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Climate change: engagement for all

This is the one to read, says Tony Allan

Michael Hulme (May 2009), Why we disagree about climate change, Cambridge University Press

When Mike Hulme speaks in public about climate change, the screen behind him gradually fills with the book covers of titles on climate change published in the past three years. After he has spoken for two minutes the screen is a colourful mosaic of over sixty titles. They are mainly serious and technical. A few are popular and accessible.

Why is Mike Hulme’s new book the one to read?  First it is authoritative. Until 2007 he was head of the prestigious Tyndall Centre at theUniversityofEast Anglia- a global player in the science of climate change. He led the Tyndall research team for seven years, contributing to and editing numerous refereed reports and publications.  He also sat through the preparatory meetings of the IPCC process, and has observed the interminable debates of the Panel itself.

A special public good

But the main reason to read this book from cover to cover is that he communicates the elemental nature of the climate change issue for both science and society. He highlights the unique role of climate change in impacting our social and political systems. There are other public goods provided by nature - land, terrestrial water and vegetation - but climate is unique in the extent to which it cannot be possessed, subjected to markets or otherwise captured by an ambitious sovereign state. It is also unique in that its impacts are environmentally and socially comprehensive. The incremental toxic impacts of local atmospheric polluters affect non-polluters and other polluters everywhere.  Climate is a very special public good.

For policy-makers, climate change is extremely challenging. It is at once a problem that is rich in uncertainty but requires urgent attention. This type of problem, says Hulme, is a wicked problem: one that tends to generate a number of solutions that attract enthusiastic coalitions of support. For example, such coalitions argue that nuclear energy and biofuels have the potential to mitigate greenhouse gas production. But these technologies also have very serious negative environmental consequences. Doing the wrong thing very well is a common consequence of our response to wicked problems. Doing the right thing a little badly is often overwhelmed by the promotion and adoption of a too well-organised technology. As a consequence, we do the wrong thing extremely well. Think of the motor car.

Our place in the world

In addition to all these virtues, the book will also help those who want to engage with how society has constructed its positions on climate change through human evolution. These issues are addressed fluently and again, accessibly, by a committed Christian. For example, we are introduced to the very useful concept of the different ways of knowing that we bring to bear on such complex matters as climate change as well as on science and the economy more generally. Mike Hulme shows that climate change is not simply a problem: it also triggers us to think about our place in the world.

The book covers a wide range of climate science and social theory.  I have never read a book with the capacity to engage all the relevant parties. It will help the weary insider negotiator, as well as experienced politicians practised in dealing with daily uncertainties. It will impress the adviser interpreting these uncertainties for those allocating scarce resources. Scientists buried too deeply in their disciplinary silos will breathe oxygen from every chapter. It will enable those running programmes on climate change science and its politics to communicate more effectively. Those following such courses will not purchase a more useful or better nuanced overview. That the book will also be useful to any responsible citizen is a remarkable achievement.

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Professor J A [Tony] Allan
Professor J A [Tony] Allan is in the Geography Department at King’s College London and theSchoolofOrientaland African Studies London
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