Author Archives: mwfmahony

‘As long as I keep moving, the air is a little cooler’: studying weather experiences and practices

Martin Mahony

This week, parts of the UK have been basking in temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius  ‘At long last!’ many have exclaimed after a springtime marked so far by frigid easterly winds bearing cold air and snow from the still frozen interior of the Eurasian landmass. Trees have been late to blossom, crop growth has been stunted, and newborn lambs have perished under snowdrifts. Many were starting to wonder whether we would ever seen spring at all.

With climate change expected to alter weather patterns in many parts of the globe, a growing band of researchers across geography and the social sciences have started to explore how individuals experience and relate to the weather in their everyday lives. These researchers are interested in how people deal with extremes of heat and cold, or wet and dry, and in how even the most banal changes in the weather impact on our everyday lives. For example, Russell Hitchings has investigated the ways in which office workers deal with the seasonality of the weather, with interesting conclusions for thinking about how we interact with the elements when many of us spend most of out time indoors, in climates regulated by air conditioning and central heating.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Studying these practices is challenging. While many of us remember extreme weather events like heat waves and blizzards for some time, we might struggle to remember how we dealt with the intricacies of the weather on a typical British Spring day, where sunshine and showers alternate in step with the opening of umbrellas and the packing away of raincoats. Some of these methodological challenges are dealt with by Eliza de Vet in a new paper in Area, where she compares the use of interviews, diaries and participants’ photographs in research on weather experiences and practices.

Drawing on a research project looking at weather practices in Darwin and Melbourne, Australia, de Vet argues that interviews may be the most effective way for researchers to reconstruct the everyday practices of, for example, keeping cool and comfortable in the tropical heat. Interview techniques can be usefully supplemented by asking respondents to keep diaries and to take photographs which capture their own ways of dealing with the weather. However, de Vet points towards the importance of considering “participant fatigue” in such projects, as asking too much of respondents – especially about usually banal things like the weather – can lead to disengagement. Projects investigating people’s experiences and practices of weather therefore need careful management, but they can yield fascinating insights into behaviours which many of us take for granted, but which might become hugely significant under a changing climate.

globe42 Spring: where has it gone? The Guardian, March 30

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Russell Hitchings, 2010, Seasonal climate change and the indoor city workerTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35, 2, 282-298

books_icon Eliza de Vet, 2013, Exploring weather-related experiences and practices: examining methodological approachesArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12019

 

Seeing glacial change: optical consistency through the camera and the archive

Martin Mahony

The Gangotri glacier in India, source of the Ganges river. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of last year I visited an exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Museum entitled ‘Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya’. The exhibition presented the work of mountaineer, photographer and filmmaker David Breashears, who had recently trekked through the Himalaya to produce updated photographs of glaciers which had been caught on film by earlier explorers. The exhibition blended the scientific iconography of climate change with that of the intrepid explorer, with the ice picks and ropes of the geographic expedition juxtaposed against the graphs and satellite imagery of climate science (see here).

My interest in glaciers grew from some empirical work I’ve been conducting on the contestation between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Indian government over the possible rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers. In the IPCC’s 2007 report, it was asserted that the glaciers could entirely disappear by 2035. This claim was refuted by a government-sponsored review conducted by an Indian glaciologist, which reported a mixed pattern of advancing and receding glaciers and challenged “the conventional wisdom” of climate change causing rapid melting, as the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh put it. The 2035 claim was later revealed to be ill-founded, having been picked-up from a magazine interview with a glaciologist in the 1990s and eventually finding its way into the IPCC report.

Melting ice has become a visual icon of climate change. Images of polar bears stranded on diminished ice floes and juxtaposed ‘then-and-now’ photographs of shrinking glaciers often dominate media coverage of the issue. There is something very tangible about disappearing ice, perhaps because its relationship to warming temperatures is much more direct and imaginable than the more complex causal links between global warming and the occurrence of extreme weather events. The vulnerability of ice to human-generated heat neatly captures the sense that human activities are impinging on and endangering a fragile natural world.

Scientific knowledge of melting ice is, however, deeply complex. As shown by the IPCC incident, it also sometimes the topic of heated scientific and political debate. In a recent paper in The Geographical Journal, Ulrich Kamp and colleagues provide a window onto the complex methods of detecting change in mountains glaciers, while also offering a fascinating account of how different sorts of data can be combined to produce new scientific understandings. The authors visited the RGS archives in London to access data and photographs from a 1910 RGS expedition to the Turgen Mountains in Mongolia led by Douglas Alexander Caruthers (1882-1962). After reviewing field notes and photographs from the expedition, the authors made their own way to the Turgen Mountains to reproduce the images made by Caruthers and his team.

