Tag Archives: Climate change

Ordering vulnerability: transitions in flood risk management

By Helen Pallett 

Hemsby flooding

Picture from the Guardian

On Thursday December 5th the east coast of the UK was battered by high winds and rain, causing a tidal surge which flooded many homes and caused wide-spread travel disruption. It is estimated that 1400 properties were flooded, with some of the worst damage being experienced on the Norfolk coast where several towns were evacuated and where seven houses were lost to the sea in the village of Hemsby.

Like earlier extreme flooding and tidal surge events, the most recent storm raises pressing questions about the relative responsibilities of the government, private insurance companies and individual home-owners for both assessing and managing the risks of flood damage. Memories of the 1953 North Sea flood, where a tidal surges over-topped sea defences and led to the deaths of more than 300 people, have been frequently evoked this week. It was after this flood that British government was forced to reassess its responsibilities towards those living in areas vulnerable to future flooding and storm surges, and consequently embarked on a programme of constructing flood and sea defences across the country.

According to a recent paper by Tom Ball, Alan Werritty and Alistair Geddes in the journal Area, this paradigm of hard-engineered flood defences was dominant until 2004, when a number of factors such as the projected impacts of climate change, the unexpected impacts of certain engineering solutions and the prohibitive cost of sustaining flood defences around all vulnerable settlements led this approach to be de-emphasised. The approach moved towards bolstering the resilience of vulnerable communities, rather than offering comprehensive protection, creating a much greater role for the insurance industry in mediating flood risk and vulnerability, along other ‘softer’ management approaches.

This transitional arrangement between the Government, private insurers and home-owners shifted again with the 2007 summer floods in the UK which are thought to have cost insurers £1.7 billion. In the aftermath of the floods the Government intervened to encourage insurance providers to agree to a ‘Statement of Principles’, where they committed to adopting a cross subsidy between homes in low and high risk flooding areas, rather than simply refusing to ensure or charging astronomically high premiums for those most vulnerable to flood damage. The relevance of this fragile settlement to the most recent storm, is that this Statement of Principles expired in June of this year, creating the possibility for yet another transition in how the burden of risk and vulnerability management is shared between our three central actors.

Following last week’s floods, the Observer newspaper reported on the Government’s new flood insurance scheme, which is designed to cater for houses in high risk flooding areas which will no longer be covered by conventional private insurance schemes. As Ball et al point out in their paper, the UK is unusual in not having had provision for state-subsidised flooding insurance until now. However, as the Observer reported, this new government insurance scheme seems unlikely to produce any long-lasting settlement in the management of flood risks and vulnerabilities, as it proposes to cover only 500,000 homes; a much smaller figure than the number of homes projected to experience a high risk of flooding in the 2020s by the Government’s own climate change impacts assessment.

The history of approaches to flood risk and vulnerability over the last 60 years alerts to the ways in which the methods, rationalities and bureaucratic arrangements have shifted substaintially over time. However, it is also important to be attentive to how these moves have interacted with changing relationships between the state, insurance providers and ordinary citizens in the face of the threat of flooding, and the different degrees of responsibility and financial burden these sometimes subtle changes place on each actor.

books_icon Tom Ball, Alan Werritty & Alistair Geddes 2013  Insurance and sustainability in flood-risk management: the UK in a transitional state Area, 45(3): 266-272

60-world2 Half a million homes at risk are not covered by flood scheme Observer, 7 December

60-world2 UK flood defences praised for saving lives and property on east coast Guardian, 6 December

60-world2 Storms, floods and tidal surge devastate the UK’s east coast in pictures Guardian, 6 December

60-world2 Norfolk floods: seven Hemsby homes badly damaged by waves BBC News, 6 December

Adapting to coastal change: understanding different points of view in coastal erosion management

by Mark Tebboth

The devastating flooding in central Europe is a powerful example of the destruction that extreme weather can cause. Yet, finding agreement on the best way to protect citizens, infrastructure and nature from the sort of events witnessed in Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic is a difficult, sometimes impossible, balancing act. As an article published in February in The Guardian newspaper put it ‘Floods kill, wreak havoc and cost billions. And we know they’re coming. So why aren’t we doing anything about them?’ Happisburgh, a small village on the East Anglian coast, is typical of some of the issues highlighted in The Guardian article. The village has lost a number of homes and other structures in recent years (compare the pictures from 1996 and 2012) and is suffering from the consequences of coastal erosion. However, despite the urgency of the situation, it has not been possible to arrive at a solution that is acceptable to all involved.

