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"Is Climate Real?" An Essay by Maximilian Gregor Hepach (Keywords: Planet; Weather; Phenomenology)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 3 ("Concept and Reality").

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Climate change, as Claire Colebrook has argued, is “not only a mutation of this climate (warming, depleting, becoming more volatile) but an alteration of what we take climate to be.” This analysis gives climate change a new philosophical bent: a change in the material reality of our world asks us to reconsider the taken for granted concepts through which we comprehend it. Climate change raises the question of what climate itself is.


The concepts of interest to philosophers are often, at first sight, the ones that seem the most trivial. Socrates infamously interrogated taken-for-granted concepts such as justice, language, or pleasure. More often than not, they turned out to be “leaky pots”; their meaning drained out of them with every question asked. St. Augustine faced similar trouble: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

The concepts of interest to philosophers are often, at first sight, the ones that seem the most trivial.

There appears to be something about making explicit how our concepts relate to reality that sets off a virtuous (or vicious?) circle of philosophical interrogation, starting out from what, at first, seems trivial. Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl went so far as to argue that philosophy itself might best be called “the science of the trivial”, seeing as how the hardest philosophical problems lie hidden behind that which is (or seems) obvious.

The titular question of this essay is meant to highlight that climate, too, presents us with hard philosophical problems (even as the obvious answer to the question is “yes”). These problems are both ethical and conceptual in nature. It is awareness of the latter, less commonly addressed, type of problem with climate(-change) that I hope to raise.


What, then, if someone were to ask us: “What is climate?” Human geographer Mike Hulme has noted that, although we all seem to know intuitively what “climate” is, it is difficult to articulate an adequate definition of it. Climate, Hulme writes, is both everywhere and nowhere; we can never escape it, but neither can we easily point out what it is. In Hulme’s eyes, this opens up the very existence of climate to questioning due to its ambiguity.

In the face of increasingly frequent extreme weather events due to anthropogenic climate change, however, the reality of climate appears to be outrunning whatever conceptual qualms we might be entertaining. Yet it is precisely the occurrence of these events, and how they relate to climate and its changes, that occasion the question of whether climate is real and, if so, how. The question of experiencing climate and its changes acts as a burning lens on our concept of climate. Omitting an answer to the question of climate’s experiential reality may lead to a sense of unreality, as one is rendered unable to account for what one is experiencing.

The glossary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report defines climate in relation to weather: “Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the average weather, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years.” As this definition evidences, there is considerable ambiguity in defining climate, for example in relation to the “sense” in which it is used, the “quantities” included in climate, and the periods of time over which climate extends. Philosopher of science Charlotte Werndl has noted that “[i]n both public and scientific discourse, the notions of climate and climate change are often loosely employed, and it remains unclear what exactly is understood by them”. As a result, she considers how to define climate and climate change to be “non-trivial and contentious”.

One thing the various definitions or understandings of climate share, however, is their distinctness from weather. “Weather isn’t climate” is an almost idiomatic phrase of crucial epistemological import; it distinguishes what we perceive and experience “subjectively” with all its fallibility (weather), from what is measured and modelled “objectively” with relative certainty (climate). Anthropologist Peter Rudiak-Gould has called this approach to climate(-change) invisibilism. As he writes, “the gulf between brute, visible reality and climate change is crowded with arcane mathematics, high-tech measuring devices, and inhumanly large temporal and spatial scales.”

Although we are quick to attribute extreme weather events, such as prolonged intense heat waves, to climate change, invisibilism holds that we should mistrust our senses. Otherwise, the converse might also be true: perfectly seasonable weather might be taken as evidence against climate change!

Clearly, changes in climate must, at some point, find their expression in changes in the weather we can experience. Invisibilist approaches to climate(-change) address this issue with the help of weather attribution studies which assess how much more likely an extreme weather event has become due to anthropogenic climate change. Yet such scientific assessments of weather events remain at a distance from experience. At best, our sense of irregularities in the weather we experience might allow us to intuit a change in the climate, but the ultimate arbiters of the reality of climate change are climate scientists. The slogan that we should “listen to the science” jars with our conviction that we are, in fact, experiencing climate change.

Climate is not an object of experience. We cannot point or look at climate in the same way we can at a tree or a house.

