Tag Archives: Climate change

Are salamanders finally feeling the heat? The overlooked effects of climate change.

By Catherine Waite, University of Nottingham

Our society is inundated with information about climate change: it is in the news, infiltrating film and television, science, and policy.  And yet misconceptions remain regarding the importance and prevalence of such change.  Often, focus is placed entirely on the impacts to flagship species; the polar bear losing its icy home, for instance.  Unfortunately, this example is just the tip of the iceberg.  Climate change is affecting many more species than previously estimated and in myriad ways, including behavioural and physiological changes, as pointed out in a recent article in Geo: Geography and Environment (McCarthy et al., 2017).

File:Plethodon cinereus.jpg

A Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
Photo Credit: Brian Gratwick, Wikimedia Commons via CC BY 2.0

In this article, the authors investigated the effects of a warming climate on the body size of redback salamanders, finding that body size varies greatly depending on temperature.  The salamanders were 2.3% larger in warmer areas versus cooler ones.  Meanwhile a size increase of 1.8% was observed within areas that had experienced warming of 0.5-1.2oC between the periods 1950-1970 and 1980-2000.  This is by no means the only species to have been affected by the changing climate.  Both behavioural and physiological changes in other species have been noted: marmots now end their hibernation three weeks earlier compared to 40 years ago, martens in the Americas are getting bigger, and the skull shape of alpine chipmunks is altering due to climate pressure.

It is essential to recognise that such responses and adaptions do not mean that these species are successfully adapting to our warming world.  Ecologists have noted that climate is changing too fast for species, as they cannot adapt fast enough to keep up with projected rates of future climate change (Jezkova and Wiens, 2016).  So, even if the salamanders studied by McCarthy et al., (2017) seem to be adapting to, and tolerating, changes in temperature so far, they may not continue to do so in the future.  The same can be said for other species; if they can’t adapt quickly enough, extinction may be the outcome, and we can forget the notion that this is purely a theoretical, future event.  The first mammal global extinction due entirely to climate change has already been confirmed: the Bramble Cay molomys, an Australian rat-like rodent, went extinct due to rising sea levels inundating the coral island on which it lived.

Not many people have heard about the Bramble Cay molomys.  They have heard about the polar bear or the Bengal tiger, though.  These attention-grabbing species have been used as ‘flagships’ for conservation organisations, but are they any more important than their overlooked counterparts?  Is it justifiable to focus on flagship species in an attempt to attract attention and money that can then be used to support conservation at larger scales?  Or, is a disproportionate amount of conservation resources being spent on these flagship species?  It’s a delicate issue, and one that few agree on.  All we can do is remain aware that, even if the intent behind flagship species is to help raise attention and funds for wider conservation efforts, we can’t let them overshadow other, overlook, species that are also in trouble.

It has been suggested that “most species on Earth have been impacted by climate change in some way or another” (The Guardian, 2017).  However, there has been enormous under-reporting of these impacts to date.  The IUCN Red List only classes 7% of mammals and 4% of birds as threatened by climate change and severe weather.  This is undoubtedly an underestimate, as many species wait decades for updates within the list and most of the Earth’s species have never been evaluated.  Indeed, a study published in Science late last year found the current warming of just 1oC has already left marks on 77 of 94 different ecological processes, including species’ distributions and physical traits.  This is supported by another study published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year, which found 47% of land mammals and 23% of birds have already suffered negative impacts from climate change.  This huge difference in percentages from the IUCN Red List demonstrates how wrong we were about the numbers of species being affected by climate change.  And the full extent is likely worse even than this.  This research only considered two well-studied groups (mammals and birds) and the authors commented that we are likely to be significantly underestimating the extent of climate impacts on lesser studied groups even more.  If we can be so wrong for our most studied groups, how much worse are our predictions likely to be for species we don’t know much about, like corals, bats, fungi and frogs?

