Renowned scholar and author Mike Hulme address climate change at CIGI's Signature Lecture. (Lisa Malleck/CIGI)
Renowned scholar and author Mike Hulme address climate change at CIGI's Signature Lecture. (Lisa Malleck/CIGI)

Whether climate can be managed by humans is the question that set the scene for scholar and author Mike Hulme’s lecture. Before engaging the audience in a 25 year survey climate change evolution, Hulme answered the question himself with a resounding, “no,” offering the following reasons for his reasoning:

 “First, there is no ‘plan’, no self-evidently correct way of framing and tackling the phenomenon of climate change which will over-ride different legitimate interests and force convergence of political action. Second, climate science keeps on generating different forms of knowledge about climate - different handles on climate change - which are suggestive of different forms of political and institutional response to climate change.”

Rather than assuming a defeatist tone, Hulme proposed that this plurality of thought about climate change provides fertile space for creativity and innovation. He used the remainder of the lecture to survey the ever-changing discourse on climate change, using the history lesson to support his premises that there is neither consensus on how to frame the discussion of climate change, nor can an evolving subject be fully studied without evolving schools of thought.

According to Hulme, the introduction of climate change in the public sphere began with a 1988 speech by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who called the world to attention and reform as she warned of “a global heat trap which could lead to climactic instability.” By initiating and framing the conversation in this way, Thatcher introduced the didactic discourse of “human interference” in climate system discussions of “greenhouse effect” in the Western world. This discourse was perpetuated by the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer signed in 1987 and the 1991 collapse of the highly influential Soviet Union, which further framed a climate change “plan.”

The “plan,” Hulme said, suggests that knowledge on the topic of climate change would yield a common understanding of climate change as a “problem,” which would then initiate cooperative action and reform. The plan also assumed that the overall goal would be reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As the plan gained international attention and traction, institutions and organizations committed increased policy resources to the “solution:”

1990:     The IPCC released its first assessment report

1992:     UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signed

1994:     UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ratified

1997:     Kyoto Protocol signed

After the USA decided to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, Hollywood took over efforts to continue to perpetuate “plan” discourse, releasing movies such as The Day After Tomorrow and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore’s documentary, in comparison to the apocalyptic fiction The Day After Tomorrow, sparked a sense of individual responsibility with millions of viewers who felt implored to make change by the mantra: “Small actions by billions of people will help to solve our climate crisis,” a message reminiscent of the “plan” of the early 1990s. Although the state of the climate system did not improve on account of these efforts, the engagement of emotions and spirituality within the discourse of climate change continued to redefine and complicate how people interpreted the “correct way” of addressing the climate change issue.

As Hulme recounted these historic developments in the discourse of climate change, he also acknowledged that the popular “plan” discourse did not go without refute. Throughout its rise in popularity, the “plan” and other popularized references received pushback from scholars who argued for the a theory of “climate justice,” contrarian scientists who thought they had the “correct” response to greenhouse gases, and the establishment of geoengineering as a branch of study and policy debate. Nevertheless, the Q&A session at Hulme’s lecture was evidence that even today the enchantment of a causal fix brought about by nations and individuals with a common goal can resolve this atmospheric problem. Although good intentions are at the heart of these pro-“plan” people, could they agree on the definition of the ideal solution? Is it an ideal environmental decision, or an ideal international justice decision? Is geoengineering the answer or are their emotional factors to consider?

Before deciding whether climate change can be managed by humans, you first need to ask yourself, “What do I understand ‘climate change’ to mean?”

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