The invisibilist understanding of climate and its changes has been influential beyond the natural sciences. Timothy Morton, for instance, has called climate a hyperobject, something that exceeds human experience and comprehension. In a recent online interview hosted by this journal, Dipesh Chakrabarty drew on Morton’s work, arguing that climate is a human construction, something that does not exist as an object and which we cannot experience, whilst a change in climate nonetheless exacerbates weather events. In Morton’s own work, weather and climate, experience and hyperobjects, appear less dichotomous than his overarching theory may suggest: “When you feel raindrops, you are experiencing climate, in some sense. In particular you are experiencing the climate change known as global warming. But you are never directly experiencing global warming as such.”

But in what precise sense are we experiencing climate? Clearly, climate is not an object of experience. We cannot point or look at climate in the same way we can at a tree or a house. That something is not a simple object of perception or experience, however, does not preclude us from experiencing it, or positing that it is real. Phenomenologists have dedicated themselves to phenomena that are not present as objects – such as time and space, memories and phantasies, sounds and music, embodiment and affects, the other and the alien – reflecting on how these phenomena emerge from entanglements between subject and object, consciousness and world. What, then, would a phenomenology of climate look like? And how may phenomenology help us understand the (experiential) reality of climate and its changes?


Following Aristotle’s noted dictum that “being is said in many ways”, being an object is only one way of being. In Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses a number of additional ways being can be said, including energeia, variously translated as activity, actuality, being-at-work or in-work-ness. One example of being-at-work, which Aristotle highlights, is a house. According to Aristotle, one does not get at the heart of what it means for something to be a house by enumerating its composite parts. Houses are not the same sort of thing as bricks or glass. A house is being-at-work; what distinguishes a house, what gives a house its shape is its ongoing “activity”: offering, in Aristotle’s words, “a sheltering enclosure for possessions and living bodies”.

Like climate, a house is, in a certain sense, both everywhere and nowhere. Although I can take you to see a certain house and point at it from the sidewalk, I would be missing the very nature of a house: the possibilities of habitability it affords. To experience a house adequately, one has to go inside. In this experience, habitability is not an object we find somewhere in the living room: it is rather what affords experience in the house itself. Touring the house, the house is “everywhere and nowhere” because the house, as a possibility of habitability, is what allows something to be somewhere in the house. The house precedes the possibility of place and objects in it: it affords their very appearance.

In his discussion of Aristotle’s account of habitability, Figal addresses the issue how something can be (phenomenologically) defined when it is withdrawn from immediate experience. According to Figal, instances of being-at-work, such as habitability and houses, “cannot be exhaustively determined”. Although any individual house offers a set of possibilities of habitation it affords, these can be taken up in innumerable ways by those who inhabit it; no single experience can comprehensively disclose the house in its totality. Similarly, although habitability is itself a set of possibilities, each example of habitability (such as a house) is but one possible way the possibilities of habitability take shape. Figal here speaks of a “horizon of possibilities” which we grasp and explore through inhabiting or building a home.

In his own work on the phenomenology of spatiality, Figal goes into greater detail concerning the phenomenological reality of spatiality and built space. He uses the example of rooms to add phenomenological detail to how spaces shape our experience. In order to do so, he draws on a key phenomenological concept: the phenomenological correlation. As Dan Zahavi explains, the phenomenological correlation describes how subject and object are always already interrelated or correlated in experience. Different modes of experience (seeing, hearing, remembering, imagining, thinking, hating, and so on) shape and are shaped by their corresponding objects (the seen, heard, remembered, imagined, thought, hated). This relation cannot be disentangled. We cannot, in Zahavi’s turn of phrase, “look sideways at our experiences in order to see to what extent they match with reality”, because reality is always given in correlational entanglements. How something is given cannot be disentangled from what is given. We are unable to bracket our own perspective on the world, because the perspectival nature of our experience is the very way the world is comprehensible to us.

Figal argues that rooms (and spatiality more generally) are not objects of experience, but ways of experience being correlated. He narrows the ways in which rooms (and spatiality) shape experience down to three general characteristics: on the “object-side” of the phenomenological correlation, everything experienced has (i) its place, where it is (ii) open to be experienced (iii) at a distance from others. On the “subject-side” of the correlation, what I experience is (i) there and not here, and from where I experience, my experience is (ii) open in that it is not fixated on a single object or way of experiencing and (iii) the object of my experience always remains at a distance no matter how near I draw.