Perhaps most disconcertingly, we have only experienced a relatively small amount of warming so far (~1oC), in relation to that predicted by the end of the century (4-5oC). When considering the changes that only 1oC of warming has wrought, it does not seem hyperbolic to say that the effects of further warming may be colossal.  So what can we do?  We need to change the way we think about and report climate change.  It has been pointed out that many studies into climate change focus on forecasting, and tend to ignore the fact that our climate has already altered.  When climate change is viewed only as a future threat, the impetus to do something today may be reduced.  But climate change is happening now, and it is already having serious effects on many more species than we previously thought.  Hopefully, with articles such as McCarthy et al.’s acknowledging alterations that have already taken place, we can begin to accept that changes are already affecting nearly all species on Earth; and that the time to act is now.

60-world2 Briggs, H., (2016) Climate changing ‘too fast’ for species BBC , 23 November 2016

60-world2 Hance, J., (2017) Climate change impacting ‘most’ species on Earth, even down to their genomes The Guardian

books_icon Hunt, E., (2017) Act now before entire species are lost to global warming, say scientists The Guardian

books_icon Jeskova, T., and Wiens, J.,  (2016) Rates of change in climatic niches in plan and animal populations are much slower than projected climate Proceedings of the Royal Society B change doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2104 

books_icon McCarthy, T., Masson, P., Thieme, A., Leimgruber, P., and Gratwicke, B. (2017). The relationship between climate and adult body size in redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). Geo: Geography and Environment, 4:1.

books_icon Pacifici, M., Visconti, P., Butchart, S., Watson, J., Cassola, F., Rondinino, C., (2017) Species’ traits influenced their response to recent climate change Nature Climate Change 7, 205-208 doi:10.1038/nclimate3223

60-world2 Scheffers, B., de Meeseter, L., Bridge, T., Hoffmann, A., Pandolfi J., (2016) THe broad footprint of climate chante from

60-world2 Slezak, M., (2016) Revealed: first mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change The Guardian 14 June 2016

Climate Change: Politics and Perception in the United States

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 


Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

It has been a battle worthy of Cervantes, had he been alive in this era of anthropogenic climate change.  Simply mentioning the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ can elicit impassioned, often divisive, rejoinders from an audience.  Invariably, belief and cultural systems drive the discourse of climate change opinion and news reportage; it is a complex chicken and egg scenario.  There does, however, appear to be an esoteric climate change–political nexus that also, perhaps deplorably at times, influences public opinion.  Nowhere does this egregious unification seem more prevalent than in the United States.  How do the politics around climate change influence the narratives and public perception?

Astoundingly, when a group of researchers set out to examine seventy-four American public opinion polls between 2002 and 2010, they discovered that neither extreme weather events nor scientific stories affected public perception of climate change (Brulle et al., 2011).  News reports – but more importantly, the politicians framed in the reports – were the biggest influences (Brulle, et al., 2011).  The two strongest events driving public concern in the United States at the time were the Democratic Congressional action statements and the Republican roll-call votes (Brulle, et al., 2011).  Indeed, most studies indicate that American views of climate change are strongly influenced by partisan politics.  Worldwide, however, educational attainment is generally regarded as the single biggest predictor of climate change awareness.

Interestingly, while Americans and Canadians share a border and enjoy similar lifestyles, a 2010 cross-border poll revealed fewer Americans claim solid evidence of global warming “based on what they have read or heard” (Borick et al., 2011).  Remarkably, 58 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Canadians answered affirmatively to the evidence of global warming (Borick et al., 2011).  A more recent opinion poll suggests that while 70 percent of American adults believe global warming is happening, only 53 percent think it is caused by human activities (Marlon et al., 2016).

To delve into the cultural and worldview disparities between the United States and Canada would be an exhaustive endeavor.  Still, it remains striking that Canada, within reach of America’s massive media kingdom, consistently reports and frames anthropogenic climate change differently than the United States.  While American reports continue to debate the science behind global warming, Canadian reports tend to frame the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change  (Good, 2008).

