Author Archives: lisamol

Overcoming Inertia – Part II

By Lisa Mol

After reading the article by I-Hsien Porter (Geography Directions 04/02/2011) I found myself nodding in agreement. There is a very good argument made that we simply are not doing enough to combat climate change, despite the plethora of warnings, reports and witness statements that our environment is changing, often not for the better. With this fresh in my mind, an article in The Guardian by Guy Shrubsole and Alex Randall caught my eye. They show that not only is the press release that ‘the UK’s carbon emissions have dropped’ false, worse is that when consumption of imported goods and services are factored in they have in fact risen. The government knows this, but is avoiding taking action at all costs, instead pulling the wool over our eyes with reassuring and rather selective statistics.  This brings another interesting dimension to the debate, as not only do we face inertia from politics, we also face outright deceiving and obscuring of the facts.

But the problem does not necessarily exclusively lie with the Government. As Shrubsole and Randall show, between a quarter and a third of China’s emissions are now the ultimate responsibility of western countries.  Our hunger for cheap consumer products drives a market that puts environmental issues on the back burner in favour of maximum profits. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as guilty as anyone. Last weekend, I went to one of those mass-produced very cheap clothing stores to buy some tops for summer. Did I check the label to see if the product was not made by child labourers? Or if the base materials are sustainably sourced? No. I checked the price tag. It was only after I got home, looked at my new purchases and re-evaluated that the guilt kicked in. As an environmentally aware Geographer, who writes about Climate Change regularly on this blog surely I should know better? Thankfully Gibson et al (2011) made me feel a bit better by pointing out that I’m no worse than the average household. Apparently promoting public awareness of global risks is inadequate to change behaviour of households, because climate change may be unthinkable within the confines of everyday life. Phew, that’s me excused then. Also, if you’re poor you don’t fuel the economy and therefore don’t fuel polluting industries, but are also less likely to make environmentally responsible choices in everyday life. If you’re rich, you are driving these industries, travelling a lot but also more likely to make more sustainable choices when it comes to buying products and services. I’m a grad student who needs to travel a lot. So that makes me the worst of both worlds I guess.  What to do? If the Government is in denial and society too complex for a ‘one climate change solution fits all’ approach then where do we start? Well, not shopping at cheap clothing shops seems like a sensible idea. Putting off owning a car for as long as possible also works. Buying meat from the local market rather than supermarket giants is a further step. And mostly, taking every statement of the Government regarding Climate Change with a critical eye and a bag of salt.

I-Hsien Porter”Overcoming inertia not to act on climate change” Geography Directions 04/02/2011

Guy Shrubsole and Alex Randall “The UK must own up to the full scale of its emission problem” The Guardian 09/02/2011

Chris Gibson, Lesley Head, Nick Gill and Gordon Waitt (2011) “Climate change and household dynamics: beyond consumption, unbounding sustainability”. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 (1) 3-8

Flooding the system: equilibrium lost?

by Lisa Mol

Most people who read a newspaper or watch television are by now aware of the terrible floods that are currently sweeping through Eastern Australia. With the rising popularity of gap years and growing expat communities ‘Down Under’ there will be more than a few worried families, looking for information on friends and family.

How did this become such a catastrophy? There are large numbers of papers out there, proposing models, theories and experiments to help us understand how floods happen and how we can predict them. To some extent it could be said that we are flooding the reader’s mind with a plethora of possibilities and explanations. This is not at all to say that this research is meaningless or outright wrong; the vast majority of these papers hold firm academic ground and are based on solid research. But why are we now looking at footage of people surrounded by flood water, stranded on roofs while cars and trees float by?

The Guardian (12/01/11) reports that these floods are caused by an exceptionally strong La Niña event, which is wreaking havoc on the eastern Australian climatic system. This in itself is not a surprising phenomenon; the exceptional strength of it however is surprising. The real elephant in the room is therefore; could we have prevented, or at least reduced, the loss of human life and property or was there absolutely nothing that could have reduced the impact? And is there anything that can be done to reduce the impact in Brisbane, where the water appears to be heading?

