Book review: Climate Change Isn’t Everything, by Mike Hulme
By Jeremy Williams
This Changes Everything was the title of Naomi Klein’s big climate book a few years ago. This book echoes that in both the title and its blue design, striking a cautionary note – other things matter too, and there are consequences to forgetting that. And no, as Hulme says in pretty much every chapter, that isn’t a climate sceptic position. Climate action matters.
The problem that Hulme wants to interrogate is what he calls ‘climatism’. This he defines as “the settled belief that the dominant explanation of social, economic and ecological phenomena is a human caused change in the climate.” For Hulme, climatism is an increasingly pervasive ideology, a master narrative that explains the world in simple terms, gives us good guys and bad guys, and guides our decisions. Most of all, reduce emissions. Aim for that climate target. Nothing else matters.
This is too simple, says Hulme. ‘Climate reductionism’ makes everything about the climate and glosses over local context and the many interconnections of our complex world. It can lead us into the wrong political priorities. For example, some might conclude that since climate change threatens to push people into poverty, the best way to end poverty is to solve climate change first – an idea that would be disastrous for those in poverty now. When pursued dogmatically like that, climate action could become oppressive and unjust, with everything else pushed aside to bring down emissions.
In an astute observation, Hulme compares a narrow focus on climate targets to economists’ fixation on GDP growth rates. A focus on an abstract numerical definition of progress that knows no nuance and can lead to all sorts of perverse outcomes.
Hulme has some helpful things to say here, things people like me ought to listen to. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about world events when it suits my narrative about dangerous climate change, and I’ve been guilty of reductionism before. I read books like this one in order to do better.
However, I think Hulme overstates his case in a couple of specific ways. One is the idea that ‘climatism’ is endemic across politics and the media. He writes that “contemporary politics is being reduced to the pursuit of a single over-arching goal: to achieve net zero carbon emissions.” I’m not convinced that’s even remotely true. There is widespread debate about climate change everywhere. Governments have been dragged kicking and screaming into climate action and will take any excuse going to drop all their targets.
There’s no question that some people are so invested in a narrow view of the world that ‘climatism’ applies, but I think it’s fairly rare and almost exclusively in activist circles. When people are too quick to blame something on climate change, it’s more likely to be an excuse or laziness rather than ideological.
Hulme may be a bit too fond of an ‘ism’ generally. In the book, we are treated to scientism, globalism, solutionism, extinctionism, doomism, deadlineism, and my personal favourite: lukewarmism. I don’t find this helpful. We don’t listen to each other when we’re too quick to pigeon-hole each other’s opinions as ideological.
Once ‘climatism’ has been identified as an ideology though, Hulme sees it everywhere. Unfortunately many of his examples break his own definition of climatism, which specifies that climate is the dominant explanation for events. To name just one, he complains that “military powers have become climatized by framing climate change as a threat multiplier.” By definition, a multiplier needs to be acting on something else, so climate change is quite correctly framed here as something that exacerbates and complicates an existing threat. Climate change isn’t the dominant explanation and fails Hulme’s definition.
I’m glad I read Climate Change Isn’t Everything, despite its frustrations. It’s important to be open to challenges. We should be wise to reductionist explanations, sensationalism, and the allure of simple answers. But one of the best answers to the risks of ‘climatism’ is a climate justice perspective, which Hulme misses.
Green New Deal approaches to tackle climate and economic exclusion together. See also the Just Transition movement, or intersectional activism, or the environmental justice movement. Or the climate advocacy done by development NGOs, which always hold multiple objectives together. The most constructive voices in the climate debate know full well that climate change isn’t everything.
First published in The Earthbound Report.