Novelty, controversy, geographic proximity, and relevance are all important frames in scientific stories (Caravalho, 2007).  Experts employ frames to simplify technical jargon; journalists use frames to craft appealing news reports; and audiences rely on frames to envisage an issue (Nisbet, 2009).  When climate change basics are framed as scientifically tenable positions, audiences must choose to question or quarantine their comfortably held beliefs.  In documenting Arctic ice edge narratives, Veland and Lynch (2016) state that we tend to rely on narratives that provide comfort to us.  The authors add that ontological insecurity can be a major challenge in making sound environmental decisions.

Once upon a time, scientists were informers and people listened.  Today, because the average citizen does not read peer-reviewed scientific literature, many rely on media and opinion pieces to educate themselves on newsworthy science stories.  Disparagement between petulant politicians and scientists often overshadows the science.  But climate change is a science; it does not require belief.  In that sense, public opinion matters little.

Moreover, the post-modernist notion that all ideas are worthy of expression can become unfavorable in the realm of climate science.  Science is indeed stronger with scrutiny; but those scrutinizing it are often politicians, journalists, and bloggers, not scientists.  It is not difficult to weave scandalous narratives about anthropogenic climate change: one side includes ‘alarmists’ and ‘manipulators of science’ who say the earth is doomed; the other claims global warming is an ‘elaborate hoax’.  This ‘experts in conflict’ narrative is a popular practice used predominantly in the United States.  International research demonstrates this custom is not widely used outside of America (Young & Dugas, 2011).

Undoubtedly, the path to re-engineering society will require a reorganization of thought – perceptions without politics, notions detached from debates, narratives with new frames.  Veland and Lynch (2016) assert that the Anthropocene narrative warns that stories–and the networks that make them–must change.  As Cervantes said through Quixote, “he who walks much and reads much knows much and sees much.”  The path forward surely involves assembling this collective knowledge and having discussions, not debates.


Borick, C., Lachapelle, E., & Rabe, B. (2011, February 23). Climate Compared: Public Opinion on Climate Change in the United States and Canada. (The University of Michigan; The Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion) Retrieved from Public Policy Forum/Sustainable Prosperity: http://www.sustainableprosperity.ca/article911

Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J., & Jenkins, J. C. (2011). Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US, 2002-2010. Climatic Change.

Carvahlo, A. (2007). Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: re-reading news on climate change. (S. Publications, Producer) Retrieved from Public Understanding of Science: http://www.pus.sagepub.com

Good, J. E. (2008). The Framing of Climate Change in Canadian, American, and International Newspapers; A Media Propaganda Model Analysis. (C. J. Communication, Ed.) Retrieved from http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2017/2006

Marlon, J., Howe, P., Mildenberger, M., & Leiserowitz, A. (2016). Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.climatecommunication.yale.edu

Nisbet, M. (2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment, 51 (2).

Veland, S., & Lynch, A. (2016). Arctic ice edge narratives: scale, discourse and ontological security. Area, 49.1, 9–17 doi: 10.1111/area.12270

Young, N., & Dugas, E. (2011). (C. S. Association, Producer, & University of Ottawa) Representations of Climate Change in Canadian National Print Media: The Banalization of Global Warming: http://www.ebscohost.com

By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham 

Lake Michigan (c) Jillian Smith

Lake Michigan (c) Jillian Smith

The Great Lakes–at the U.S. and Canadian international boundary–are the planet’s largest system of freshwater (Government of Canada, 2016). The five Great Lakes (Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, Erie) represent more than twenty percent of the world’s freshwater supply (Canadian Geographic, n.d.). This oft-repeated axiom, however, is somewhat misleading. A mere one percent of the waters of the Great Lakes are renewed each year in rain and snow-melt (Government of Canada, 2016). This supply cannot be carelessly utilised without destroying the stock. Freshwater systems are not inherently sustainable; water abundance is a myth.

