealt with other issues around climate change in an anglophone, francophone or chinese setting. But you have discussed issues that are relevant for German speaking countries of Central Europe. Climate always is culturally particular. It is not the same phenomenon in different cultures.

Would you like to add something?

At the conference, I have had a lot of interesting conversations with people who talked one-on-one with me. Because they disagreed with me – which is good. To me disagreement is always a good thing. You don’t learn if you always spend time with the people who think the same as you.

Unless we face the reasons for the disagreement, we are not going to be in the position to make decisions as a society.

Actually, when I run the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, we had lots of different disciplinary experts studying climate change. And just within that narrow, „elite“ group of academics we disagreed about what sort of a problem climate change was and how to deal with it. We were all studying climate change professionally and we wanted to help make a difference but we disagreed about fundamental things. We were reluctant to face these underlying reasons and would prefer not to talk about them. So I called my book „Why we Disagree about Climate Change“ to put the disagreement at the centre of the debate. Unless we face the reasons for the disagreement, we are not going to be in the position to make decisions as a society. We have different views on the world, ethics, the role of science, religion, different ideologies. we need to be explicit about those differences and still be able to communicate. If we never encounter our opponents and live in completely separate worlds, how can we live in an interconnected planet with 7.5 billion people? We have to find ways of meeting our opponents, discussing with them and still not go to war but try to make sensible policy decisions. This is what politics is about: It was invented to deal with disagreement. If we all agreed, we wouldn’t need politics or political institutions.

Speaking of disagreement, I totally agree with the fact that divesting from fossil fuels and apartheid is a different kind of issue. And of course, it is not enough to end using or burning fossil fuels or even extracting them. But I do disagree that it has got no social implications to use fossil fuels. Because climate change does not happen in the same way in every region of the world and it actually very unjust how the climate impacts are distributed and the way people can react to them as well. So you can link the use of fossil fuels and who profits from them to bigger injustice.

I recognize that. But what you are drawing attention to is not fossil fuels as such. It is the way in which corporate power is held an executed. Because let’s imagine that fossil fuels didn’t have any effect on the climate at all: Would you still be concerned about how certain multi-lateral corporations hold and exert power in ways that bring injustice to others?

Yes, of course.

So what you are drawing attention to is actually an other dimension of injustice.

Yes, but through its consequences that are also unequally distributed, it has a double side of injustice. First of all the injustice of the profits and how the multi-lateral corporations work, that it not only fossil fuel industry. But then again the injustice is duplicated concerning how the climate impacts are distributed.

Yes, that’s true.

But yes, we don’t have to go on discussing this (laughter). It is just a small thing I thought about. Thank you so much!

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