There are a number of research papers available which discuss the impact of flooding on communities. Lopez-Marrero (2010) argues for example that a community at flood risk can become too complacent knowing that they are well-protected by resources and knowledge but that equally knowledge and resources are the single most important factors in reducing flood damage such as loss of human life. Gurnell et al (2007) show that in urban environments, which Brisbane is a good example of, constant changing and engineering of the river course often leads to a loss of vegetation, which could be a loss of a first barrier especially in the case of flash floods. Many of us will remember the Boxing Day tsunami and its impact on the areas where mangroves were removed versus the area where mangroves still formed a protective barrier. Maybe we should look at this situation with a similar view, looking to the natural course of the river to protect us and deal with extreme events.

However, on the other end of the spectrum there is often a good reason for influence of man on the river course. Meanders, for example, are a natural part of any river system but are often chaotic and dynamic in their development (Hooke, 2003), something that often doesn’t go well with urban development. Especially in a time when flood risk due to climate change and increasing population pressure is becoming a reality rather than a possibility for many communities it will become increasingly important to predict and map these events before the death toll rises. Australia seems to have become one of the predominant victims of changes in the climate system, enduring recurring droughts, wildfires and now extreme flooding. If there ever was an equilibrium, which is debatable in the first place according to Bracken and Wainright (2006), it seems to be well and truly disturbed.

The Guardian “Australia floods: La Nina to blame” 12/01/2011

Lopez-Marrero, T (2010) “An integrative approach to study and promote natural hazards adaptive capacity: a case study of two flood-prone communities in Puerto Rico” The Geographical Journal 176 (2) 150 – 163

Gurnell, A., Lee, M., Souch, C. (2007) “Urban Rivers: Hydrology, Geomorphology, Ecology and Opportunities for Change” Geography Compass 1 (5) 1118 – 1137

Hooke, J. (2003) “River meander behaviour and instability: a framework for analysis” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28 (2) 238 – 253

Bracken, L., Wainwright, J. (2006) “Geomorphological equilibrium: myth and metaphor?” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31 (2) 167 – 178

Mapping things

by Lisa Mol

This week has seen a flurry of map-related advances. The BBC reported today that Facebook intern Paul Butler has managed to map a substantial part of social connections through the locations of Facebook users. The map shows a very interesting correlation between population density, internet access and the absence or presence of political internet censure. Unsurprisingly, Europe and North America are intense users of Facebook and there is a substantial amount social traffic between these two continents. However, the other striking correlation is between Spain and the Spanish speaking countries of South America. To what extent could migration patterns be responsible for this type of pattern? Unfortunately the map is a little too lacking in detail to find this out, but it would be a rather interesting study.

In addition, the New York Times published a new interactive map which tells you the distribution of ethnic and racial groups of every block in every city in the USA. There is still a clear ethnic divide in many cities between the neighbourhoods, some of which live up to the name of the neighbourhood. China town in Boston for example, is entirely labelled ‘Asian’. However, it does also show that there is still a clear segregation within New York City, for example, especially in Manhattan where the segregation is astonishing.

On the other side of the spectrum, geophysicists at the University of New South Wales have made good progress with mapping the transport of air packets around the poles, arguably the most vulnerable areas for ozone depletion and pollution accumulation.

Even though all these mapping stories may seem entirely unrelated, they all tell us aspects of one fundamental thing: how are we connected to the dynamic space around us? How can maps help us understand our behaviour and the consequences for our environment? Studies like these show us that we should not just focus on a snapshot but that capturing the dynamic interaction and changes is far more important. Geography as a discipline is continually looking for novel ways to interpret the way humans influence their environment. Progress in map making and specifically dynamic maps like the case studies shown above are important markers in our continuous quest for this understanding. We have come a long way since the oldest, rather beautiful, map found in a cave in Abauntz and at this rate the limit is well beyond the sky!