Recent record low levels in three of the five Great Lakes have leaders to lawmakers to environmentalists sharing the common interest of conservation and restoration in the basin (Boyce, 2016). Nevertheless, a small Wisconsin city narrowly outside the basin is thirsty for Great Lakes water. Waukesha’s 70,000 residents can no longer drink from the city’s depleted aquifer. What little water remains is contaminated with naturally occurring cancer-causing radium. Though Waukesha is outside of the Great Lakes watershed, the city’s engineers can almost taste Lake Michigan’s water – they just need a pipeline or two. Certainly, one small city’s request for water beyond the Great Lakes watershed does not seem significant, but is it? What does this mean for the Great Lakes basin? And perhaps more poignantly, what does this potential test case mean for other thirsty American cities in the context of a changing climate?

More than 35 million people rely on the five Great Lakes (NOAA, n.d). Another 70,000 people drinking from a straw (or rather, a pipeline) seems somewhat inconsequential. The concern, therefore, is not necessarily about Waukesha; the concern is about who might be next. Las Vegas? San Francisco? Nearly all states west of the Rockies have experienced “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions in recent years (USDA, 2017). It seems Waukesha could be poised to become a precedent-setting test case for moving water beyond the basin.

Water vaulting is nothing new – the Los Angeles Aqueduct, Qaraqum Canal, South-to-North Eastern, and South-to-North Central are just a few very large water diversions that immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, freshwater scarcity is a global problem just beginning to touch North America. Climate change impacts on freshwater supply and quality will undoubtedly intensify in coming years. Changes in precipitation patterns, increases in temperature, evaporation, and sea level rise will continue to threaten lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. While climate scientists are quick to point out that no single event can be attributed to climate change, extreme weather events are increasingly the norm and society will be forced to adapt to these altered patterns.

Understandably, adaptation is difficult. O’Neill and Graham (2016) note that adaptation decisions associated with climatic changes pose challenges to person-place bonds. In an era of changing climate and environmental quandaries, place attachments are at risk. While nobody wants to see Waukesha residents displaced due water travails, nobody wants to see the Great Lakes–one of the world’s most valuable resources–positioned for lackadaisical exploitation. To what degree have conservation efforts or alternate projects been considered in Waukesha?

Despite the deserved reverence for this remarkable resource, and our obvious dependence on it, modern society has proven to be a poor caretaker of the Great Lakes in the recent past. Pollutants, toxins, eutrophication, sewage, wetland loss, invasive species, climate change, and over-extraction are all threatening the Great Lakes and the species who depend on them. Is it fathomable that a large-scale diversion project could be a future threat? Waukesha is just one thirsty city beyond the Great Lakes basin, but it begs the question: who will be next? Waukesha could be precedent setting for water woes and climate travails throughout the parched United States.


books_icon Boyce, C. (2016). Protecting the integrity of the Great Lakes: Past, present, and future. Natural Resources & Environment, 31.2, 36-39.

60-world2 Canadian Geographic. (n.d.). The Great Lakes. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from http://www.canadiangeographic.com/atlas/themes.aspx?id=watersheds&sub=watersheds_flow_thegreatlakes&lang=En

60-world2 Government of Canada. (2016). Great Lakes quickfacts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from Environment and Climate Change Canada https://www.ec.gc.ca/grandslacs-greatlakes/default.asp?lang=En&n=B4E65F6F-1

60-world2 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (n.d.). About our Great Lakes: Great Lakes basin facts. Retrieved February 26, 2017, from https://www.glerl.noaa.gov//education/ourlakes/facts.html

books_icon O’Neill, S. J., and Graham, S. (2016). (En)visioning place-based adaptation to sea-level rise. Geo: Geography and Environment, e00028, doi: 10.1002/geo2.28.

60-world2 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2017). United States Drought Monitor. Retrieved February 26, 2017 from http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/RegionalDroughtMonitor.aspx?west

Climate change must always be viewed from somewhere

By Rory Padfield, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Kate Manzo, University of Newcastle

A palm oil plantation (left) borders a degraded peat forest swamp in South Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia. Source: (c) Rory Padfield.