Happisburgh in 1996, 2006 and 2012 during which time it has lost a number of sea front properties (copyright Mike Page)

Happisburgh in 1996, 2006 and 2012 during which time it has lost a number of sea front properties (copyright Mike Page)

The inability of stakeholders to agree a way forward can be explained, in part, by the different ways in which the issue of coastal erosion is framed. For example, the Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG), a local pressure group based in Happisburgh, highlights the problems caused by a lack of investment in sea defences. Conversely, the UK Government tends to emphasise the inevitability of coastal erosion, citing causes such as nature or climate change. By highlighting different causes as primarily responsible for coastal erosion these two stakeholders gravitate towards different solutions: increased and more appropriately targeted investment if a lack of investment is the problem and a different management approach if coastal erosion is inevitable. How is it that these two stakeholders, with access to similar information can have such different perspectives?

The different views held by institutions such as CCAG or the UK Government are, in part, determined by their implicit beliefs or how they think the world works. These beliefs help institutions to make sense of the world around them and can act as short cuts when to trying to understand complex issues. In the case of Happisburgh, this might explain why dredging is seen as a critical issue for one party (CCAG) but is barely on the radar of the other (UK Government).

In policy conflicts, revealing some of the more underlying beliefs that stakeholders rely on to support a particular point of view can helpfully inform governance and communication approaches leading to more realistic, acceptable and better designed solutions. For Happisburgh, this could mean a reframing of the issue of coastal erosion to focus on the more recent successes that have been realised through the Pathfinder Programme, rather than past failures. Such an approach offers potential to rebuild trust and understanding between the different stakeholders, increasing the chances of a more positive outcome.

The author: Mark Tebboth is a PhD student at the School of International Development affiliated with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

books_iconTebboth M 2013 Understanding intractable environmental policy conflicts: the case of the village that would not fall quietly into the sea The Geographical Journal doi: 10.1111/geoj.12040

60-world2Harvey F 2013 Floods: a disaster waiting to happen The Guardian 2 February

60-world2North Norfolk District Council 2012 Happisburgh North Norfolk Pathfinder

60-world2Weeks J 2013 Floods cause chaos across Europe – in pictures The Guardian 6 June

No change from climate change: island vulnerability

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

Eroding shoreline in Samoa, the Pacific (photograph: Ilan Kelman)

by Ilan Kelman

Climate change is often touted as humanity’s biggest development challenge. Low-lying, tropical islands are particularly highlighted as potentially experiencing future devastation. How accurate is this rhetoric?

No doubt exists that many islanders are suffering under climate change. Residents of the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea have been forced to move as sea-level rise encroaches on their villages.

Many other island locations are also experiencing climate change impacts, but in tandem with other development challenges which have existed for decades. Also in the Pacific, Kiribati is severely threatened by sea-level rise. But the people there have long been trying to solve other devastating problems including urban planning, land use, and water resources.

Focusing on climate change problems has the unfortunate consequence of distracting from other development challenges. In particular, the physical hazard of climate change to islands and islanders is often emphasised, tending to promote technocratic responses for only climate change. Integrated approaches focusing on island peoples, communities, and livelihoods are frequently sidelined.

The fundamental question is why inequality and power relations have left many island communities with few options for responding to climate change. That is the same as the long-standing questions about why inequality and power relations have left many island communities unable to tackle the root causes of their multiple vulnerabilities.

The difficulty is not so much addressing the hazard of climate change per se. Instead, it is understanding why islanders often continue to be denied the resources and options to address climate change themselves–just as with the other development challenges that have pervaded for decades.

In that regard, climate change brings little to the islands that is new.

The author: Dr. Ilan Kelman is Senior Research Fellow, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (CICERO).

books_icon Kelman I 2013 No change from climate change: vulnerability and small island developing states The Geographical Journal DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12019

60-world2Secretariat of the Pacific Community 2013 Mangroves in the Marshall Islands to protect local community (Press release) Scoop 24 January

What future for the IPCC?

