What are the cultural functions of climate change?

2 February 2018


Reported by Kasia Brzezinska, CSaP Policy Intern (Jan - April 2018)

In the third of the 2018 Climate Seminar series, Professor Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge, explored the cultural functions of climate, examining what climate is, how our idea of climate changes over time, and the effects that our idea of climate has on our imaginative worlds.

Professor Hulme began his talk by arguing that we need to develop an understanding of the cultural functions of the idea of climate which takes us beyond scientific conceptions.

Taking the audience on a historical trip starting in Ancient Greece, Professor Hulme identifed three different ways in which climate has been understood throughout time. The first of these is as an index captured through systematic and regular observation; the second as an agent or force which changes or shapes things, and finally as an atmosphere which shapes our imagination or captures our mood.

According to Professor Hulme there is also another way of understanding climate. He put forward the idea of climate as a necessary construct which enables people to “live reliably in their imaginary worlds”. Climate stabilises the relationship between the turbulent physical atmosphere, and the more reflective, patterned ways of human living that we might call culture.

The idea of climate emerges from our characteristic search as humans for patterns amongst chaos, for a degree of order and stability in a world that otherwise would be too frightening.

Professor Hulme also noted that climate has often been deployed in public life to discipline personal, social and political behaviours, in contrasting ways and to various ends. He illustrated his argument by presenting case studies from climate change in the imagination, in bio-politics, in climate and prediction, as well as in virtual climates.

Finally, Professor Hulme argued that the future of climate is something that we will shape with our imaginations. He suggested three possible ways in which climate as an idea could be reimagined in future. The first, ’modernist approach,’ is the prospect of re-securing climates within desirable and safe limits. The second, ‘eco-modernist’ approach, recognises that climate cannot be re-secured, but that our efforts to care for it are important - even if our powers are limited. The third, ‘post-modernist’ approach, abandons entirely the function of climate as an idea that stabilises human life, because the "new normal of the Anthropocene is that there can be no normal".

Echoing Pope Francis, Professor Hulme concluded by suggesting that the weather of the Anthropocene will come to reflect the moral standing of humanity:

In the future…climate will come to be understood as reflecting our human moral triumphs and failings on earth; the struggles between corruption and justice, greed and generosity, ignorance and ingenuity, and hubris and humility.

A podcast of the seminar is available here

Climate Seminar Series 2018

The Centre for Science and Policy is working with Professor Charles Kennel, Director emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, to deliver the 2018 series of climate change seminars hosted by Christ’s College.

For more details of the climate seminars, please click here.