A palm oil plantation (left) borders a degraded peat forest swamp in South Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia. Source: (c) Rory Padfield.

In March 2016 two newspapers on opposites sides of the world covered stories on climate change but with contrasting perspectives. The UK’s Daily Mail painted a picture of impending doom and global catastrophe as climate change is predicted to cause the death of half a million people in 2050 due to food shortages. Regions most vulnerable to climate change induced starvation were reported to be in Asia and the Pacific, although the problem will also affect some richer countries. Conversely, a national newspaper from Malaysia – a country in Southeast Asia at risk from ‘impacts to food production from climate change’ as reported in the Daily Mail – presented both concern at the expected impacts of climate change but also the various opportunities in store. The article in the New Straits Times (‘Adapting to climate change’, March 14, 2016) argued that climate change mitigation and adaption presents an opportunity to invest more substantially in research and development in fields such as biotechnology. Reflecting on the different and at times polarized geographical representations of this important environmental issues, Professor Mike Hulme, from King’s College London, observes: “Climate, and hence climate change, must always be viewed from somewhere”.

Recognising the importance of situated knowledge and cultural politics in framing climate change media narratives, our research, published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, examines representations of climate change in Malaysian media. We investigate the ways in which climate change is framed in five English-language media sources in Malaysia over a three year period, 2009 – 2011. We were interested in the salience of a North–South perspective on climate change in Malaysia and the extent to which the problems of climate change have been reframed as an opportunity for particular modes of development.

The results of our study were interesting on a number of levels. First of all we found that climate change is being framed not only as an environmental issue of concern for society but as a positive opportunity, particularly for neoliberal market forces. Here, Malaysia’s emerging ‘green growth’ policy agenda is shown to be supported by the expectation for greater investment in environmental sectors following climate change mitigation and adaption policies. We found evidence that similar trends exist in other Asian countries, such as India, China and South Korea.

Second,we show that climate change represents an opportunity for geopolitical actors interested in restructuring the international political economy along lines reminiscent of the new international economic order (NIEO) demands of the 1970s. Key themes emergent from this part of the analysis were ‘climate capitalism’ and ‘green nationalism’. Palm oil – one of the most important commodities to national economic development in Malaysia – was illustrative of the interaction of these themes. The Malaysian media was shown to strongly defend the position of palm oil in the global commodities market against perceived injustices and unfairness, such as trade barriers linked to climate policy.

Finally, our analysis brought together the frames of opportunity and responsibility in a frame referred to as a structuralist model of green development. Here, we argued that a hybridisation of different development models (and not just of climate change frames) is at work in Malaysia which support opportunities for so-called ‘green business’, responsibilities for various actors and also emphasizes a key role for the developmental state – in formulating policy, facilitating investment, accessing finance, and lobbying for changes in international relations of power.

For Malaysia, therefore, climate change policy action has not just stimulated a form of internal ‘ecological modernisation’ but it has presented an opportunity to press historic demands for changes in the international political economy.

About the authors: Rory Padfield is a Senior Lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Kate Manzo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. 

60-world2 Ibrahim A 2016 Adapting to climate change New Straits Times Online 14 March 2016

books_icon Manzo, K. and Padfield, R. (2016), Palm oil not polar bears: climate change and development in Malaysian media. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12129

60-world2 Swan R 2016 Climate change ‘will kill half a million people’ by 2050: global warming will ruin crops leading to disease and malnutrition Daily Mail online 2 March 2016

Climate Variability and Livelihood Diversification in Northern Ethiopia – A Case Study of Lasta and Beyeda Districts

By Zerihun B. Weldegebriel, Addis Ababa University, and Martin Prowse, Lund University


Land degradation (gullies) formed due to extreme climatic events flooding in Lasta district (C) Zerihun B. Weldegebriel and Martin Prowse .