By Helen Pallett

Stop_global_warming_sign_in_blizzard_-_February_10,_2010_blizzard

Image credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

Climate change has been squarely back on our TV screens and in our newspapers over the last two weeks, with the now familiar media circus surrounding the unveiling of the latest assessment report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report came with increased assurances of the probability of dire impacts caused by human-induced climate change, and moved many British papers from the Guardian to (perhaps more surprisingly) the Telegraph to proclaim the need for immediate global action both to mitigate and cope with these impacts.

Whilst this arguably felt like the most credulous and trusting reception an IPCC report has been met with, there have been rumbles from within the institution itself and from the scientific profession more widely hinting at increasing frustration with IPCC organising and working practices. Former lead author on the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports, Kevin Trenberth is one who has put his head above the parapet to ask whether it is time to change the IPCC’s reporting practices. He argues that the IPCC has largely fulfilled its original function of synthesising and deliberating over relevant scientific advice on climate change, and that society’s needs are now changing. Furthermore, the effort of writing IPCC reports is “huge, cumbersome and burdensome” he claims, both for the organisation as a whole and for the individual scientists who volunteer their time. He suggests that in light of this and in response to the climate impacts being felt by citizens all over the world, the IPCC should move to a system of more continuous and responsive reporting, rather than the spasmodic compiling of large tomes.

Former climate scientist and IPCC contributor Professor Mike Hulme has leveled perhaps a more radical critique at the IPCC in a recent podcast. Hulme argues that the overemphasis on the science of climate change is a distraction from the more difficult political challenges of promoting policies to mitigate the effects of climate change at multiple scales, and dealing with climate impacts on the ground. Hulme advocates instead an approach which he calls ‘climate pragmatism’ which puts emphasis on improving the ability of societies to deal with risks, the improvement of air quality at regional and national scales, and finally innovation and investment around renewable energy. Such efforts do not require the traditional targets and timetables attached to most international climate negotiations, and indeed do not rest on the need for all countries to agree on these measures. But most importantly for Hulme, this approach does not necessitate any emphatic agreement on the science of climate change or firm predictions of what impacts will be felt where and when.

Hulme has long been a constructive critic of the IPCC, writing a piece in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers on the topic in 2007. In this piece Hulme argues that climate change is both a physical transformation and a cultural object which will have other effects on society. Whilst the IPCC offers a detailed account of this physical transformation, its emphasis on the contributions of natural scientists means that it has done little to address the development of climate change as a cultural object. Furthermore, the account that the IPCC offers is universal and at a global scale, ignoring the different meanings which may be attached to climatic changes in different local and cultural contexts, and preferring the apparent objectivity of numbers and graphs over attempts to understand diverse lived experiences of weather and climate.  The diversity of situated meanings of climate change was further emphasised when the British secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Owen Paterson announced at a conservative party conference fringe event on Sunday evening that global warming could have some positive effects in the UK. The critiques of Paterson’s comments which followed generally focussed on his lack of appreciation and understanding of the science of climate change (for example see here), rather than his apparent lack of concern for humans living in areas outside of the UK who are facing the possibility of much more catastrophic impacts.

Hulme’s account undermines not only the workings and aims of the IPCC, but also its scope and content, suggesting that alternative modes of knowledge-making about climate might beget different behaviours and policies in future. The story of the ambitious project of the IPCC continues, but who knows what shape it will take in the years to come.

60-world2 Climate change: the uses of uncertainty The Guardian, 26 September

60-world2 We need to cool things down over climate change The Telegraph, 26 September

60-world2 Global warming can have a positive side, says Owen Paterson The Guardian, September 30

60-world2 Owen Paterson v the science of climate change The Guardian, September 30

60-world2 Kevin Trenberth, Time to change how the IPCC reports? The Conversation, September 28

60-world2 IPCC report distracts from resolving political challenges of climate change, says King’s expert  Kings College London, September 27

books_icon Mike Hulme, 2007 Geographical work at the boundaries of climate change Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33 5-11

The Rise of the South: Beyond Expectations or a Warning about Our Future?

