Interview Just two years ago, Mike Hulme would have been about the last person you'd expect to hear criticising conventional climate change wisdom. Back then, he was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, an organisation so revered by environmentalists that it could be mistaken for the academic wing of the green movement. Since leaving Tyndall - and as we found out in a telephone interview - he has come out of the climate change closet as an outspoken critic of such sacred cows as the UN's IPCC, the "consensus", the over-emphasis on scientific evidence in political debates about climate change, and to defend the rights of so-called "deniers" to contribute to those debates.
As Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, Hulme remains one of the UK's most distinguished and high-profile climate scientists. In his new book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, he explores how the issue of climate change has come to be such a dominant issue in modern politics. He treats climate change not as a problem that we need to solve – indeed, he believes that the complexity of the issue means that it cannot be solved, only lived with – and instead considers it as much of a cultural idea as a physical phenomenon."
Perhaps the most surprising thing to hear from a climate scientist writing about climate change is that climate science has for too long had the monopoly in climate change debates. When we spoke to him on the phone, Hulme cited as evidence the 2007 protests against Heathrow’s third runway, where marchers made their case by waving a research paper at the TV cameras under a banner bearing the slogan “We are armed only with peer reviewed science”. [The paper wasn't actually peer-reviewed science - see Bootnote]
“To me, that's the most dispiriting position,” says Hulme. “For these people who feel so passionately about this, their ultimate authority is a report from a group of scientists, and they’re saying ‘this is where we stand, forget about our moral concerns, forget about our ethical positions, forget about whether we are Right, Left or centre, forget about whether we are Christians or Buddists, no, none of that matters.’ The only thing that matters is that they’re holding a report from peer-reviewed science that in itself justifies their position."
“To hide behind the dubious precision of scientific numbers, and not actually expose one’s own ideologies or beliefs or values and judgements is undermining both politics and science”
And it’s not just protesters who are hiding behind the authority of science. World leaders are doing it, too.
"Uncertainty, and things like that"
Hulme despairs over the comments made to the Copenhagen climate conference in March by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then the Danish Prime Minister. Rasmussen told delegates that "science should be the basis for decision-making in this field", and asked scientists to keep it simple, "not to provide us with too many moving targets...and not too many considerations on uncertainty and risk and things like that.”
“That's just classic,” says Hulme. “Here's this politician telling the scientists ‘we can't do this without you. Give us the numbers. But by the way, make them simple, and make them precise.’”
Hulme believes that this dependence of politics on science expects too much of science’s ability to explain and to predict, and that this is a burden that science cannot carry. Science is exposing its vulnerabilities, he says. And in overselling itself, the risks are very substantial. “It's like the classic case of the dodgy dossier”.