By carefully positioning and calibrating their cameras, Kamp’s team was able to produce images suitable for detailed comparison. The anthropologist and philosopher of science Bruno Latour has often noted how much scientific knowledge production depends on achieving “optical consistency”, in order to find regular avenues through geographic space. The optical consistency achieved by the 21st century explorers enabled them to compare the pixels of their new images with scanned versions of the 1910 pictures, in order to ascertain precise measurements of ice loss. The authors are then able to conclude that glaciers on the lower slopes of the mountains have shown a marked retreated over the course of the last 100 years, and that continuing climate change will likely see that trend continue.

The image of the geographer-as-explorer has long since receded from imagination (at least those of academic geographers). However, Kamp et al.’s study demonstrates that where a key variable of scientific research is the passage time, there is great value in revisiting the archived work of geographers of old.

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India ‘arrogant’ to deny global warming link to melting glaciersThe Guardian

globe42 IPCC officials admit mistake over melting Himalayan glaciersThe Guardian

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Ulrich Kamp et al., 2013, Documenting glacial changes between 1910, 1970, 1992 and 2010 in the Turgen Mountains, Mongolian Altai, using repeat photographs, topographic maps, and satellite imageryThe Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00486.x

Genetically Modified Boundaries

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Martin Mahony

When prominent environmentalist Mark Lynas recently announced that he no longer opposes the genetic modification of agricultural crops, a decades-long debate about the risks, benefits, uncertainties and politics of biotechnology returned to our news stands. Lynas’ speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January made the news worldwide, as the former guerilla activist of the anti-GM movement announced his regret at the harm done to technological progress by the protests of his one-time colleagues.

Researchers in geography and science and technology studies (STS) are united by, amongst other things, their interest in boundaries. In a recently-published commentary in Area, Helen Pallett and I seek to explore this disciplinary confluence to try and make sense of the recent evolution of the GM debate. We were inspired to the task by last year’s protests around a field of experimental wheat at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire. We drew attention to what we see as four interesting (and overlapping) boundary issues in the GM debate:

  • The distinctions made between reason or rationality and unreason or irrationality;
  • the inclusion or exclusion of certain voices from a debate often cast as being solely about science;
  • the boundaries between different spaces of public engagement which may have different norms and styles of debate; and
  • the material territories of the laboratories and fields of experimental crops, which were threatened with transgression last year by the Rothamsted protests.

We thought it was important to shift academic analysis of such controversies away from discussion of an abstract public debate at the national level to consider more deeply the material elements and multiple spaces of debate and contestation. What was also interesting to us is how these very different sorts of boundaries and spaces interact with and map onto each other; so the territory of Rothamsted’s wheat field came to symbolise, for a short time, the protected space some actors saw as necessary for science to function, out of reach of society’s interference.

We could equally have written a piece like this in response to the Lynas story – reflecting for example on the ways rhetorical boundaries were drawn between cool-headed scientific rationality and emotive, irrational protest. Lynas’ interview in the Guardian could itself be read as an insight into the constellation of powers which constitute contemporary modes of environmental governance.  Science, the state, private corporations, social movements, high-profile media figures – all of these actors make an appearance in Lynas’ story, as we hear how one individual has navigated the contested boundaries which separate them from one another. All four elements of our sketchy typology of boundary issues likewise make an appearance in the media coverage of Lynas’ conversion. Real-world events like these provide occasions for geographers to engage with other disciplines and academic traditions like STS and environmental sociology, which have their own analytic tools for making sense of boundaries, whether material, rhetorical, or both. In research on complex issues like GM, disciplinary boundaries too can be subject to some rethinking.

books_icon Martin Mahony and Helen Pallett, 2013, Boundaries, Territory and Public Controversy: The GM debate Re-materialisedArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12014

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 Martin Lynas: Truth, treachery and GM foodThe Guardian

globe42 Anti-GM activists urged not to trash wheat fieldThe Guardian

Vexed Natures: Geoengineering in the UK Media

By Martin Mahony

The idea of human control over the weather is certainly not new; neither are many of the accompanying anxieties. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geoengineering – or “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming” (as defined by the Royal Society) – is a topic which always divides opinion in debates about how to tackle climate change. As levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to rise at break-neck speed, many insist that efforts to de-carbonise our economies will not be sufficient to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. The only solution, the argument goes, is to counteract humankind’s alteration of the atmosphere’s chemistry with similarly large-scale – but planned – interventions in the operation of the earth system.

