Friday, 22 July 2011

The environment as a contested category - and why the world isn't hotter (yet)


The environment is a contested category: there is a contested set of facts on the status of the environmental crisis; contest on the responses of natural systems to human activity; contest on the set of approaches put forward to manage the environment and debate on how the environmental crisis is represented and portrayed through all mediums and at all scales.

This article focuses on unpacking a discourse that covers all of the above and one which has come to dominate the minds of academics, environmentalists, politicians and people across the world. The discourse is that the world is in environmental crisis and that global warming is to blame.  This short article aims to briefly touch upon the thorny issue of global warming, present a different perspective (based upon the ideas but forward in Chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics) and offer some insight into how geoengineering could be the way forward in managing the thorny issue.

N.B From the onset this article offers a very brief and somewhat limited insight into one part of the numerous contested debates that are part of the global warming/environmental crisis discourse. Not all opinions are (or can be) covered for that matter.  However,  at this stage it is important to note  that some academics argue that the current ‘exaggerated warming’ phase is simply an extension of a natural cycle and just nature’s way of coping with an ever increasing population –the climate has naturally changed between warm periods (inter-glacials) and cold periods (glacials) roughly every 100,000 years. Nevertheless, the argument I am presenting in this article is that humans will affect the future environment and climate but that so far the most severe effects have been masked by various natural and human induced positive externalities, such as sulphur dioxide, which I will refer to later on.

A brief overview of the environmental movement

In the 1970’s it was not global warming that dominated  the harrowing headlines but global cooling that posed the greatest threat to the people of the world!  Like natural climate change, although on a much much shorter timescale, the media and academics since the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1970s (precipitated by Carson's Silent Spring)  have flipped back and forth between telling us that we are all going to die through global cooling (ice ages) or burn to death/be obliterated by one of the numerous hydro-meteorological hazards that are on the increase due to global warming (oh yes - or drown through sea-level rise due to the thermal expansion of the oceans - NOT ice caps melting!).  

The current flavour of the last two decades, since the Earth summit at Rio, has been human induced climate change and the unprecedented rise in global temperatures a.k.a global warming (the classic J-curve or hockey stick graph for CO2 emissions).  Renowned environmental scientists like James Lovelock claim that "We are now so abusing the earth...that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does most of us, and our descendants will die." Films such as an Inconvenient truth, present a one-sided argument to this generation that we are in a time of impending doom. However, to what extent is this really true?

Why the world isn't hotter

"We keep being warned about global warming - yet global surface temperatures have levelled over the past decade. Now researchers think they know why, says the BBC News online. It's not that CO2 emissions aren't a problem - it is simply that sulphate particles from China's coal fired power stations have masked their warming effect by reflecting sunlight and heat away from the earth states Robert Kraufman of the University of Boston."    He goes onto argue that this means humans have had relatively little effect on global surface temperatures over the past ten years and natural fluctuations have predominated. Extract from ‘The Week, 16th July 2011’.

Although I disagree with Kaufman’s point that humans have had little effect, the above, is a primary example of how a human-induced positive externality (sulphate particles) can sometimes mask the effect of an increase in greenhouse gases that could lead to global warming. This echoes the work of authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner who wrote SuperFreakonomics (a popular book for any budding Economic geographer or Economist). In Chapter 5, entitled 'What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?' the authors analyse the thorny and contested problem of global warming. They correctly point out that the science the climate scientists are trying to grapple with and understand is too complex (there are too many variables to model) and that experiments cannot be run on the scale needed to truly predict future patterns and temperatures- hence this is the reason why the IPCC have been so general in their range of possible temperature rises: from 0.5 to 2 degrees. The inherent imprecision in climate science means we don't know with any certainty whether there will be a temperature rise or not.  So considering the latter uncertainty I would think again when the tabloids and broadsheets (although less so) harp on about temperature rises, conjuring up the very worst possibilities - the religious fervour and true believers/heretics need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

More interestingly, Levitt and Lubner also put forward the idea, from an Economic standpoint, of positive externalities using the example of the Mount Pinatubo eruption on June 15th 1991. In this eruption over 20million tons of sulphur dioxide went into the stratosphere and acted like a layer of sunscreen , reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth - needless to say, for the next two years the earth cooled by an average of 0.5 degrees. Therefore, the sulphur dioxide acted as a positive externality masking the effects of an increase in greenhouse gases from previous generations.

The future of management: Geoengineering and mitigation.

