by Professor Mike Hulme
One of the educational pages about climate change on the BBC’s website for children laid out the negative impacts of future global warming. But it also pointed out that warmer temperatures could mean healthier outdoor lifestyles, open up shipping routes in the Arctic through the melting ice and allow easier access to oil in Alaska and Siberia.
Cue outrage from climate scientists and climate pressure groups. In response, the BBC removed mention of such ‘benefits’. Children were only to learn of the negative impacts of climate change.
This was a telling example of how the prevailing ideology of ‘climatism’ insists on a single narrative from which there can be no deviation.
For climate change is cited as the sole explanation for everything going wrong in the world. Drought, famine, flooding, wars, racism – you name it. And if it’s bad, it’s down to global warming caused by humans.
Group-think has taken over as climatism demands total allegiance. It has become an unchallengeable doctrine guiding individuals, institutions, cultures and social movements.
In the words of environment journalist George Monbiot: ‘Curtailing climate change must become the project we put before all others. If we fail in this task, we fail in everything else.’
To this supreme political challenge of our time, everything else becomes subservient.
Climatism offers a seeming explanation for nearly everything – from the loss of sleep and rising divorce rates to the decline of insect populations. An academic study has even suggested that the occurrence and acceptance of racist content online could increase in the future as the climate gets warmer.
The doctrine was summed up by a climate convention in Germany in 2022 which declared: ‘Climate change threatens the foundations of life on our planet. The fossil era must come to an end. This will lead to profound changes in our ways of producing goods, our means of transportation and, ultimately, the way in which we live. We are at the beginning of a great transformation.’
This dangerously myopic view simply reduces the present and future state of our complex world to just the fate of global temperature or to the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Yet, there is no single story that can encompass or do justice to the complexities, paradoxes and dilemmas of a changing climate. It makes no sense to reduce politics to the pursuit of a single over-arching goal: to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by a given date.
But by making other political goals subservient to this one is to create a short-sighted view of political, social and ecological wellbeing. The problems facing the world – Putin’s war in Ukraine, migration, the triumph of the Taliban, wildfire management – become ‘climatised’.
Don’t get me wrong – limiting the rate of climate change is a desirable long-term policy goal. But climate change isn’t the only thing that matters. Indeed, it might even be a distraction from doing the things that really do make a difference. Racism, for example, is unlikely to be tackled by doubling-down on carbon dioxide emissions.
The spread of climatism has become an increasingly alarmist discourse of apocalypse just round the corner. In New York’s Union Square, there is a massive clock that counts down ‘the critical time-window remaining for humanity to act to save its only home from the ravages of climate chaos’.
I disagree with the doom-mongers. Climate change is not like a comet approaching Earth. There is no good scientific or historical evidence that it will lead to human extinction or the collapse of human civilisation.
True, climate kills and climate change is real. The risks are serious. Efforts to mitigate these risks and to adapt to them are important. But climate change will not wipe out human life, let alone all life on planet Earth. Also, it is questionable whether annual deaths from climate change will ever exceed those from heart or lung failure, dementia or stroke.
Climate change is a risk that needs to be attended to, but this must be done in the context of other risks, such as nuclear war, pandemics, preventable childhood mortality, failed states and so on.
Unfortunately, the climate science world seems to have lost that vital perspective, instead declaring a perpetual climate emergency.
This is dangerous talk that can lead to hurried decisions and misguided, one-eyed solutions.
By ‘doing whatever it takes’, without wider considerations of the consequences, will not only lead to short-term thinking but also panic, fear and disengagement among people as ‘the end’ is imagined to be approaching and we supposedly run out of options.
That same loss of perspective also ignores the fact that climate is not, and never has been, static.
It is a changing condition to which all life continually adapts as a natural response. Corals evolve to cope with ocean warming and acidification. Human societies continually adapt – finding new materials to keep buildings cool or through new land-use, for example.