Jen Dickie

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: A Texas Army National Guard Blackhawk black deposits a 6,000 pound-plus bag of sand and gravel on-target, Sunday, September 4, 2005as work progresses to close the breach in the 17th Street Canal, New Orleans. (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers photo by Alan Dooley).  This work is in the public domain.On the 14th March, the United Nations Development Programme published the 2013 Human Development Report, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, which describes how the “rise of the South is radically reshaping the world of the 21st century, with developing nations driving economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and propelling billions more into a new global middle class”.  Crediting sustained investment in education, health care and social programmes as well as increasing international engagement, the report states that the “world is witnessing an epochal global rebalancing”.  Whilst the UN’s press release focuses on the “massive poverty reduction” and that more than 40 developing countries have demonstrated growth beyond expectations, Claire Provost highlights some of the more negative findings from the report in her article for The Guardian.  Her article focuses on the warning from the UN that unless action is taken to tackle environmental threats such as climate change, deforestation and air and water pollution, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050.  The report highlights that climate change is already exacerbating “chronic” environmental threats, and stresses that although everyone is affected, “they hurt poor countries and poor communities the most”.

In an article for The Geographical Journal, Nigel Clark, Vasudha Chhotray and Roger Few discuss the relationship between natural hazards and disasters and how best to address the “uneven exposure and resilience of different social groups”.  They argue that human-induced climate change and its associated impacts have further added to the already complex nature of natural disasters.  Questioning the concept of global environmental justice, they discuss issues such as the tendency of powerful political and economic actors to take advantage of disasters and how traditional coping mechanisms have been eroded by ‘global modernising forces’; however, they state that whilst aid responses can be distributional and/or rights-based, the idea of justice is likely to stem from “ordinary human virtues of care and compassion”.  Following this argument, Clark et al., offer the notion that current generations of humans may be more likely care about the environment and the challenges it, and our future generations, face if we consider ourselves as owing an incalculable debt to past generations who survived a magnitude of natural disasters and therefore made our existence possible.

As growth in developing nations continues, the challenges facing them will change.  The UN highlights that sustainable economies and societies will rely on new policies and structural changes, and that these are needed if human development and climate change goals are to be aligned.  However, it is clear that policies alone will not be enough.  If we can show the same resilience and respect for our environment as our ancestors did, and view our actions as something we ‘owe’ our future generations, perhaps attitudes will change.

books_icon Nigel Clark, Vasudha Chhotray, Roger Few, 2013, Global justice and disasters, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12005

60-world2 Environmental threats could push billions into extreme poverty, warns UN, The Guardian, 14th March 2013

60-world2 Press release: “Rise of South” transforming global power balance, says 2013 Human Development Report, accessed 18th March 2013

60-world2 Human Development Report 2013, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, accessed 18th March 2013

Governing from Above: The Vertical Geopolitics of Climate Change

The laying of water pipes in Israel c. 1946. Hydrological politics are now a key site where climate change meets questions of sovereignty. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Mahony

Global geopolitics have conventionally been conceived of in terms of the horizontal actions and interactions of territorially-bounded nation states. However, critical geographers have recently started giving consideration to ‘vertical geopolitics’, drawing greater attention to the spatial exercise of power in a dimension which cannot conventionally be discerned from a flat political map of the world.

Vertical geopolitics have figured prominently in the news recently, particularly as new technologies of surveillance and violence have challenged conventional orderings of vertical territory (such as the notion of sovereign ‘airspace’). In particular, the military use of drones – or unmanned aircraft – for the purposes of intelligence-gathering  and assassination has quite radically altered the political geographies of modern warfare. Meanwhile, the WWF’s recent announcement that drones will be used to help protect wildlife from poachers marks an interesting development in the sky-bound surveillance of the global environment.

Climate change offers an fascinating window through which to observe the changing dimensions of political geography. In the first instance, the science and politics of the atmosphere may seem to challenge conventional territorial forms of governance. However, research is starting to emerge which demonstrates how certain political responses to climate change represent reterritorialising moves in the ongoing negotiations over sovereignty, environment and natural resources.

