It’s not every day you hear that the climate change debate needs to be “more political and less scientific” β but that is exactly what Mike Hulme is calling for.
The 2015 Paris agreement was declared “a victory for climate science“, but Professor Hulme β who used to work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) β is not convinced that the Paris deal will work.
In fact, he said he thought climate change was in danger of becoming a “fetish” and that rallying cries to “save the planet by limiting global warming to 2 degrees” could distract us from the “political logjam” in front of us.
“We can actually only deal with climate through the human imagination.”
A human geographer at the University of Cambridge, Professor Hulme once advocated globally-negotiated national emission targets, but said he now thought the future lay with more local solutions β involving new “political coalitions” of unlikely bedfellows.
He said a focus on immediate “co-benefits” would give governments, businesses and individuals the incentives they needed to move away from fossil fuels or to create carbon sinks.
Think solar panels or wind farms for those without access to electricity; planting forests that protect catchments and provide shade from the searing heat; or replacing coal-fired power stations β not simply to cut carbon emissions, but to reduce deaths from air pollution.
This approach could be attractive to hundreds of millions of people across the planet, regardless of their views on global warming, Professor Hulme argued.
Recent research into local climate action in Australia supported this focus on co-benefits.
“Sometimes, framing actions as [tackling] climate change will not bring people into a community meeting. But framing it as making savings on energy bills will gain more traction,” said Macquarie University geographer Donna Houston, who hosted a postgraduate workshop with Professor Hulme in Sydney last week.
Dr Houston said she thought climate change could still be a “very abstract concept” for many people, and for others it could feel “politicised in some way”.
Her research found that when local councillors or community members were trying to gain support for climate action, they sometimes gave it a different label, such as “sustainability”.
“It was often easier not to refer to climate change,” she said.
“And anything that had co-benefits was a lot easier to get up and running.”
Co-benefits are “critically important”, according to David Karoly, who heads up the CSIRO’s Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub.
He is on the advisory board of the Climate and Health Alliance, a coalition of doctors worried about the immediate health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels.
Professor Karoly said the recent decrease in greenhouse emissions in the US, as well as a slowdown in China’s emissions growth, were both encouraged by health co-benefits.
He pointed to the Lock the Gate coalition, which opposes coal seam gas developments on agricultural land and sees conservative radio host “Alan Jones β¦ working closely with climate change mitigation advocates”.
Steven Sherwood, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, pointed to other examples.
“There are places in Texas that are rapidly taking up rooftop solar β even though most people there are pretty sceptical about global warming β because it enables them to be independent,” Professor Sherwood said.
Professor Hulme said the immediate co-benefits of interventions like flood barriers could also increase support for climate adaptation.
“This is where you can find new ways, rhetorically at least, of bringing Trump on board,” Professor Hulme said.
“If there’s a trillion-dollar infrastructure fund to renew and refresh America, let’s make it resilient to climatic extremes at the same time. But don’t call it a response to climate change in a political culture like the US.”
The idea of using more politics and less science to solve climate change might stick in the craw of those who think we should rely on what the science “says”.
But Professor Hulme, who once evaluated climate models and scenario construction, claimed this was putting too much of a burden on science.
“Science is a very powerful way that humans have invented and discovered to understand the way in which the physical world works,” he said.
“We have invented another human tradition β we call it politics β to resolve those sorts of challenges.”
Professor Hulme claimed better politics was the only way to reduce the vitriol around climate change that has made it a divisive and “toxic brand” in some countries.
Some, like Australian psychologists John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, argued there would be more action on climate if people better understood the scientific consensus.
But Professor Hulme countered that at the heart of the debate were different political preferences and values β such as how much people are prepared to sacrifice now for future generations, and what kind of energy technology we support.
“People who are just as committed to the evidence of climate change have very different views about what energy mix we should have β between fracking, nuclear and solar,” Professor Hulme said.
But Dr Cook, from George Mason University, insisted better science communication can still change views.
Still, even if people agree that humans are changing the climate, this is not the same as accepting a 2-degree limit on global warming.
While Professor Karoly said he supported efforts to improve people’s understanding of climate science, he agreed with Professor Hulme that it would not necessarily change minds.
“Climate change is no longer a scientific problem,” he said.
“Climate change is a human problem.”
But he said he was dubious of the power of “bottom-up” actions to create real action on climate.
“In the UK, Europe, United States and in Australia, action or inaction on climate change has not been driven by grassroots level activity,” he said.
“It has been driven by decisions made at the national political level.”
He said the Paris agreement to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees was a key part of the answer.
Professor Sherwood agreed.
“It gives you something to point to and say, ‘Look, the whole world agrees with this’. So, I don’t agree it’s not going to work.”
Professor Hulme, meanwhile, said he was worried that overly focusing on the 2-degree target might cause us to rush into risky ventures. He said geoengineering, including creating “space umbrellas” in the atmosphere to block the sun, “might make our problems worse”.
“Global temperatures might be stabilised, but we might, in the process, destabilise many of our regional weather systems, which are in many ways unpredictable,” he said.
Instead, Professor Hulme said he hoped for “more empowering and less fatalistic” responses to climate change.