by Judith Curry
One hundred years ago, a popular theory contended that various aspects of climate determined the physiology and psychology of individuals, which in turn defined the behavior and culture of the societies that those individuals formed. As the ideological wars of the twentieth century re- shaped political and moral worlds, environmental determinism became discredited and marginalised within mainstream academic thought. Yet at the beginning of a new century with heightening anxieties about changes in climate, the idea that climate can determine the fate of people and society has re-emerged in the form of ‘climate reductionism’.
Reducing the Future to Climate: a Story of Climate Determinism and Reductionism
by Mike Hulme
Remainder of Abstract: This paper traces how climate has moved from playing a deterministic to a reductionist role in discourses about environment, society and the future. Climate determinism previously offered an explanation, and hence a justification, for the superiority of certain imperial races and cultures. The argument put forward here is that the new climate reductionism is driven by the hegemony exercised by the predictive natural sciences over contingent, imaginative and humanistic accounts of social life and visions of the future. It is a hegemony which lends disproportionate power in political and social discourse to model-based descriptions of putative future climates. Some possible reasons for this climate reductionism, as well as some of the limitations and dangers of this position for human relationships with the future, are suggested.
Some excerpts are provided below:
Understanding and theorising the relationship between climate and society is therefore prey to two distinct fallacies. The first is that of ‘climate determinism’ in which climate is elevated to become a – if not the – universal predictor (and cause) of individual physiology and psychology and of collective social organisation and behaviour. The second fallacy is that of ‘climate indeterminism’ in which climate is relegated to a footnote in human affairs and stripped of any explanatory power. Geographers have at times been most guilty of the former fallacy; historians at times most guilty of the latter6. Yet not even historical geographers or environmental historians have been always able to hold these two opposing fallacies in adequate and creative tension7.
Now, a hundred years later, and at the beginning of a new century, heightening anxieties about future anthropogenic climate change are fuelling – and in turn being fuelled by – a new variety of the determinist fallacy. In seeking to predict a climate-shaped future, the complexity of interactions between climates, environments and societies is reduced and a new variant of climate determinism emerges. I call this ‘climate reductionism’, a form of analysis and prediction in which climate is first extracted from the matrix of interdependencies which shape human life within the physical world. Once isolated, climate is then elevated to the role of dominant predictor variable. I argue in this paper that climate reductionism is a methodology that has become dominant in analyses of present and future environmental change – and that as a methodology it has deficiencies.
Such reductionism is also contributing to the new discourse about climate change and conflict.
My argument in this paper is that these sentiments, and many others which invade contemporary public and political discourses of climate change, are enabled by the methodology of climate reductionism (i.e., a form of neo-environmental determinism). Simulations of future climate from climate models are inappropriately elevated as universal predictors of future social performance and human destiny.
I suggest that the hegemony exerted by the predictive natural sciences over human attempts to understand the unfolding future, opens up the spaces for climate reductionism to emerge. It is a hegemony manifest in the pivotal role held by climate (and related) modelling in shaping climate change discourses. Because of the epistemological authority over the future claimed, either implicitly or explicitly, by such modelling activities, climate becomes the one ‘known’ variable in an otherwise unknowable future. The openness, contingency and multiple possibilities of the future are closed off as these predicted virtual climates assert their influence over everything from future ecology, economic activity and social mobility, to human behaviour, cultural evolution and geosecurity. It is climate reductionism exercised through what I call ‘epistemological slippage’ – a transfer of predictive authority from one domain of knowledge to another without appropriate theoretical or analytical justification.
The paper provides some historical perspectives in the sections The demise of climate determinism, The rise of climate reductionism.
The hegemony of model predictions of the future
In summary, my argument concerns the hegemony held by the predictive natural and biological sciences over visions of the future. In the case of climate change, this hegemony is rooted in the knowledge claims of climate, or Earth system, models. In the absence of comparable epistemological reach emerging from the social sciences or humanities, these claims lend disproportionate discursive power to model-based descriptions of putative future climates. It thus becomes tempting to adopt a reductionist methodology when examining possible social futures. ‘Lots of things will change in the future, but since we have credible and quantitative knowledge about future climate let us examine, also quantitatively, what the consequences of these climates for society might be’. The subsequent and derived climate impact modelling then boldly calculates, for example, the billions of people who because of climate change will become starving or thirsty, or the millions who because of climate change will be made destitute or homeless. Climate reductionism is the means by which the knowledge claims of the climate modellers are transferred, by proximity as it were, to the putative knowledge claims of the social, economic and political analysts.
This transfer of predictive authority, an almost accidental transfer one might suggest rather than one necessarily driven by any theoretical or ideological stance, is what I earlier defined as “epistemological slippage”. If not quite the inexorable geometric calculus of Malthus, it nevertheless offers a future written in the unyielding language of mathematics and computer code. These models and calculations allow for little human agency, little recognition of evolving, adapting and innovating societies, and little attempt to consider the changing values, cultures and practices of humanity. The contingencies of the future are whitewashed out of the future. Humans are depicted as “dumb farmers”, passively awaiting their climate fate. The possibilities of human agency are relegated to footnotes, the changing cultural norms and practices made invisible, the creative potential of the human imagination ignored.
To give some substance to this argument I need to explore some of the historical contexts which have allowed climate models to claim such hegemony over the future and which have allowed climate reductionism to thrive. This requires an examination of the emergence of anthropogenic climate change as a matter of scientific concern in the 1970s and 1980s and as a matter of public policy debate in the 1980s and 1990s. There are three developments that are important for my argument: the retreat of the social sciences, and geography in particular, from working at the nature-culture interface; the emergence of a new epistemic community of global climate modellers; and the asymmetrical incorporation of climate change and social change into envisaged futures. Each of these three developments will be examined in turn.
By emasculating the future of much of its social, cultural or political dynamism, climate reductionism renders the future free of visions, ideologies and values. The future thus becomes over-determined. Yet the future is of course very far from being an ideology-free zone. It is precisely the most important territory over which battles of beliefs, ideologies and social values have to be fought. And it is these imagined and fought-over visions of the future which – in many indeterminate ways – will shape the impacts of anthropogenic climate change as much as will changes in physical climate alone.
And so the future is reduced to climate.
Putting society back into the future
If reductionism is a limited form of reasoning for interpreting the past, then climate reductionism is even more emasculated with regard to telling the future. The epistemological pathways offered by climate models and their derived analyses are only one way of believing what the future may hold. They have validity; and they have relevance. But to compensate for the epistemological slippage I have described in this article it is necessary to balance these reductionist pathways to knowing the future with other ways of envisioning the future.
The “contrast, connections and context” to which Stephen Pyne refers must be created by putting society back into the future. Since it is at least possible – if not indeed likely – that human creativity, imagination and ingenuity will create radically different social, cultural and political worlds in the future than exist today, greater effort should be made to represent these possibilities in any analysis about the significance of future climate change. Some of these futures may be better; some may be worse. But they will not be determined by climate, certainly not by climate alone, and these worlds will condition – perhaps remarkably, certainly unexpectedly – the consequences of climate change.
JC comment: Von Storch refers to Hulme’s analysis as “remarkable.” I agree. In fact I give this paper a “wow.” For those of you wondering when/why I give something a “wow,” it implies that the paper or whatever significantly changes the way I think about something. This does not necessarily imply a belief change, but it changes the way I think about a subject. What is a “wow” for me may not be relevant for someone else. This particular paper provides some important insights, and I really like the phrase and concept of “epistemic slippage.” This paper deserves to be widely discussed, and I look forward to interesting discussion here.