A paper I wrote recently with Mike Hulme seeks to explore the knowledge-base underlying many such moves. Regional climate prediction has become a key means of localising or even territorialising climate change, thus producing new forms of political space in which the implications of climate change can be debated. A recent paper by Michael Mason in The Geographical Journal takes this proposition further. In analysing the ‘securitisation’ of climate change in the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, he offers a fascinating picture of the interaction of climate politics with the (vertical) geopolitics of contested sovereign spaces.

Mason argues that the specific way in which climate change has been rendered as a security problem by the Israeli government tends to reinforce vertical relations of domination over Palestinian skies and groundwater resources. By contrast, in the case of the Palestinian Authority, the threats posed by climate change have both been woven into liberation narratives and used as an opportunity to demonstrate policy competence and fitness for statehood.

Mason’s paper makes an important contribution to a growing body of literature which emphasises the multitude of ways in which climate change is securitised, normalised and politicised in different contexts and settings. The vertical geopolitics of climate change represent an important facet of this line of inquiry, and one which is only just beginning to be explored.

books_icon Michael Mason, 2013, Climate Change, Securitisation and the Israel-Palestine ConflictThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12007

books_icon

Martin Mahony & Mike Hulme, 2012, Model Migrations: Mobility and Boundary Crossings in Regional Climate Prediction. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37, 2, 197-211

globe42 WWF plans to use drones to protect wildlifeThe Guardian

globe42

John Brennan’s killer drones are new symbol of American in the worldLos Angeles Times

The Low Carbon Dichotomy: Efficiency Versus Demand Reduction

by Briony Turner

800px-London_-_The_Gherkin_&_Canary_Wharf

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

One could say that effective low carbon solutions will be those that respond to the requirements of energy infrastructures and to the ways in which people actually integrate the social and technical aspects of energy systems to achieve comfort, cleanliness, and other ordinary ways of life.  This requires developing a better understanding not only of householders’ daily practices within their homes and how adaptable these practices are but also the practical application of this understanding into standard industry working practices.

An international climate change audit found that the UK lags behind others in Europe on programmes to move consumer choice to more energy-efficient appliances, recommending that the government “undertake evaluations of effectiveness based on real practice in homes so that programmes can be responsive and kept on track”.   We increasingly have the research findings to enable this.  Take for instance Harriet Bulkely and Sara Fuller’s article in Area which explores how British people who have recently migrated to Spain actually adapt to new regimes of heat. Intriguingly, one of their findings is that adapting to the heat may potentially result in “increasing vulnerability to the cold, demonstrating how responses to stresses on thermal comfort are culturally and materially conditioned”.

So, bearing in mind the challenges posed by cultural and material norms, people’s expectations of comfort and the potential for adaptability, all-be-it with repercussions, there is an additional challenge in the form of a divergence in industry strategies within the UK, at the heart of which is the interlinking black box of domestic practices. The built environment industry is focused on low carbon in the form of reducing emissions of buildings through improving their energy performance, reducing their overall energy usage, i.e. focusing on how much electricity the buildings (including the human activity within them) use.   Yet, the energy supply industry sees the issue, within a future grid system based on inflexible nuclear generation and intermittent renewable generation, as one of balancing supply and demand.  This requires demand management which is not just focused on how much electricity people use, but, is actually more concerned with when they use it –for more on this, see Sarah Higginson and colleague’s 2011 conference paper.

Both industries diverge on the strategy for tackling people.  Whilst both confine people to the term “end user”,  the supply industry regards the end user as an object necessitating “demand management” whereas, the built environment industry sees the building (which contains the end user) necessitating “demand reduction”. The householder has in many ways been divorced from the home, with the focus of behaviour change activity resting predominantly on utility supply and demand chains.

Both industries concede some acknowledgement of the impact of individual behaviour on energy demand with most interventions in both industries aimed at encouraging activities based on small lifestyle adaptations that enable continuation and/or enhancement of existing standards and conventions. Yet the dichotomy of managing energy demand to uphold/lock in/enhance existing ways of life when everyday practices are constantly changing is widely criticised –for those interested in this have a look at Yolande Strengers’ paper on ‘Peak electricity demand and social practice theories’.

