Extract from ‘Climate Change Isn’t Everything’

My latest book is published this week by Polity Press. I have pasted below a short extract from the Introduction to the book, explaining the background to the book, and its central argument …

“Just over ten years ago in 2011, I published an article in Osiris, a leading history of science journal: ‘Reducing the future to climate: A story of climate determinism and reductionism’.  There, I introduced the term ‘climate reductionism’ to describe a particular way of thinking about the future which had gained ground in previous years.  Climate reductionism, so I argued, imagined the future solely through the predictions of climate science, as though climate alone will determine the human future.  I pointed out the deficiencies and the dangers of this way of thinking.  That article has become the most cited in that journal’s 40-year history. 

Now, more than a decade later, a new variant of climate reductionism has taken hold.  A way of thinking has gained a following that reduces not only the future to climate, but the present also.  Contemporary politics is being reduced to the pursuit of a single over-arching goal: to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by a given date, whether 2030, 2050 and so on.  By elevating this objective of political action in the world above all others, by making all other political goals subservient to this one, a dangerously myopic view of political, social and ecological well-being is being created.  Whereas ten years ago I was concerned about how climate reductionist thinking was limiting our imagination of the future, I am now concerned about how it is constraining the politics of the present

Climate reductionism has turned into a fully-fledged ideology, an ideology I call ‘climatism’.  Climatism grows out of climate reductionism, but is more pervasive and insidious.  At the same time, it is also more subtle and harder to isolate.  At its most extreme, climatism uses the idea of climate change to ‘naturalise’ the problems of the world.  The problems facing the world – whether the triumph of the Taliban, the management of wildfires, Putin’s war in Ukraine, the movement of people – all become ‘climatised’. 

This ‘naturalisation’ of social outcomes is similar to how biological racial theory has been used in the past – and sometimes still is today.  According to racist thinking, some people struggle academically “because” they are black; others are good at mathematics “because” they are east Asian.  And, so, with climatism.  Some countries’ economies underperform “because” they have tropical climates; others go to war “because of” climate change; people move “because of” climate change; some people ‘like’ racist Tweets “because” it is hot outside; floods happen “because” the rain is heavy.  The instinct in common between climatism and racism remains: namely, a desire to reduce understanding of the complexities of the world (whether human difference or social-ecological well-being) to a partial and incomplete scientistic project (whether biological race theory or climate modelling).

There are differences of course between climatism and racism, as I will make absolutely clear.  Not least is the reality of human-caused climatic change.  To some extent, this scientifically well-established fact ‘de-naturalises’ the idea of climate.  The effect of human influences on the climate system means that our climate can no longer be understood as simply ‘natural’.  Climate has now to be understood as something which is — at least partly – human-shaped.  The patterns of weather around the world are indeed different than they would be on a twin planet without human presence.  This distinction between climate (as natural) and on-going changes in climate (as largely human-caused) is subtle and hard to characterise.  It is a distinction that is easily elided in popular thinking and political discourse. 

And it leads to two mis-steps. 

The first is that all meteorological events become understood as mere proxies for human agency, whether the ultimate source of that agency is nefarious (e.g. fossil fuel interests) or more innocent (e.g. meat-eating consumers).  Climate’s remaining ‘naturalness’ gets lost.  Thus all hurricanes and heatwaves, for example, become viewed as manifestations of fossil fuel companies, colonialism, capitalism, Amazonian loggers, rich meat-eaters or frequent flyers, forgetting that hurricanes and heatwaves are a natural feature of the world’s climates.

Which leads to the second mis-step.  Rather than seeking to understand the politics of why the impacts of similar meteorological phenomena on social and ecological wellbeing are so different in different places, attention is directed solely to the politics of ‘stopping climate change’.  This is a dangerous reduction in the scope of the political.  To take hurricanes again as the example.  The most pressing questions raised by the tragedy of hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans in August 2005 pertain to the politics of race, flood defence and urban planning, not to the politics of burning fossil carbon or cutting down tropical forests.

Now in case anyone misunderstands me at this point, let me be absolutely clear.  Just because hurricanes and heatwaves are natural features of local climates does not mean human actions are not altering their intensity and/or frequency.  And just because the impacts of weather and climatic extremes are always mediated by local social, economic and political factors does not mean we should ignore the need to decarbonise our energy systems and to manage our forests and land in general more sustainably.  By pointing out the ideology of climatism and its attendant dangers, as this book does, I am not dismissing the scientific evidence that human actions have already caused changes in climatic patterns, and will continue to do so.  This 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.  What I am arguing in this book is against the ideology of climatism with its narrow and reductionist field of view; and in favour of a more contextually sensitive, diverse, and pragmatic approach to incorporating the challenges of climate change into everyday politics.”