Thursday, February 6, 2014

More Mike Hulme: "Can climate change be seen"?

In a short and entertaining presentation, Mike Hulme talks about a central problem in the climate debate: Do we just believe in climate change, or can it be seen? He starts with three examples, New Orleans 2005, Bangkog 2011 and Somerset (England) 2014. Only the image of the flooded Somerset landscape can be linked to climate change, as the flooding resulted from more intense rainfalls - just as projected by climate scientists. 
From here, Mike Hulme contrasts "visibilists" and "invisibilists". He takes the example of the Higgs Boson - all you can see is a graph. You can see Somerset flooding, but you have to believe in the Higgs Boson. You see because you believe - or not?  In the following, he takes an example from a different sphere in order to discuss the question of visualization: the resurrection of Christ. Thomas does not believe, unless he sees the nail marks in the hands of Jesus. It is the most daring argument in Mike Hulme's presentation. To believe without seeing - isn't that what Jesus asks for?

In the following, Mike Hulme compares the hockeystick (work of "invisibilists") with the testimony of anthropologists, who have seen ("visibilists") climate change when doing research in cultures with memory of changing environments - they don't need climate science to believe in climate change.

Mike Hulme ends with "constructive visibilists", that is, artists. He displays a few well-known "postcards" - the photo-shopped polar bear, rice planting in London and a high water installation in Bristol (?).  In my opinion, each of these "constructive visibilities" artfully play with the seeing - believing problem, but maybe they lack the depth - the ontological stake -  of Mike Hulme's religious example.

(thanks to O.Bothe@geschichtenpost for the link to this presentation).


Unknown said...

Very good questions and a provocative analogy! Many are exploring the idea of what it would mean to actually experience climate change (see it?) in the future over at
Check it out!

Ben said...

A very flawed analogy. If you can't see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, then why should you bother?

You can't see climate change and even less see the cause for change by looking out of the window.

Anonymous said...


yes, you can't see climate change directly by looking out of the window. But I think you miss an important point:

More and more people BELIEVE they experience climate change. Floods in GB, heat waves in Australia, drought in California,....

And one minor point: Radioactivity
People fear it, but you can't see it, smell it, feel it.


Anonymous said...

Of course, you can see climate change. Very easily. Glaciers are the simplest answer. I do not care, if the decline has an anthropogenic cause, if the glaciers had been smaller, etc. It is clear sign of climate change. Maybe, it is not a daily experience or important, but it is an experience. An impressive one.


Anonymous said...


one sidenote: most of the "invisibilists" work is also the work of "visibilists". For example, the mass balance diagrams or albedo diagrams of Greenland ice sheet.

The complete mass balance is almost invisible. Albedo even more.

The retreat of a single glaciers is visible.

Very often, both are discovered and reported by the same people.

Summary: I do not see any good in Hulmes drawers.


Werner Krauss said...

There is something tricky about those words "to see" and "to believe". In German, "sehen" means to perceive, to realize something visually, but it is also means having visions, or being able to see the future like in "der Seher" (the seer).

Similar with "to believe" (I think we had this before here): to believe has the meaning of "not knowing exactly", but it is also a religious term, which is evoked here by Mike Hulme: Jesus says to Thomas that he should believe without seeing, without visual proof. To believe here is stronger than to see; it is a deeper form of knowing.

In the climate debate, scientific knowledge is characterized as different from "other forms of knowledge" like religion or folk knowledge. But in the context of Mike Hulme's argument, there is something else at stake. It is not about separating one form from the other; instead, maybe the "constructive visibilists" are closer to the reality of climate change; they actually "compose" reality of different elements.

Hans von Storch said...

I thought the logic of the "filling the knowledge gap"-approach would be that once the knowledge is there among the people and decision makers, no more political debate is needed, because from the "scientific facts" follows only one option to go. I had understood Mike H's position that he would argue that this automatism would not run - and I share that view.

Of course you have to ask what the consensus about the scientific facts is - is it the core (CO2 etc are GHGs, more GHGs lead to more warming, less GHGs to less warming; that reducing emissions would limit climate change; same with sea level) - or is the baroque additions on storms, extremes etc.? The former opens up for different options of response, the latter not.

Anonymous said...

@ HvS


Lewandowsky and Cook responded to Hulme in The Conversation:

"We should be talking about policies" and "there is strong evidence that the public’s perception of an overwhelming scientific consensus is key to stimulating the constructive policy debate we should be having."

I also recommend Bart Verheggen's post:
(johnrussel40 and Bart's answer offer an interesting new aspect)

Eine Zwiebel wird erst richtig gut, wenn man alte Schalen entfernt. Mir scheint, das Hulmesche Urteil über Cook und den "Konsens-Ansatz" resultiert aus alten Urteilen.


Anonymous said...

@ HvS

Nuccitelli wrote in a recent comment (

"Hulme has had a mysterious disdain for our paper ever since it was published. He seems to think its goal is to solve all the world’s problems, when in reality the goal is very simple and limited (to communicate the consensus, which in turn reduces science denial and furthers the policy discussion). So he creates this strawman argument, that our paper can’t settle the policy debate. Well of course not! It’s not a policy paper."

Do you share this misunderstanding of the consensus project?