He takes up a line of arguments from the fringes of the scientific climate debate and develops it further. For example, Sheila Jasanoff pleads in a Nature article for more "humility" in the climate debate, or climate scientist Mike Flannery ends his recent book with the words "if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further progress is possible here on Earth”. But what do these appeals to love and humility actually mean? When, as Mike Hulme says, "in all the climate models I have examined, used and criticised over 30 years I have not yet come across a variable for love or an equation for calculating humility"? In this article, he provides an answer. Alongside with wisdom, integrity, faith and hope, humility and love are "virtues", and those virtues mark "the most enduring response" to the challenge of climate change.
As a current fellow at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Mike Hulme took his time and developed an apologetic of "virtue" in the climate debate. An apologetic is a form of discourse that derives from theology and is "a systematic form of defense (as of a doctrine)", says Merriam-Webster. The choice of this term is only consequent, as Mike Hulme takes it seriously when he argues for a humanistic turn in the climate debate:
"Inspired by the recent “environmental turn” in the humanities (...) I wish to suggest a different, non-programmatic response to climate change: a reacquaintance with the ancient and religious ideas of virtue and its renaissance in the field of virtue ethics. Drawing upon work by Alasdair MacIntyre, Melissa Lane and Tom Wright, I outline an apologetic for why the cultivation of virtue is an appropriate response to the challenges of climate change."
The apologetic is structured along six chapters; here are just some excerpts and comments. After the introduction, Mike Hulme outlines the limits of current approaches to solve the climate problem with the help of science:
For more than 25 years the conventional view has been that an international political solution to climate change can be negotiated if driven by the engine of science. That is, if a strong enough scientific consensus on the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change could be forged and sustained, then the compelling force of such rationality would over-ride the differences in worldviews, beliefs, values and ideologies which characterise the human world. Such a scientific consensus would bring about the needed policy solutions. This is the “If-then” logic of computer programming, the conviction that the right way to tackle climate change is through what Dan Sarewitz at Arizona State University has called “The Plan” . And there are those who still believe in this project. They excoriate others who obstruct and obscure this pure guiding light of rationality—a position adopted, for example, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their recent book Merchants of Doubt.
At the time it seemed entirely reasonable that with one of the last “enemies” of progressive Enlightenment liberalism having been swept away (i.e., communism), a new irrepressible world order would emerge. And it would be one that would now fully exploit the predictive power of fruitful globalised science. The putative threat that a burgeoning carbon-fuelled humanity—thriving, ironically, through the fruit of this very same Enlightenment—was posing to climatic stability would be defused. This project would demonstrate decisively the force of scientific rationality over the fading and divisive powers of religion and ideology. Scientific consensus would forge political consensus and political consensus would yield victory. And victory would be the Salvation of the planet.
This "salvation project" came to an end with Climategate and the failed 2009 COP 15 summit in Copenhagen. But simultaneoulsy, new forms of critique emerged from Bruno Latour, from the Breakthrough Institute or "by Tom Crompton’s work with the UK environmental NGOs and his strategy document Common Cause: The Case for Working with Values and Frames":
These two reactions to the sterile politics of climate change—to the futility of “The Plan”—adopt different reasoning and language. But they are united in their conviction that scientific knowledge about climate cannot be the primary motivator and driving engine of change. Indeed, the more trenchant critics would now argue that the product of climate science—uncertain predictions presented as a solidified and settled consensus—has perhaps acted as much as an obstacle as it has a spur to policy enactment. Science has done what it can. It has shown us the extent of the interpenetration of the human and the material—“we are without nature” ; the Earth’s climate is now a prosthetic to humanity. And yet we remain confronted with the limits of our programmatic responses to climate change, whether they be political, economic, technological or social engineering. Climate change is a condition of late modernity, yet it is a condition which modernity does not know how either to alleviate or to live with.
Mike Hulme argues that we should transcend our thinking about instrumental solutions how to solve the climate problem; instead, we should contemplate virtues such as wisdom, humility, integrity, faith, hope and, above all, the virtue of love - each one is considered and explained in this article. Civic virtue results from these consideration, "the cultivation of personal habits which can transform the success of the community", as well as a "virtue ethics", which re-connect us to the virtues which arise from the community. His approach takes into consideration that the world is diverse and that we need cosmopolitan approaches to recognize this diversity.
Rather than putting science, economics, politics or the planet at the centre of the story of climate change I am suggesting that we put the humanities—our self-understanding of human purpose and virtue—at the centre. When we talk about climate change we should not start with the latest predictions from the climate models, nor whether we have passed some catastrophic tipping point; nor whether or not the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should be trusted. We should start by thinking about what it means to be human. What is the good life and what therefore is an adequate response to climate change?
You have to read the full article, of course. Mike Hulme is serious here. Me and colleagues often remarked in conversations that there is "something religious" in his arguments; in this article, Mike Hulme answers those questions and delivers an "apologetic", a structured argument in defense of "virtue". He starts where even many climate scientists end their lectures with remarks about "values" that have to be considered, too. He takes this up and demonstrates that they don't have to be considered only; for him, climate change first and foremost is about values and virtues.
In the German (blogosphere) debate (and here on Klimazwiebel, too), "Gutmensch" is often used as an insult; appeals to climate as a non-technological issue are seen as non-scientific and ideological, as are suggestions that we should change our way of life. Seen from the German discussion, this article can be read as a self-confident manifesto of a "Gutmensch". Mike Hulme is fully aware of those critics; he quotes right in the beginning Ian McEwan, the author of "Solar": "Cleverness got us into this problem and I don't think virtue is going to get us out of it". Mike Hulme doesn't think so, quite the contrary. He says "I suggest that virtue may be the most enduring response we have."