Ethiopia is currently facing the worst drought in its modern history, resurrecting the world’s collective memory of the tragedy of the 1980s. But such severe meteorological conditions may not be so rare in the future: the observed and projected impacts of changing climatic conditions in Ethiopia point towards a considerable worsening of food security status for many smallholder households. The following quote from a smallholder farmer in Lasta District, Northern Ethiopia, encapsulates the predicaments that millions of smallholder farmers in the country are facing:

“In recent years, the gamen [a local term for high temperatures] is becoming unbearable and we all are suffering from the extreme heat. We [the elders] spend time with our flocks of sheep in tree shades yearning for the belg [short] rains to give us some respite from the long dry spells which seem to stay forever.”

In our paper, recently published in The Geographical Journal, we provide empirical evidence of the perceptions of smallholder farmers towards climate variability and the forms of adaptation strategies employed in two districts in Northern Ethiopia. We argue that assessing smallholders’ perceptions of climate variability and existing diversification strategies is a good first step to understanding what works best in terms of successful adaptation to climate change. Perceptions and associated adaptation practices can be an important input for adaptation policy since strategies are mostly the result of long-term experiences and assessment of risks in their day-to-day production and consumption decisions.

We find that smallholders perceived increased temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and increased extreme weather events in the last two to three decades. While meteorological records support the claims of an increase in temperature, claims of an overall reduction in rainfall are not reflected in the records. But this is mainly because the highly variable belg rains (short rains) are compensated for by more stable kiremet rains (long rains).

In view of the perceived changes in the climate, the article looked into the types and viability of the adaptation strategies pursued. Two major approaches were identified – diversification within agriculture and diversification outside agriculture. Most of the adaptation within agriculture comes through demonstration effects from state-led schemes whilst diversification away from farming (both off-farm and non-farm activities) is mainly wage labour differentiated by wealth group (with the poorest doing piecework on neighbours’ land and working on public works schemes whilst wealthier households seek formal-sector employment in nearby towns and further afield). In a nut shell, diversification away from agriculture is highly seasonal and largely follows a piecework/public works  or wage labour path. Smallholders are constrained in their ability to enter self-employment due to a lack of regular demand, skills, finance as well as cultural attitudes.

There are subtle but important differences between the two districts that highlight the role of both climatic and non-climatic factors in adaptive capacity. This is particularly interesting for geographers as it highlights the spatio-temporal differences that play a role in determining both perception and adaption to climate variability and change (see Weber, 2016). For instance, farmers in Lasta perceive greater changes in the climate than those in Beyeda. We also find that smallholders in Lasta have diversified their livelihoods to a much greater extent. But this has at least as much to do with the proximity to urban opportunities and a construction boom in the nearby town (triggered by public investments) as changing climatic conditions.

Overall, our limited data from Northern Ethiopia suggests that diversification is occurring mainly through wage labour: international, national and regional for wealthier households, local piecework and on public works schemes for poorer households. In this context, policymakers could do worse than look more at how urban-rural connections can support smallholders’ adaptation efforts.

About the authors

Zerihun B. Weldegebriel is an Assistant Professor of Development Studies at Addis Ababa University, Centre for African and Oriental Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Martin Prowse is an Associate Senior Lecturer at Lund University, Department of Human Geography, Lund, Sweden           


books_icon Weber, E. U. 2016. What shapes perceptions of climate change? New research since 2010. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 7(1), 125–134.

60-world2 Embassy of the United States US response to the Ethiopian Drought 2015-2016 http://ethiopia.usembassy.gov/u.s.-response-to-the-ethiopian-drought.html

Climate change: adaptation, science, and the media

By Joseph J. Bailey,  University of Nottingham, UK.

One is never short of media coverage on climate change, but there has been a flurry recently in relation to its purported role in the ‘sinking’ of several islands in the Solomon Islands, following a publication by Australian researchers (Albert et al., 2016). Dramatic headlines included: “Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits” (The Guardian, 2016a) and “After the Pacific Ocean swallows villages and five Solomon Islands, a study blames climate change” (The Washington Post, 2016), to list just two. Such headlines would lead anyone to think that climate change had solely caused the sea levels to rise and destroy these islands and, therefore, that climate change sank the islands. Perhaps not, though.