The technologies conventionally captured under the label “geoengineering” can perhaps be more usefully thought of in terms of solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). SRM technologies range from the mundane to the fanciful: from painting roofs white to reflect more sunlight, to the deployment of giant mirrors between the earth and the sun to intercept solar energy before it even reaches earth’s atmosphere. Other suggestions include the artificial fertilisation of the ocean to encourage it to absorb more carbon dioxide, and the injection of reflective sulphate aerosols into the high atmosphere. The CDR category contains slightly less vaulting technological ambition; technologies here would seek to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (with things like synthetic trees and carbon ‘scrubbers’ in power stations) and squirrel it away in underground stores.

For advocates of geoengineering research and deployment, it is essential that we prepare the way for technologies which could deliver us from a full-blown climatic catastrophe. For opponents, geoengineering is another example of the kind of hubris which got us into the environmental crisis in the first place, and the technologies will simply lead us into a vicious circle of unintended consequences and even more risky and uncertain remedial actions. The geoengineering debate thus takes us to the core of deeply ideological debates about the relationship between humans and nature, about technological progress, and about the democratic governance of risk and the environment.

New research from the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Group at the University of East Anglia has shone some light on how these diverse normative, ideological and technological assumptions have played out in media coverage of geoengineering debates. In a paper in The Geographical Journal, Kate Porter and Mike Hulme explore the dominant framings of UK newspaper coverage of the issue. Questions of innovation, risk, governance, economics, morality, security and justice are all identified as framings which direct – implicitly and explicitly – the ways stories about geoengineering are assembled and presented to the reading public. Risk framings, for example, tend to emphasise the trade-offs between the avoidance of serious climate change and the uncertain outcomes of large scale geoengineering interventions. Morality framings, by contrast, tend to translate these calculations into a Biblical language of guilt, blame, judgement and punishment.

What will perhaps be of most interest to geographers is Porter & Hulme’s account of the different conceptions of ‘nature’ which can be traced through these diverse framings. Nature emerges, variously, as a powerful self-regulating system in need of palliative care; as something much bigger than and outside of human agency against which dreams of total knowledge and control are futile; and as something more ephemeral which is inherently threatened by geoengineering. This latter conception stands close to Francis Bacon’s notion of natura vexata – a nature once free and unconstrained, which is now oppressed and frustrated by human action. These different understandings of the relationship between the human and the nonhuman have deep roots. Any attempt at a deliberate, global modification of the planet’s energy flows will have to negotiate these competing visions. How to do this in a way which is robustly and justly democratic is a question which we are yet to come to terms with.

Any discussion of geoengineering is freighted with normative assumptions and political preferences (you’ll probably have noticed some of mine). Porter & Hulme’s work offers a preliminary guide to the rhetorical resources and ideological frames which populate the geoengineering debate, and raises further interesting questions. How do these debates play out differently in different places and cultures? Who is trusted as a source of information on geoengineering? How do different conceptions of ‘nature’, ‘risk’ and even ‘democracy’ shape the debate? These are important discussions which geographers are well-placed to contribute to.

books_icon Kate Elizabeth Porter and Mike Hulme, 2013, The Emergence of the Geoengineering Debate in the UK Print Media: A Frame Analysis, The Geographical Journal, DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12003

globe42 Rogue geoengineering could ‘hijack’ world’s climateThe Guardian

globe42 Carbon dioxide levels show biggest spike in 15 yearsTimes of India

New Geographies of Animal Subjectivity

By Martin Mahony

Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger from Wind in the Willows by Paul Bransom (Image:Wind in the Willows (1913).djvu, page 326) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The identity, experiences and and behaviour of animals – in short, their subjectivity – has been a topic of great media interest of late. The scandal over the discovery of horse meat throughout the European food chain has raised serious questions not only about the seeming opacity of the meat industry, but also about our cultural relations to particular species. The illicit substitution of meat from one herbivorous quadruped for that of another has produced outrage of both a political and ethical kind, pointing towards particular culturally-embedded understandings of animal subjectivities. Likewise, the debate about the culling of badgers to prevent the spread of bovine tuberculosis in the UK has often proceeded through contrasting framings of badgers as vicious pests and as lovable woodland critters. These framings, in turn, can be traced back to literary presentations of badgers of works such as The Wind in the Willows – as the BBC’s Roger Harrabin reports in his interview with Angela Cassidy of Imperial College, London.

These themes of human-animal relationships have long been of interest to geographers. Agriculture and the food industry are interesting spaces where human-nature relationships are played out in a variety of material, economic, scientific and ethical ways. The field of ‘animal geographies’ has interrogated the networks which tie humans and animals together in ways which transcend conventional dualisms of ‘human’ and ‘nature’ and which pose challenging questions to the distinction between animals as economic or scientific objects, and animals as conscious, feeling subjects.

