Reading Climate Change Backwards: Five Varieties

Climate change is everywhere.  In everyday speech, protest, advocacy, science, the arts, business and diplomacy.  And there are of course some physical correlates to this discursive reality of climate change, namely changes occurring in the physical dynamics of the Earth system.  But the relationship between these physical and discursive realities is not straightforward.  Neither is it singular.  To illustrate this plurality, I offer five ‘backward’ readings of the what the idea of climate change invokes.

Forty years ago this week, at the age of 21, I commenced my PhD studies in geography at University College Swansea.  My task was to study recent climatic changes in semi-arid Sudan, especially rainfall changes, and to understand their impact on the sustainability of rural water resources.  Over the subsequent 40 years of academic research, teaching, writing and speaking about climate change, I have observed a progressive splintering in what the idea of climate change means. 

My PhD research on climate in the early 1980s involved the identification, explanation and evaluation of the consequences of historical changes in climatological statistics.  ‘Climatic change’, as scientists described it then, became (briefly) ‘global warming’ in the 1990s before settling as ‘climate change’ (or more recently as ‘climate crisis’).  Today, however, there are multiple meanings of the idea of climate change circulating within different political, cultural and scientific worlds.  It is important to identify some of these varieties of meanings.

I therefore offer five readings of climate change which start, not from observations of changes in climatological statistics, but with different epistemic, philosophical, political, religious and moral commitments for understanding and interpreting today’s world and our experience of it.  For this reason, what follows are five ways of reading climate change backwards.

The first reading, and the one closest to the climate studies I embarked on in the 1980s, is climate change as ‘weather attribution’.  This starts from faith in the forensic ability of climate science to differentiate between natural and human-caused extreme weather events.  And the associated belief that to make such differentiation has practical, political and, increasingly, legal value.  An example of such an account of climate change and meteorology would be the claim that, say, a devastating hurricane was 95 per cent attributable to climate change and hence the derivative claim that particular fossil fuel emitters might be held liable for a share of the resulting damages.

An alternative, if related, reading is climate change as ‘Earth system change’.  This starts from the scientific ambition to create a computational Earth system simulator, capable of replicating – and thus predicting – the physical dynamics that connect atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, lithosphere and cryosphere.  This leads to the creation of putative tipping points, planetary boundaries and predictions of climate dysfunction and breakdown.  An example of such an account of climate change would be the claim that if a global threshold is crossed, the resulting ‘Hothouse’ Earth pathway would cause catastrophic disruptions to ecosystems, societies and economies.

A third reading is climate change as ‘fossil fuel capitalism’.  This starts from a political economic analysis of western-inspired capitalism over the last 250 years, an economic system lubricated by the extraction of coal, oil and gas for enabling profit-seeking ventures.  Climate change is seen as ‘baked into’ capitalist modernity through its reliance on cheap fossil fuels.  An example of this account would be the claim that dismantling the fossil fuelled military-industrial complex is the sine qua non for reversing climate change.

Different again is reading climate change as ‘post-colonial struggle’.  Here, climate change becomes a powerful way of revealing the violent and oppressive exploitation of Indigenous peoples by (mostly) western imperialism over the past 500 years, through slave labour, land dispossession and selective genocide.  An example of this account of climate change would be the claim that the colonial dynamics that set in motion a change in global climate were already wrecking havoc among Indigenous peoples well before changes in the weather become noticeable.  Climate change is a violation of human rights before it is a violation of the weather.

My fifth reading is climate change as ‘spiritual transformation’.  This starts from the premise that the various manifestations of climate change are consequences of a spiritual malaise and cultural regression associated with the fragmentation of social bonds, the detachment of human life from ecological life and the disintegration of the human soul.  Examples of this reading would be Laudato ‘Si: On Care For Our Common Home by Pope Francis in 2015 and the deep cultural analysis of human decline offered by thinkers such as Paul Kingsnorth in The Abbey of Misrule.

These five variants of climate change are widely prevalent in today’s scientific, political and cultural discourse.  Whilst not necessarily all orthogonal to each other, they are inspired by different epistemic and ideological commitments which seek to make sense of the social and political condition of humanity.  The mere incantation of the words ‘climate change’ does not convey a universally-shared singular meaning

Different readings of climate change most definitely do not simply and transparently ‘emerge from the science’ of climate and its changes.  We are not all on the same page; we are not even all reading the same book.  When climate change appears in public speech, it is important to identity which of these readings – or indeed others besides – are being invoked.  They each imply quite different manifestos for research, political action and social change.

Mike Hulme, Cambridge, 30 September 2021

His latest book ‘Climate Change (Key Ideas in Geography)’ was published by Routledge in July 2021.