The Guardian was quick to release a subsequent article: “Headlines ‘exaggerated’ climate link to sinking of Pacific islands” (The Guardian, 2016b) after they spoke to the paper’s lead author, who identified that many headlines were “certainly pushing things a bit towards the ‘climate change has made islands vanish’ angle”. The Solomon Islands’ sea level rise is above average because of a range of factors, including natural climatic cycles and increases in the strength of the trade winds. These changes are operating alongside global warming which does indeed increase average global sea levels but also increases the intensity of these trade winds, as outlined in the article. It is a complicated climatic system that has been simplified and widely misrepresented in the media to varying extents.

Taking the line ashore. A villager in his canoe takes the line ashore at Halavo, Nggela (Florida) Island, Solomon Islands. Source: This photograph, which has not been edited, was taken by Jenny Scott and downloaded from Flickr (link to photograph) for non-commercial use on this blog under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Interestingly, all of this happened about one week after Lord Krebs wrote an article for The Conversation about media responsibility in reporting climate change, and the need for scientists to engage with the media to support more accurate reporting (Krebs, 2016). The issues discussed and articles referenced by Lord Krebs are potentially of a more serious nature than the case of sea level rise affecting the Solomon Islands. However, despite differences in the seriousness of the misrepresentation and simplification of the science between Lord Krebs’ examples and the more recent reports surrounding the Solomon Islands, there is overlap in the associated issues and questions raised. Namely: how can the public and politicians fully understand the science and respond to it in the face of inaccurate and pervasive media reports? Furthermore, if people are not clear on the science of climate change, how does this affect our resilience and willingness to adapt to probable changes in the future?

A recent article in Geography Compass explores climate change adaptation in much detail (Eisenhauer, 2016). Climate change adaptation describes the process whereby people seek to decrease the risks and impacts of climate change through societal and economic strategies, for example (details). The paper focusses on pathways, which describe “alternative trajectories of development” (p. 209), in the context of climate change adaptation because such adaptations are part of continual change towards desirable socio-ecological conditions. Four approaches to pathways are proposed and discussed. They aim to fill the current gap between usable knowledge and action that the paper identifies. In particular, these actions generally relate to governance or development. The importance of local people in adaptation planning is also highlighted.

Discussion of this gap between usable knowledge and action, and attempts to address it, is important because the creation of knowledge is one thing, but identifying which aspects of it are of the greatest relevance and usefulness for the task at hand is another. Subsequent dissemination to stakeholders must then follow, and is it here that the media has great potential. But, as we have seen time and time again, including only this month, knowledge can be misrepresented or simplified to the point where it is no longer presents what the authors intended. Some simplification is necessary to create readable news articles and, as the lead author of the Solomon Islands paper, Dr Simon Albert, told The Guardian, ‘dramatic’,  eye-catching headlines can attract readers and raise the profile of important issues. However, caution is required and a balance between a headline’s accuracy and ability to draw in readers must be struck.

Climate change is one of the most geographical issues, covering all aspects of the human, natural, and physical world, and the connections and interactions therein. The ability of communities to adapt will play a large role in determining its impacts in the future. It is vital that scientific findings are made to be usable and relevant for policy-makers and stakeholders so that effective strategies can be instigated. We have seen here the presentation of science and of geographic phenomena in the media can be inappropriate at times. This makes it difficult for people to be properly informed and make sound decisions about climate-related environmental changes. Additionally, the Solomon Islands coverage should be used as a cautionary example that not all environmental changes are because of climate change: the world is complicated. Communication between scientists and the media and, subsequently, between the media and observers to disseminate accurate and useful knowledge will no doubt be a key ingredient in the initiation of positive action.



Albert, S. et al. (2016). Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands. Environmental Research Letters, 11 (5).

Eisenhauer, D. C. (2016). Pathways to Climate Change Adaptation: Making Climate Change Action Political. Geography Compass, 10 (5), 207 – 221.

