Book review of ‘A cultural history of climate change’ (Bristow & Ford, 2015)


A cultural history of climate change, edited by Tom Bristow and Thomas H Ford, Abingdon and New York, Earthscan/Routledge, 2016, xix + 244 pp., ISBN 978-1-138-83816-1 (hbk); ISBN 978-1-315-73459-1 (pbk).

(Review to appear in Green Letters: Studies in Eco-criticism)

In 2008, the UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, challenged UK academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences to leave their “disciplinary comfort zones” to engage with scientists on the problem of climate change (Corbyn, 2008).  Climate change, he said, was not just a scientific problem, but something that needed researching from the social sciences and he berated universities for not doing enough to facilitate interdisciplinary working.  Humanities and social science academics were criticised for being stuck in a “silo mentality” and unwilling to push boundaries.

In response to his comments, I endorsed the call for a broadening of perspectives in the design, funding and conduct of research about climate change.  However, I remarked that the problem didn’t solely lie with academics or universities. Research councils, I said, found it hard to recognise and fund high-quality, innovative interdisciplinary research that, for example, allowed a climate modeller to work alongside a philosopher, or an anthropologist with an energy engineer. I also warned physical and natural scientists to be prepared for some shocks when social scientists and humanities scholars started analysing climate change: “The phenomenon may not turn out to be quite the one the physical scientists think they have been studying for the past 25 years” (Hulme, 2008).

The last ten years or so has indeed witnessed very significant changes in the ways in which climate change has been studied in the academy and understood publicly at large.  Over this time social science research on climate change has grown exponentially, seeking to understand the institutional, behavioural, developmental and political drivers of climate change, but also the social contexts and consequences of various proposed ‘solutions’ to climate change.  Geographers have always been involved in climate change research and their presence within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has increased with time.  But more recently sociologists, political scientists, communication scholars, social psychologists and science studies scholars have all published much more expansively around the topic of climate change.

But perhaps a much more significant trend has been the rising engagement of humanities scholarship with the idea of climate change (Hulme, 2011).  This engagement has ridden the new wave of ‘environmental humanities’ which has erupted around the intellectual world, notably in Europe, America, China and Australia.  The provocative idea of the Anthropocene, itself an epiphenomenon of climate change, has helped pushed new interest across the broad sweep of the humanities in, and trenchant critique of, climate change and its human meanings.

It is now commonplace to find journal articles, special journal issues, edited collections, research monographs and public performances on climate change originating from disciplines such as history, literature, religious studies, ethics, theology, cultural studies, the arts, anthropology, linguistics, visual studies, etc.  This kaleidoscopic intellectual engagement with climate change was notably absent as the issue took on its public and political form in the 1990s and early 2000s.

And as the breadth of thought provoked by the idea of climate change has widened so, as I predicted in 2008, has the nature of the phenomenon under study changed.  ‘Climate change’ is seen much less as an environmental ‘problem’ to be solved through technology or the deployment of economic instruments, as was an earlier wave of twentieth century environmental challenges such as river pollution or stratospheric ozone depletion.  Mere science and engineering knowledge seems, on its own, deficient to the task in hand.

Rather, the scale of the transformations occurring to the atmosphere, oceans and cryosphere, and the deep implication of the human in these transformations, re-frames what sort of phenomenon climate change is.  And therefore re-frames how it needs studying, debating and acting upon.

The humanities, and the ways they approach the world and the meanings humans impute to the world, are central to these tasks.  For the (climate) sciences, consensus seems to have been the preferred mode of operation for generating valid and actionable knowledge, at least within the IPCC (though of course Merton’s norm of organised scepticism remains alive).  Consensus, however, doesn’t do justice to the full range of divergent human beliefs about how the world is or should be.  Indeed, it obscures them and therefore makes political interventions more dangerous or febrile.  These beliefs, and their attendance values, are instinctively mobilised by the provocative and disturbing idea of climate change, which is why we disagree so profoundly about what should be done and how (Hulme, 2009).

But the humanities approach the dialectic of disagreement and consensus differently.  As Dipesh Chakrabarty wisely remarks in the preface to Bristow and Ford’s book, “In valuing arguments over consensus, the human sciences only reflect the fact that human values and perspectives remain irreducibly plural” (p.xviii).  Viable, just and secure action in the world must, first, recognise such difference before it finds a suitable process through which political action gains warrant.  If not, we end up in conditions of either anarchy or autocracy.

This extended preamble is necessary for me to justify why I welcome this new collection of 16 essays from humanities scholars, edited by Australian academics Tom Bristow and Thomas Ford.  Understanding the multiple ways in which climate change is altering the world – imaginatively as much as, if not more than, materially; and in the future as much as in the present – requires the serious engagement of the humanities.  And this volume is one of the first to bring together leading contemporary humanities scholarship about climate change into a single coherent setting.  These 16 essays—drawn from the fields of history, literature and eco-criticism and political science—help the reader to think with the authors about what changes in climate means to different people, and how these meanings change over time and across cultures (see also Hulme, 2016).

In this book we hear through oral histories about the complex subjectivities of climate change in the lives of Australian farmers enduring endemic drought (Deb Anderson) and about the way conceptions of time for Aboriginal Australians shapes understanding of the cyclicities and perturbations of climate (Chris O’Brien).

From literary scholars we read how the meaning of ‘climate’ is ambiguous (Thomas Ford); it functions simultaneously as metaphor, environment, explanatory force and as a totalising condition of human existence.  These meanings are tracked down through contemporary and Victorian literatures, and in realist, ironic and activist tropes.  Climates were written about long before they were systematically measured and modelled by scientists.

And from political scientists we learn that global climate as an object of governance may well exceed the capabilities of humans, both to imagine and to deliver.  Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects – of which climate change is one – are “irreducible to totalizing thought” (p.236), just as much as climate change is ungovernable in any modern sense of this term.  Nick Mansfield essay, ‘Climate change: politics, excess and sovereignty’ identifies the fallacy: “Fundamental to these assumptions [of governance] is the idea that the climate system, the political order and human social goals can be discussed as total, complete or fixed” (p.177).  Why would we think ever that climate can be fixed?

This edited book, ‘A cultural history of climate change’, shows that the humanities are not simply a late-arriving appendage to Earth System science, to help in the work of translation.  These essays offer distinctive insights into how and why humans reason and imagine their ‘weather-worlds’ (Ingold, 2010).  We learn about the interpenetration of climate and culture and are prompted to think creatively about different ways in which the idea of climate change can be conceptualised and acted upon beyond merely ‘saving the planet’.



Corbyn,Z. (2008) King urges arts to join crusade  Times Higher Education, 24 January, [accessed 16 November 2016]

Hulme,M. (2008) Shocks on climate change  Times Higher Education, 31 January,  [accessed 16 November 2016]

Hulme,M. (2009) Why we disagree about climate change: understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 393pp.

Hulme,M. (2011) Meet the humanities  Nature Climate Change 1(4), 177-179

Hulme,M. (2016)  Weathered: cultures of climate  Sage, London, 178pp.

Ingold, T. (2010) Footprints through the Weather-World: walking, breathing, knowing Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, (N.S.), pp.S121–S139


Mike Hulme

Department of Geography, King’s College London, UK

© 2016, Mike Hulme