BBC News ” Facebook connections map the world” 14/12/2010

New York Times “Mapping America: Every city, every block

ScienceDaily “Using chaos to model geophysical phenomena” 8/12/2010

The Telegraph “World’s oldest map: Spanish cave has landscape from 14,000 years ago” 6/8/2009

Christmas trees; historical, cultural and political geography all rolled into one

by Lisa Mol

Advent is here! The tree is up, presents are wrapped (well, almost, let’s say it’s work in progress) and the cheery Christmas music is all-round. Not to mention the excitement of opening the first little door on the advent calendar this morning!

Many of these traditions are the result of migration and cultural interaction. Take the Christmas tree for example. It is a generally accepted ‘fact’ that Queen Victoria introduced the Christmas tree here after seeing them in Germany during a visit to the future in-laws. However, historically Christmas trees can be traced back to Livonia (present day Estonia and Latvia) where in the 15th and 16th century the rather ominous sounding ‘Brotherhood of the Blackbeard’ erected a tree Christmas season and took it over to the Town Hall on Christmas Eve where they danced around it and set it on fire. We evidently kept the tree part although the setting on fire is mostly accidental nowadays.

By the early 18th century the custom had spread through large areas of northern Germany, but would never quite have made it to southern Germany as it was deemed to Protestant for a Catholic area. Calvin particularly took a liking to it as he saw it as a rather fine replacement for the nativity scene. So if it hadn’t been for the Prussian officials who were moved to southern Germany in the wake of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the custom would have been confined to the northern areas. The Congress of Vienna took place in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and saw large scale reconfiguration of geographical borders in Europe. In the meantime, colonial expansion meant that a multitude of European armies were fighting along the American/Canadian border. The Brunswick soldiers who were stationed at Sorel celebrated Christmas Eve by erecting, yes you guessed it, a Christmas tree, thus introducing the custom in North America. It then was quickly spread through a multitude of states by the German settlers over the next century or so. And good thing that they did because if the Puritan settlers had their way Christmas would have continued to be banned, as it had been by Cromwell, and we would not have the questionable enjoyment of watching Hollywood Christmas versions such as ‘Home Alone’ and ‘The Santa Claus’.

On the other side of the world, the 1890s Gold Rush and the subsequent post WWI and WWII migration streams to Australia did not only significantly expand the European population there, it also introduced the Christmas tree in this far corner of the southern hemisphere.

Queen Victoria should be duly credited here as well, if it hadn’t been for her zealous quest to become genetically related to most of the royal houses of Europe, the Christmas tree may have been severely delayed in its migration towards southern Europe. As it seems the spread of the Christmas tree is largely the result of migration related to European colonialism and our inability to stick to geographical borders for more than a century or so.

Looking at a more contemporary time scale, geography is still very much a part of people’s perception of Christmas. After all, we want to be ‘home’ for Christmas, and large groups of people travel significant distances to be in a certain geographical location at this particular time. So is Christmas as we know it a historical, political and cultural geography phenomenon? I do believe so. Can’t wait for tomorrow morning, when I can open door number 2 of my advent calendar and look at the pretty lights of my Latvian/Protestant/German/Prussian/English Christmas tree.

McGreevy, P (1990) Place in the American Christmas. Geographical Review 80 (1) 32 – 42

Wokeck, M.S. (1999) Trade in strangers: Beginnings of mass migration to North America. Pennsylvania State University Press

The Geography of Happiness

by Lisa Mol

On the 25th of November, the government will ask the independent national statistician Jil Matheson to devise questions  which will help to determine the general state of ‘happiness’ in the UK. In this climate of recession and general pessimism this may seem like an odd thing to do, but on the other hand maybe we should find what makes us happy and focus on that instead.

This idea of ‘national happiness’ is by no means a new one. Bhutan is widely known for its use of happiness as a well-being factor and employs a ‘national happiness committee’ who gauge GNH (Gross National Happiness) to make sure the citizens of this Himalaya state are as happy as they can possibly be.  And it looks like they did the right thing. While household incomes in Bhutan remain among the world’s lowest, life expectancy increased by 19 years from 1984 to 1998, jumping to 66 years. While this is still lower than the life expectancy in most of the world, the fact is that the life span of an average Bhutanese citizen has increased by 30%. Quite an accomplishment.