Rooms, then, are distinct possibilities of emplacement, openness, and distance that afford both how we experience (on the “subjective” end of the correlation) and what we experience (on the “objective” end of the correlation). Rooms, and spatiality in general, cohere experience and reality by affording distinct possibilities of experience and existence. Although rooms and spatiality more broadly are “everywhere and nowhere”, too, their particular mode of being, their distinct reality, can be grasped by reflecting on how they shape and afford experience in particular ways with the help of phenomenological analysis. This holds true, even as we are unable to “look sideways” at rooms in much the same way that we are unable to “look sideways” at experience itself.


So, where does this leave us with climate? Climate, as Ernst Haeckel notes in his definition of ecology (the study of oikos, of “the home”), is a sort of enclosure too, constituting a necessary condition for organic life. A phenomenological account of built spaces, of the ways in which a place becomes habitable, can serve as a model for a phenomenological account of climate. As literary scholar Eva Horn notes, our indoor spaces are carefully attuned to the space outside: air-conditioning being the most conspicuous example of how we shape our indoor climates.

Making indoor places habitable is then one possibility of exploring the “horizon of possibilities” which constitutes climate as being-at-work. Similar to a house’s, climate’s being or reality is not adequately grasped if one only considers its constituent parts. A phenomenological approach to climate emphasises that climate is more than a certain set of properties or influences to be measured.

If climate shapes, affords, correlates, and coheres experience, then changes in climate mean changes to the very way we experience our world, to the way our world is comprehensible to us, to our everyday reality.

Much like habitability, there is, as Hulme notes, “no single true and eternal definition of climate to be discovered or defended”. Climate cannot be exhaustively determined, but its reality can be explored by the way temperature, humidity, precipitation, seasonality, and so on shape experience and existence, and through how we have adapted to certain climatic conditions. Climates, I argue, correlate experience much in the same way rooms do. We cannot “look sideways” at climates because they shape both how and what we can experience. Given their correlational nature, climates shape how we think and feel, as well as the material world around us.

When it comes to changes in climate, what must be of interest or concern to us then is not only, for instance, a rise in global average temperature, a data-point with no direct experiential analogue. If climate shapes, affords, correlates, and coheres experience, then changes in climate mean changes to the very way we experience our world, to the way our world is comprehensible to us, to our everyday reality.

Minor shifts in comprehensibility are experienced when we, for instance, leave one climate and travel to another. Climates can change the orientation of our everyday lives: what can be done, where, when, and how. When experiencing the weather of a different climate for the first time, the weather itself might be incomprehensible to us. Only after becoming literate in a given climate are we able to comprehend changes in the weather, recognising (ir-)regularities.

Larger shifts in comprehensibility take place when the ways we have adapted to a given climate stop making sense. Without leaving a given place, climates are shifting beneath (or above?) our feet. As author and journalist Mark Lynas has written, it is as though we are “on a slow-moving giant conveyor belt, transporting [us] deeper and deeper towards the sub-tropics at the same speed as the second hand on a small wristwatch” as climates warm. Most alarmingly, as Jean-Francois Bastin and colleagues have argued in a recent scientific study, “22% of the worlds cities […] are likely to exist in a climatic regime that does not currently exist on the planet today.” These climates that are likely to emerge in the next 50 years open up the horizon of possibilities of climate into a climatic realm that is, as of yet, incomprehensible and unreal.


That climates shape the way our world is comprehensible to us is not to say, however, that climates determine how we think or feel, what we experience and how we exist. They rather resemble media through which we live. Climates are, following John Durham Peters’ definition of environmental media more broadly, “vessels and environments, containers of possibility that anchor our existence and make what we are doing possible.” As media, climates are neither static, nor are we simply subject to them.

Climate and ourselves being co-constitutive of each other is a key concern of Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō in his discussion of fūdo (風土), commonly translated as “climate” in his book of the same name. Central to Watsuji’s account is a reappreciation of the spatial environment of human subjectivity, which he argues is neglected in accounts offered by other phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger. In his discussion of various seasonal experiences, Watsuji argues that we do not relate to the climate around us as though it were something “out there” to be measured. Rather, we always already find ourselves acclimatised in certain ways; we are always already exposed to/in a given climate before we relate to ourselves, others, and the objects around us. Fūdo, however, not only surrounds us as the spatial condition that shapes and affords our experience and existence in distinct ways, but belongs, as David Johnson emphasises in his discussion of Watsuji, “to the very structure of subjectivity”. To be human means to be climatic, to weather and be weathered (as Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker detail in their feminist new materialist account of climate change).

