A response to Mike Hulme’s “Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisal”

By Werner Krauss, University of Hamburg, Germany

A cultural appraisal of climate and its changes is more than only adding social sciences and humanities to climate research; it fundamentally changes the concept of climate change and, as a consequence, the nature of climate politics. For a long time, culture has been considered as the object of analysis for social sciences as their contribution to successfully implementing science-based climate policies. But Mike Hulme (2015) reminds us in a friendly fashion that climate is more than the statistics of average weather or a system of interconnected spheres and global thresholds. For him, climate is first and foremost an idea that helps to stabilise the relationships between cultures and weather, with climate change as the latest step in the cultural evolution of this idea. His approach fundamentally differs from the conception of global climate politics framed by planetary boundaries and aiming at stabilising climate at 2-or less degrees above preindustrial levels; his cultural appraisal suggests an alternative to the regime of experts and the fantasies about the magic of big data and technological solutions.

The anthropologist Melissa Leach once coined in an interview with the Guardian (2007) the drastic term “bullshit research”. She conducted ethnographic research in hot spots of environmental and climate change in Africa, and there the reality she encountered differed profoundly from scientific scenarios. Explaining the causes of drought, of migration or conflict as a result of climate change was more often than not plain wrong; the causes were complex, the scientific attributions were prematurely drawn from model calculations and not based on empirical evidence. Together with James Fairhead, in their book Misreading Landscapes (1996), they documented how scientists and environmentalists had interpreted desertification in the savannah as a result of deforestation by the indigenous population; in reality, it was indigenous people who had planted the existing trees to fight desertification. This case is not unique, and in many case studies, ethnographers find complex realities instead of simple and mono-dimensional explanations like water- or climate-wars.

While Mike Hulme’s article focuses on making a general argument for introducing culture into the debate about a changing climate, there remains the question of what a no-bullshit research agenda might look like. I doubt that “culture” is an appropriate entity for research; while it makes sense to say that “other cultures” have differing concepts of the culture-weather nexus from our “modern” ones, it is impossible to single out specific cultures as consistent and autonomous, even less to delineate a geographical space identical with cultures (even though in climate research, outdated conceptions like culture areas or climate determinism come to life again). But how to conduct climate research and avoid the pitfalls of current top-down conceptions?

In his article, Mike Hulme introduces the concept of landscape to illustrate the “dyad of climate-culture”. Landscapes are far more than visual or aesthetic representations, nor are they static formations frozen in time and space. Instead, they are social practices and designate the process of making space. They are the result of the interaction of nature, culture and history, but also of symbols, perceptions and imaginaries; or, in the terms of Latour’s actor-network-theory, they are networks animated by human and non-human interactions. It is here where we can observe and critically analyse the transition from land- into climate-scapes, with climate politics as one of the main drivers. Landscapes are political assemblies where matters of concern are decided, such as questions concerning property, access to land or weather-related issues like coastal protection or the transition of former rural areas into emerging energy landscapes. To manage landscapes successfully needs the consent of those who inhabit, shape and administer them; only then, climate change indeed means the “re-negotiation of cultural relationships between humans and their changing weather”, and climate change finally becomes an emergent form of life (Callison 2014).

Thus, Mike Hulme indeed offers an approach to climate change that profoundly differs from the current science-based understanding. There is more to his cultural appraisal than simply adding social sciences and humanities to climate science; the question is about differing ideas of governance, of democracy and about power relations, inside science and in the relation between science, politics and society. Conflicts and frictions are unavoidable where expert regimes rub with societies and cultures; instead of dreaming the impossible dream of stabilizing climate, a cultural appraisal of climate offers insight into the potential of specific landscapes to deal with changing climates.

About the author:

Werner Krauss is currently a fellow at the Cluster of Excellence “CliSAP” (Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction), University of Hamburg, project “Understanding science in interaction” (USI). As a cultural anthropologist, his main focus of research is on human-environment relationships, the anthropology of landscapes and heritage, and climate change. He is an editor of the climate blog Die Klimazwiebel.


Callison, Candis (2014) How Climate Change Comes to Matter: the Communal Life of Facts. Duke University Press.

Fairhead, J. and M. Leach (1996) Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge University Press.

The Guardian (2007) Melissa Leach: The Village Voice. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/jul/17/highereducationprofile.academicexperts (accessed 07/17/2015).

Hulme, Mike (2015) Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisalGeo: Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.5