So what sort of things should we be looking at if we want to gauge happiness? The usual topics spring to mind such as friendships, relationships, family life, financial security. John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher, defined happiness as ‘a balance of individual and community interests’.  Bereton et al (2008) conducted some really interesting research on the influence of environment on a person’s happiness. They found that a multitude of geographical factors, such as proximity to coasts (good) and landfills (bad) influence a person’s happiness. Major transport links could either be good or bad as “the impact of proximity to major transport routes has different effects depending on the type of, and distance to, the amenity in question, e.g., while reasonable proximity to international airports increases well-being, close proximity to major roads decreases it”. They concluded that geography and the environment are as important as the most critical socio-economic and socio-demographic factors, such as unemployment and marital status.

In this light, it appears that the environment is a sound investment as a pleasant and clean environment with access to greenery and fresh air contributes as much to the happiness of the population as factors previously thought more important. So to boost both happiness and the economy maybe we should get  companies to invest in the environment and ‘green our capitalism’. Sayer’s 2009 study into the economics of sustainable economies is rather pessimistic , stating that the environment simply cannot afford a growing economy and the huge carbon footprint we currently produce as we see monetary growth as a measure of our success. But what if we follow the example of Bhutan and concentrate on happiness rather than economic growth? If we see increased environmental health as an addition to our happiness then surely that can be seen as a profit too? So yes, bring on the happiness survey, and let’s reassess where investments can give us huge happiness profits.

Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood. The Guardian 14/11/2010

A new measure of well-being from a happy little Kingdom. The New York Times 04/10/2005

Brereton, F., Clinch, J. P., Ferreira, S. (2008) Happiness, geography and the environment. Ecological Economics 65: 386 – 396

Sayer, A. (2009) Geography and global warming: can capitalism be greened? Area 41 (3) 350 – 353

Climate change, politics and corporations; a case of cross-contamination

by Lisa Mol

So once again I am on the climate change high horse, but this time spurred on by a rather interesting news article so please indulge me while I put together the latest developments for you. The Guardian brought up debate  which has up to recently not received much attention: “Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity?” Since ‘Climate-gate’ earlier this year, the validity of climate data has been hotly contested. More recently, the Tea Party in the USA is gathering followers, which is concerning considering their ranks contain some of the most fierce anti-climate lobbyists. It is no coincidence that they take this stance, as the Deutsche Welle and the Guardian report that they are heavily supported by companies dependent on continuing burning of fossil fuels such as oil company BP, chemical manufacturers Bayer & BASF and steelmaker ArcelorMittal and energy provider GDF/Suez.  They have given a total of $306,100 to Senate candidates, 78% of which are known climate change deniers or senators who voted against the Obama administration’s cap-and-trade legislation. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that all these companies profess to prioritize climate change countering measures (the most famous example being BP’s ‘strenuous’ measures to cap the Gulf of Mexico oil spill) yet deliberately aim to shift power to those who are most fiercely and publicly in denial. To some extent it can be claimed that they are taking advantage of the current public confusion regarding the impact of climate change. BBC reporter and psychotherapist Mark Brayne explains: “Climate change contradicts the way we grasp and tackle problems. As a problem it overwhelms us.” George Marshall confirms this statement in the same report, saying that ‘the sticking point is the time-frame: political systems might be able to address an immediate and pressing concern such as the financial crisis, but are unable to implement global action when faced with a problem on the scale of climate change’.  A BBC survey carried out in February showed that only 26% of the British public believes that climate change is happening and “now established largely as man-made”.  According to the New York Times this view is further strengthened by the lavish funding of anti-climate change studies, paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