To achieve the ambitious energy consumption and carbon emissions reductions set out in statute, low energy/low carbon design and retrofitting needs to shift from focusing on building energy performance, to domestic energy performance, with the building fabric, services and interior design being better understood as contributory factors to locking in, but also with the potential to change domestic energy practice. This perspective leads beyond the supply and demand rhetoric to analyse how energy systems lock in or challenge existing unsustainable needs and what opportunities there are across the material infrastructures to change domestic practice.

books_iconSara Fuller and Harriet Bulkeley, 2012, Changing countries, changing climates: achieving thermal comfort through adaptation in everyday activities, Area, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01105.x

GJ book reviewSarah Higginson, Ian Richardson and Murray Thomson, 2011, Energy use in the context of behaviour and practice: the interdisciplinary challenge in modelling flexible electricity demand presented at Energy and People: Futures, Complexity and Challenges Oxford University 20-21 September 2011

GJ book reviewINTOSAI, 2010,  Report by the INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing:  The Climate is Changing – Key Implications for Governments and their Auditors

GJ book reviewYolande Strengers, 2012, Peak electricity demand and social practice theories: Reframing the role of change agents in the energy sector, Energy Policy 44 226-234

Communicating Science: Applying Local Lessons on a Global Scale?

By Daniel Schillereff

L'aquila earthquake damage - Kremlin.ru [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What do Hurricane Sandy, the earthquake in Aquila, Italy in 2011, the earthquake of British Columbia last week and climate science have in common? They have all prompted intense debate centred on the effectiveness of scientists at communicating science. A piece in The Guardian is one recent example. In particular, how can uncertainty in model projections or predictions be succinctly but accurately explained in a manner accessible to all who may be impacted by the event?

Recent commentary in the Financial Times on the Aquila earthquake criminal charges highlights the three-way relationship which exists between those who produce knowledge, those who disseminate that knowledge to others and those who desire that knowledge to be outlined to them in a non-complex, straightforward manner. In the broadest sense, these end-users are normally assumed to be the scientists, the media and the public, respectively. However, the on-going difficulties communicating climate science and the other examples mentioned in this post suggest this relationship is failing to function in an ideal manner. Of graver concern is the possibility that scientists will be unwilling to discuss or disclose their findings in the future due to risk of persecution; is a new approach required?

Although its scope is much narrower, the novel approach outlined by Lane et al., 2011 in their Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper, ‘Doing Flood Risk Science Differently…’ could act as a model for improved communication of science and subsequent mitigation strategies being implemented in the future on a wider scale. Their case study of flood risk around Pickering, Yorkshire, highlighted the deep understanding of local residents of the hydrological and geomorphological triggers of flood events and Lane et al. emphasise their knowledge directly contributed to a more holistic and effective model of the local flood regime. They suggest local people for whom flooding is a serious hazard should be encouraged and supported to produce knowledge as opposed to being simply involved in a focus group discussing knowledge previously generated by scientists. Provided each user group is willing to invest the necessary effort, this approach appears both sensible and practical specifically due to continued user involvement in each step of the scientific process.

 S N Lane, N Odoni, C Landstrom, S J Whatmore, N Ward, S Bradley, 2011, Doing flood risk science differently: an experiment in radical scientific methodTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 15-36.

  Poor information obscures emergency warningsThe Guardian, 01 November 2012

Jailing the seismic seven will cause tremors beyond ItalyFinancial Times, 24 October 2012

An Antagonistic Climate

By Martin Mahony

Image by Eric Vance, EPA Chief Photographer (Environmental Protection Agency)According to a recent PBS documentary entitled Climate of Doubt, a sustained attack on the science of climate change from a range of predominantly conservative, free-market think-tanks and research institutions has pushed the climate issue off the political agenda in the US. For Republicans, any adherence to the consensus position offered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would seem to be political suicide in front of a sceptical conservative public. For Democrats, climate change can seemingly only be discussed in terms of the economic opportunities offered by investment in alternative energy sources.

The PBS documentary could be criticised for simplifying the issue of scepticism and its role in science and politics, and all sides of the debate – including PBS – still cling on to the idea that science provides the one and only path to politically actionable policies to address questions of environmental change and societal vulnerabilities.