Krebs, J. (2016). Lord Krebs: scientists must challenge poor media reporting on climate change (online). The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/lord-krebs-scientists-must-challenge-poor-media-reporting-on-climate-change-58621 (last accessed 12th May 2016).

The Guardian (2016a). Five Pacific islands lost to rising seas as climate change hits (online). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/five-pacific-islands-lost-rising-seas-climate-change (last accessed 12th May 2016).

The Guardian (2016b). Headlines ‘exaggerated’ climate link to sinking of Pacific islands (online). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/10/headlines-exaggerated-climate-link-to-sinking-of-pacific-islands (last accessed 12th May 2016).

The Washington Post (2016). After the Pacific Ocean swallows villages and five Solomon Islands, a study blames climate change (online). Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/05/09/after-the-pacific-ocean-swallows-villages-and-five-solomon-islands-a-study-blames-climate-change/ (last accessed 12th May 2016).

X Marks The Spot: Chemtrails, Conspiracies & Discourse Analysis

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield 


NASA photograph of aircraft contrails, take from I-95 in Northern Virginia, January 26, 2001 by NASA scientist Louis Ngyyen.

The X-Files recently returned to television after a fourteen year absence. The Guardian provides a useful guide to the new series, which had mixed reviews and was accused of Islamophobia and Transphobia. As ever the show explores a range of paranormal phenomenon, folklore and contemporary conspiracy theories.  These may seem strange subjects for geographers to take an interest in but such stories are an integral part of society. For an exemplar, see Pile (2005) on phantasmagorias and the role dreams, magic, vampires and ghosts play in modern city life.

In an article published in The Geographical Journal, Rose Cairns explores the online world of “chemtrail” conspiracy narratives and asks what they can tell us about the international politics of geoengineering. Conspiracy theories are not new, and Cairns provides historical examples of the role they play in making sense of the world.  She highlights “the instability of the distinction between ‘paranoid’ and ‘normal’ views”, suggesting “moral outrage at the idea of global elites controlling the weather” should not simply be dismissed as irrational (2016:70). The reaction is provoked by many things including our emotional and visceral connections to the weather.

Geoengineering is often discussed as a possible intervention against climate change.  Perhaps fears around chemtrails can be seen as embodying a wider mistrust with authority, mainstream media and science which is seen as elitist and opaque. Belief is connected to scepticism about climate change and may indicate a failure to convey research in clear and understandable ways. As public engagement is perceived to be an increasingly important facet of academic communication, perhaps we should encourage conversations with those who provide alternative viewpoints. Cairns recognised this may be difficult when arguments are polarised and emotional.

Discourse analysis can draw contradictory narratives into a bigger picture that explains how and why belief systems develop within a society. You don’t have to agree with something to find it interesting, and it’s often illuminating to try and understand radically different perspectives. Cairns has been attacked for her work by “truthers” but we all need to keep questioning. We also need to refrain from dismissing anything that deviates from the hegemony simply because it sounds unbelievable to us. Just last week a former aide to President Nixon was quoted as saying, with regards to another alleged cover-up:  “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the (Vietnam) war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…and vilify them night after night on the evening news” (Baum, 2016).

It is tempting to finish with a glib Mulder and Scully slogan that “the truth is out there” but reality is so often more complex and fantastic than fiction.


60-world2 Baum D 2016 Legalize It All: How to Win The War on Drugs Harpers March 2016 online at https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/ (accessed 22.2.2016)

books_icon Cairns R  2016 Climates of Suspicion: “Chemtrail” Conspiracy Narratives and The International Politics of Geoengineering  The Geographical Journal 182: 1 pp 70-84 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/geoj.12116/abstract

books_icon Pile S 2005  Real Cities Modernity, Space and the Phantasmagorias of Modern Life London: Sage Publications Ltd

60-world2 The Guardian  The X-Files Episode by Episode http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/series/the-x-files-episode-by-episode (accessed 22.2.2016)