We always already find ourselves acclimatised in certain ways; we are always already exposed to/in a given climate before we relate to ourselves, others, and the objects around us.

Watsuji’s reading of fūdo here anticipates critiques of “climate as nature”, which have been brought forward in light of the Anthropocene. If humans are able to change the climate, the argument goes, then the very distinction between climate as “natural” and human activity as “cultural” no longer makes sense. However, as Watsuji’s account shows, climate or fūdo has always been both natural and cultural, implicated in the formation of subjectivity and shaped by subjectivity itself.

Although David Johnson notes that Watsuji’s writings contain “the glaring inconsistency between a professed rejection of determinism and a quasi-deterministic account of peoples and their natural environments”, I would like to emphasise that the concept of fūdo enables us to think of climate as a medium of self-reflection: climate not only shapes us in distinct ways, but it also allows us to explore the “horizon of possibilities” within ourselves. Considering changes in climate means considering different/novel/as-of-yet-incomprehensible modes of existence too; changes in climate occasion renewed moments of self-apprehension (or recognition). One such moment of recognition is, as Amitav Ghosh has detailed, recognising the “great derangement” of contemporary capitalist society (and subjectivity). Coming to terms with changes in climate here foregrounds the untenability of “the bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world”. A change in climate occasions the recognition of unsustainable ways of life.

By contrasting invisibilist accounts of climate and its changes with my own phenomenological approach, I sought to highlight how our concept of climate may change with the increasing recognition that climate change is being experienced. Starting from other narratives and concepts, such as Watsuji’s, however, makes apparent that this moment of recognition has long taken place elsewhere.

Kyle Whyte has argued that Indigenous climate studies do not simply start with the impacts of climate change experienced here and now, but “arise from memories, knowledges, histories, and experiences of oppression that differ from many of the nonindigenous scientists, environmentalists, and politicians who are prominent in the framing of the issue of climate change today.” A phenomenological account of climate and its changes should not efface historical legacies of colonization. As Whyte powerfully highlights, climate change resembles an “intensified déjà vu experience” for Indigenous peoples. Instead of facilitating a moment of recognition, for Indigenous peoples “anthropogenic climate change is an intensified repetition of anthropogenic environmental change inflicted on Indigenous peoples via colonial practices that facilitated capitalist industrial expansion.” A phenomenological account of climate and its changes must be careful, then, to not universalise experiences of climate change that result, in fact, from distinct geographies and histories.


So, is climate real? Beyond the clear scientific consensus concerning the reality of both climate and anthropogenic climate change, I hope to have shown that climate is real in a further way, namely experientially. Following a phenomenological approach, we can make sense of changes in climate not simply by relying on individual weather events, or on changes in average global temperature or atmospheric carbon dioxide, but through shifts in the very comprehensibility of our world which accompany changes in climate. These shifts in comprehensibility turn conspicuous as ways of life stop making sense in light of the changing possibilities a changing climate affords. The immaterial rhythms of our daily lives and the material infrastructures through which we have adapted to a given climate become increasingly out of sync with the climatic medium through which we live. Through climate change, both time and space appear out of joint, as we, as Andreas Malm writes, “inhabit the diachronic, the discordant, the inchoate”. Instead of a sense of unreality that may accompany this process of alienation, a phenomenological approach reveals that changes in climate render conspicuous the very correlational nature of climate: affording certain modes of experience and existence (which are subject to change).

Tying into a broader movement, a phenomenology of climate sensitises us to an essential aspect of experience and existence; an aspect that is central to mitigating and adapting to future climates (before we mitigate and/or adapt, we must first know what we are mitigating against/adapting to). Given the unequal distribution of climate change effects globally, a phenomenological account further aids in sensitising us to the heterogeneous ways in which different people in different places are entangled with their climate in different ways, irreducible to any single metric.

Of course, phenomenology is not the only route to such an awareness, as Whyte’s discussion of Indigenous climate studies shows. A phenomenology of climate offers but one further way of reconciling our concepts with a changing reality.

Maximilian Gregor Hepach is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Potsdam and project coordinator of Weather Reports: Wind as Media, Model, Experience. He works towards a better understanding of how we experience climate and its changes, drawing from different philosophical approaches, such as Ancient Philosophy, Japanese Philosophy, Phenomenology, and the Philosophy of Science.

Twitter: @climatephen


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 3 ("Concept and Reality").

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