In my previous article I referred to the misunderstanding of climate change and its position within the public sphere. The recent rise of the Tea Party in the USA only confirms this worrying trend and shows that not only there is a severe lack of understanding among the public but this attitude is also heavily infiltrating politics, the collection of people who have the power to implement measures even when the public may not understand the reasons or the consequences. Which brings us back to the original question “is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity?”.  Here are companies and politicians who are taking advantage of the current confusion, the uncertainties and scepticism which has arisen. Not only is this an issue in the USA, these politics are heavily funded by European companies in a case of what can only be called cross-contamination. As Bulkeley (2001) reports: “The challenges of governing climate change have been apparent as nation-states struggle to come to international agreement and take domestic action. These struggles have been particularly evident in contexts where environmental and economic interests are seen to be in conflict, such as the USA and Australia, as the recent (2001) withdrawal of support by the Bush administration for the Kyoto Protocol illustrates all too clearly.”

We are now arguably making progress in our understanding of climate change, but the opposition is fierce and unfortunately we still face the issue that “some doubts and uncertainties are ‘real’ in the sense that they are related to measurement issues “. This statement was made nearly ten years ago (O’Hare 200o) but still holds true. Every time a doubt, miscalculation or exaggeration comes to the surface, there is a strong lobby with a fishing net preying on the bank to catch these prized nuggets and exploit them to their advantage. Are they committing a crime against humanity by putting their economic interests first? How about we ask the people in Pakistan who are currently fighting to reclaim their livelihoods back from the floods. Or the Tibetans who have seen their pastures deplete over the past 10 years. Or how about the Australian farmers who are facing year after year of ever increasing droughts? Or perhaps we should just wait until our own livelihoods are affected and continue on as normal. If so, then Vote Tea Party!!

The Guardian Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity?‘ 01/11/2010

Deutsche Welle European companies back climate skeptics in US Senate race, report says 26/10/2010

The Guardian Tea Party climate change deniers funded by BP and other major polluters’ 24/10/2010

Deutsche Welle ‘Psychology of fighting climate change often ignored, experts say 17/08/2010

Bulkeley, H (2001) Governing climate change: the politics of risk society? Transactions of the institute of British Geographers 26 (4) 430 – 447

O’Hare, G. (2000) Reviewing the uncertainties in climate change science Area 32 (4) 357 – 368


Climate change: do we have a clue?

by Lisa Mol

ScienceDaily reported a few days ago that Americans are apparently rather clueless when it comes to climate change. Only 57 percent know what the greenhouse effect is, only 45 percent of Americans understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface, and just 50 percent understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.This lack of understanding can be a real hurdle when it comes to implementing climate change policies and getting people to change their habits in order to cut back on emissions. Moser (2010) also comments on this problem, showing the complexities of public awareness, listing a variety of factors why people are not aware enough (“invisibility of causes, distant impacts, lack of immediacy and direct experience of the impacts, lack of gratification for taking mitigative actions, disbelief in human’s global influence, complexity and uncertainty, inadequate signals indicating the need for change, perceptual limits and self-interest”)

But maybe there is a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve having everyone read the latest IPCC reports in great detail. Canada’s The Globe and Mail, reported an interesting new project, called ‘Old Weather‘, which is a collaboration between, amongst others, the Citizens Science Alliance and Oxford University. The team is currently looking for volunteers to help them transcribe hundreds of records of weather observations from WWI navy vessels logs. They hope that with this new information they can map early 20th century weather patterns. Philip Brohan explains: “We’re simply attempting to gather more information about historical weather variability, to improve our understanding of all forms of weather variability in the past and so improve our ability to predict weather and climate in the future.”

So how about some community involvement to increase our understanding of climate change? Projects such as these provide a new scope for getting the public involved and increasing our understanding of climate change. I’ll leave you to think about that while I take a break to do some transcribing.

Geographical work at the boundaries of climate change Mike Hulme, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Volume 33, Issue 1, pages 5–11, January 2008

Yale University (2010, October 14). Large gaps found in public understanding of climate change. ScienceDaily.

Moser, S. C. (2010), Communicating climate change: history, challenges, process and future directions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1: 31–53. doi: 10.1002/wcc.11

Globe and Mail (12 Oct 2010), Climate researchers to study WW1 warship voyages

Old Weather project website