As reported by Connie Johnston in a new paper in Geography Compass, the recent evolution of the question of animal subjectivity has been an important feature of the farm animal welfare debate. Animal welfare has become an object of state regulation in the EU and US, with new branches of regulatory science interacting with forms of animal rights activism to construct new categories of animal subjectivity and emotion. Drawing on the geography of science literature, Johnston suggests that we need to trace the knowledges and norms of animal welfare through various spaces of knowledge production – from geopolitical units such as the EU, through the immediate living environments of farm animals, to the very ‘location’ of animal subjectivity, such as neuronal architectures. Johnston hints at sources of difference in how animal welfare is governed in the EU and US, such as different legal landscapes and economic priorities, and argues for further research to clarify and explain the different ways in which animal subjectivity is constructed in different places.

As the recent cases of badgers and horses show, animal subjectivities – or rather, human constructions of them – are deeply cultural affairs. Attempts to determine an absolute ‘essence’ of animal subjectivity often founder, and thus geographical scholarship has the potential to contribute to our understandings of how such categories are constructed, and the political and ethical work they do for us in highly charged debates about our food and about our relationship with the nonhuman.

world_icon Horsemeat scandal: the essential guideThe Guardian, 15th February 2013

world_icon Badgers: Splitting opinion for more than 200 yearsBBC News, 11th October 2012

books_icon Connie L. Johnston, 2013, Geography, Science, and Subjectivity: Farm Animal Welfare in the United States and EuropeGeography Compass 7 139-148

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

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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

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

Climate Change: A Little Further Round the Pragmatic Turn?

Cutting black carbon emissions from diesel exhausts would be one way to both slow global warming and cut air pollution levels.

Martin Mahony

A few weeks back I wrote a post on here which reflected on whether the outcomes of the Doha climate negotiations represented something of a ‘pragmatic turn’ in global climate policy discourse. Drawing on the Hartwell Paper – which advocates a more pragmatic set of immediate climate policy goals – I suggested that the growing interest in the multi-scalar character of climate governance and in potential ‘win-win’ strategies like soot emissions reductions (which would have benefits both for the climate and for human health) might represent an application of some of the principles of a new climate pragmatism.

Events this week suggest that we may be heading a little further round this pragmatic turn. At a conference in London, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres argued that national domestic climate legislation “is critical because it is the linchpin between action on the ground and the international agreement… domestic legislation opens the political space for international agreements and facilitates overall ambition”, as reported in The Guardian.

This marks something of an inversion of the logic which has dominated much of the history of climate governance, i.e. that national laws should be implemented under a framework of international, legally-binding agreements. For Figueres, effective national policies are now a precursor to achieving the long-desired comprehensive legal framework to tie countries together in their efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

This news was followed by reports that a group of scientists studying the aggregate effects of soot or ‘black carbon’ emissions on the climate had made some rather surprising calculations. The scientists – who spent four years compiling observations and data from around the world – suggested that the contribution of black carbon to global warming may be twice that of previous estimates. This would place black carbon second in the list of climate-warming emissions, after carbon dioxide.

For the climate pragmatists, black carbon emissions represent something of a low hanging fruit – a problem whose solution would be politically much more straightforward than the decarbonisation of the world’s energy supply. These new findings suggest that the fruit may be a little sweeter (and twice as plump) than first thought, and the renewed emphasis on multi-scalar governance may make it a little easier to reach.

However, as Bailey and Compston argued in 2010, “trajectories of climate governance are shaped by struggle and negotiations between competing sets of interests operating within and across territorial scales.. Despite the customary framing of climate change as a global problem requiring global solutions, climate governance can never be disentangled from these processes, just as international and national political strategies cannot simply be rolled out to the sub-national and local levels or between political jurisdictions. Some sources of resistance are embedded in localities and spatial scales. Others, especially those allied to corporate interests, transcend conventional spatial boundaries.”

The potential new trajectories currently emerging will not be smooth and easy paths, and the re-scaling of political efforts and the re-prioritising of specific issues will mean that new sources of resistance will be inevitably be encountered. The key premise of climate pragmatism however is that these resistances need not paralyze entire political projects, such as the search for an all-encompassing global climate agreement. Thus the confluence of a spatially sensitive approach to climate governance and a pragmatic turn in the ordering of policy goals may mean that climate-friendly and socially just policies are just around the corner.

globe42 Domestic climate laws are essential, says UNThe Guardian

globe42 Black carbon is worse for global warming than previously thoughtThe Guardian

books_icon Ian Bailey and Hugh Compston, 2010, Geography and the Politics of Climate PolicyGeography Compass 1097-1114