The antagonistic battle over the reality of climate change continued this week with news that prominent climate scientist Michael E. Mann of Penn State University is taking a prominent US conservative publication to court over claims of defamation. In a blog post on the Competitive Enterprise Institute website, Mann was compared to recently convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, although the target of Mann’s molestation was claimed to be climate data and statistical methodologies.

While this is an extreme case, it is an example of the kind of ad hominen argumentation that so often characterises climate change debates. In an innovative new paper in The Geographical Journal, Nelya Koteyko and colleagues explore  the discourse and rhetoric employed by contributors to online newspaper comment threads. The paper shows how “stereotypes” of science and politics are used to distance climate scientists from commonly-held ideals of scientific practice (such as disinterestedness or organized scepticism), and how the ‘Climategate’ incidents of late 2009 bolstered the arguments of sceptical readers against the reality of climate change.

Like the Michael E. Mann incident and the PBS documentary, the paper highlights the deep entangling of climate scepticism and conservative economic ideologies, as sceptical statements often combine scientific issues with arguments against higher taxation and greater government involvement in the regulation of industry. Although it is important for scientists to be able to defend themselves against personal attacks and harassment, these episodes should tell us that the apparent political gridlock over climate change will not be solved simply by more science, or by convincing all sceptics of the reliability of the headline claims made by the IPCC. In a climate of ideological antagonism, it will take a titanic effort of political argumentation and innovation to move the policy discussion forwards. Science cannot do the job of politics.

 Penn State scientist Michael Mann alleges defamation, seeks damagesYale Forum on Climate Change and the Media

 Nelya Koteyko, Rusi Jaspal & Brigitte Nerlich, 2012, Climate change and “climategate” in online reader comments: a mixed methods studyThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00479.x

Food, Glorious Food… What Next is the Question?

By Jen Dickie

Corn in drought, Western Kentucky, August, 2012 by CraneStation via Flickr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en_GB)

This week, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation are hosting the ‘Committee on World Food Security’ in Rome. This follows an announcement last Wednesday from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) stating that the UK suffered its worst wheat harvest since the 1980s, blaming the combined forces of a spring drought followed by the wettest summer in 100 years (Met Office). Describing this year’s weather as “a rollcoaster for British farmers that most now just want to forget”, Fiona Harvey and Rebecca Smithers from The Guardian describe both the difficulties farmers face after a disastrous growing season, and in a related article, how this has impacted on British consumers by not only increasing our shopping bills but by changing our shopping habits. In response to a 32% rise in food prices in the UK since 2007, they report how ethical provenance has dropped down the consumer’s list of considerations when food shopping; instead, affordability is now the key priority.

It is not only the UK that is suffering; in The Observer this weekend, John Vidal highlighted the rising concerns over food security and the potential onset of a global food crisis due to failing harvests across the world. Quoting experts such as Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Research Centre in Washington, and Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist with the UN Food and agriculture Organisation, Vidal stresses the complex interplay among concurrent global issues such as climate change, increasing consumption and decreasing production of food, population growth, water shortages and rising food prices.

In a recent article for The Geographical Journal, Tim Lang and David Barling acknowledge the complex nature of the concept of food security, arguing that even the term ‘food security’ is interpreted and used in different ways. They argue that “Much of the food security discourse still is about governments, farmers and the hungry” whereas more coherent policy frameworks are needed that address the development and understanding of a food system that “is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable”.

Whilst policymakers meet this week to discuss how to keep global food prices in check, earlier this month the UN reported that one in eight people in the world are starving or under-nourished. A global food crisis has not yet been declared, however, Lester Brown warns us that “As food prices climb, the worldwide competition for control of land and water resources is intensifying… Food is the new oil, land is the new gold”. This is food for thought!

Tim Lang and David Barling, 2012, Food security and food sustainability: reformulating the debate, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00480.x

Weather-beaten UK farmers lament a dismal year for food production, The Guardian, 12 October 2012

 Food prices: ‘Bread, coffee and fresh fruit have become a bit of a luxury’, The Guardian, 12 October 2012

A mixed harvest, but wheat well down, The NFU website, 10th October 2012

 UN warns of looming worldwide food crisis in 2013, The Observer, 13th October 2012

Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity, Earth Policy Institute Press Release