But instead of recognising nature’s power to adapt, climate ideologues consider all meteorological events as man-made. Hurricanes and heatwaves are seen as manifestations of the behaviour of fossil-fuel companies, colonialism, capitalism, Amazonian loggers, rich meat-eaters or frequent flyers. It is forgotten that hurricanes and heatwaves are a natural feature of the world’s climates. Climate’s ‘naturalness’ gets lost.
Certainly, human actions have caused changes in climatic patterns, and will continue to do so. The evidence is crystal clear. Nor am I suggesting that efforts to mitigate climate change and to adapt to its effects are worthless or should be stopped. But climatism, with its narrow view, is not the solution. We need to take a more sensitive, diverse and pragmatic approach. And we need to distinguish politics from science.
The fact is that there is an anti-democratic impulse within climatism that brooks no public dissent.
This is most explicit in Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and the new ‘climate Left’ – for whom climate change is all that matters. But it has also crept into a range of businesses, charities, professions and institutions, such as Amazon, Oxfam, the BBC and the World Bank.
But I question whether the ideology of climatism is supported by science. Since the mid-1980s, plotting global temperature has became a fetish. And yet, global temperature is a flawed index for capturing the full range of complex relationships between climate and human welfare and ecological integrity.
Many scenarios that inform these analyses also overestimate the likely magnitude of future climate change. They are based on the worst possible outcome in which fossil-fuel burning, especially coal, continues unabated.
Some 7,000 scientific papers produced on climate change between January 2020 and June 2021 took this as their baseline assumption. But it is clear this is now the least likely scenario, given the massive reduction in the growth of coal use.
This methodological flaw might not matter much if such scenario analysis was presented in neutral terms. But it becomes misleading when it is taken literally, when it is believed by the public and by policymakers to be describing a real future. Risks are exaggerated and climate is elevated to be a more dominant factor shaping the future than is warranted.
As a result, the World Health Organisation predicts 250,000 additional deaths from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress as a result of climate change – despite other factors, such as wealth distribution, lifestyle choices and public health infrastructure, having a larger impact.
It implies that if future changes in climate can be arrested over the next years, 250,000 lives will be saved. This simply isn’t true.
Rather than being motivated by a disinterested ‘search for truth’, the scientific enterprise is in danger of being perceived as pushing its own interests, whether securing research funds or furthering individual scientists’ prestige and access to power.
I am certainly not claiming that climate science is necessarily biased, misleading, untrustworthy and worthless.
Rather, I am drawing attention to the fact that scientific research is always conducted within a specific social and political context and it cannot escape the influence of the society which funds it.
Remember, too, that many are beneficiaries of climatism, such as politicians who use climate change for ‘things going wrong’ to mask their own deficiencies, negligence or bad management.
Others find that flashing their climate change credentials gains them access to specific financial and political resources.
Ultimately, the rush to take political action without properly thinking through the consequences can backfire spectacularly. For example, Germany pursued an aggressive, unbalanced and rapid energy decarbonisation to meet climate mitigation targets – and then became hostage to Putin in order to keep the country supplied with gas.
The EU biofuels directive is another example.
Rather than using oil from the ground, it gave priority to palm oil as a source of energy, without considering the impact. The result? Once-rich rainforests in Sumatra have been stripped to make way for palm plantations, meaning that indigenous people have been squeezed from their homelands.
The consequences have been devastating for some of the world’s poorest communities and their quest for food security and livelihood sustainability.
A policy designed to reduce the impact of climate change 50 years from now has undermined the livelihoods of people and the habitats of species living today.
But that’s the price you pay if your sole aim is stopping climate change. Debate is closed down in favour of ‘there is no alternative’. And from that it is a short step to ‘the end justifies the means’, the motto of all totalitarian projects. Other important political values, such as liberty, equality and self-determination, are sidelined.
Politically, climatism endangers fundamental democracy by suppressing any public challenge to the dominant position. Even those with legitimate doubts are damned as ‘deniers’ and silenced.