There are two choices when it comes to managing climate change and global warming:
i)                    Adaptation (do nothing)
ii)                   Mitigation (prevention)

Now, if a Pinatubo eruption could occur every couple of years to offset much of the anthropogenic warming expected over the next century we could arguably carry on the business as usual approach and not waste millions (if not billions) into inefficient forms of renewable energy. The key point though is what if. In other words as Lubner and Levitt state, “if human activity is warming up the planet, could human ingenuity cool it down?” (Levitt & Lubner, 2009; 190). The ideas proposed are based on the idea of geoengineering or put simply the deliberate manipulation of the climate by humans. Ideas discussed include: the garden hose to the sky (page 193) using Alberta’s tar sands waste product sulphur;  eighteen mile high smokestacks (page 200); or clouds acting as soggy mirrors and having a cooling effect as advocated by the climate scientist John Latham For further information please click on the link below:

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Geography: a different sort of discipline

I remember when, as a 14 year old student, I was faced with my first academic dilemma in deciding what option subject to take at GCSE: Geography or Spanish.  I plumped for Geography (I already had decided upon History and Latin). Why did I decide to do Geography? Why was History an obvious choice? And how could Latin help me read Law at university? – questions I still struggle to answer. 

Nevertheless, Geography became my favourite subject over the A-level course and I soon found myself writing my personal statement; discussing the merits of the multi–faceted discipline in relation to the working world. Over the course of my school career, notably when I was older, I distinctly remember being asked the following questions:

“Why Geography…where is that going to get you?”  

“What is the point of Geography, it is just colouring in maps?” 

And so a number of years down the line, as a Geography teacher who has taught in both sectors, I feel it is the right time to try and explain (albeit briefly) why Geography matters and why it is indeed a different sort of discipline. N.B. This is not a scholarly article; more of a layman’s guide to why I think Geography is important. I hope it makes you think, and re-consider Geography as a discipline in a new light.

The problem with Geography - Perception
In my opinion and the in the opinion of my contemporaries Geography has always had a bit of an image problem, and in the mind-set of many parents that I teach, and have taught, it is a subject with no definedm purpose or outcome; rooted in river studies, oxbow lakes and China’s One Child Policy – oh and of course, colouring in maps!  In schools over the past 40 years to some extent it has seen its’ status as an academically rigorous subject decline; out-competed by History, the hard Sciences, and increasingly the more work orientated subjects such as Economics.   Within Higher Education too, Geography has eternally struggled to place itself between the Sciences and the Arts - often finely balancing itself in the grey area of the Social Sciences. Therefore, the very nature of geography as a discipline in it's own right has (and will) always been contested e.g. are geographers explorers or academics; are geographers either human or physical geographers (or both?) etc.  Furthermore, in a post-modernist age, disciplines as broad and all-encompassing as Geography have become increasingly specialised and re-defined/re-branded: Oceanographers, Geologists, Cartographers, Environmental Scientists, Geomorphologists (the list is endless) –all with their own society ti signify and justify to some degree their status as a unique discipline. It would appear then that the word Geography has been removed, erased and become unfamiliar – the discipline has lost it' way - I mean when was the last time you saw a news report speaking to a geographer?

Geography it would appear has lost out as the grand experiment to keep nature and culture under one conceptual umbrella appears to have run it's course (Livingstone, 1992: 177).

If the latter is the case then: What is the point of Geography?

Firstly, it is important to understand that no one definition of Geography is sufficient (and here possibly lies one of the biggest problems - but that is another article!).  Intrinsically, Geography is a discipline which is subjective by its’ very nature and each geographer will have their own philosophical background guiding their opinion and ultimately influence how they define the subject. However, for the purposes of this non-scholarly article I will use the following definition from the RGS as a starting point for further discussion:

“Geography is the study of the earth’s landscapes, peoples, places and environments…it is unique in bridging the social sciences (human geography) with the natural sciences (physical geography). Geography provides an ideal framework for relating to other fields of knowledge” (RGS website, 2011).

As Linda McDowell, a prominent academic at Oxford University, talks about in her introductory talk to prospective students geographers are unique in their ability to look at the connections and flows between space and place. She argues that Geography is a synthetic discipline – synthesising the human, physical, social and economic worlds – which makes it a different discipline when compared to the more object/outcome focused disciplines of Mathematics and Economics.

Secondly, geographic knowledge is not one-dimensional – there is no one type of knowledge as there is no one singular answer. For instance Taylor (1986) argues that geographic knowledge can be broken down into 4 distinct areas:

  • Geography a necessary knowledge (daily life, local geography).
  • Geography as professional knowledge (academic geography). 
  • Geography as popular knowledge (traveler/explorer tales).
  • Geography as gainful knowledge (knowledge useful for commerce and business)

The synthetic nature of the discipline provides geographers with not only a unique set of transferable skills including: the ability to collect and analyse information and identify spatial trends and patterns; the ability to write concise, clearly argued essays; the ability to focus on global to local issues and assess priorities and the ability to assess work output critically.  But in my opinion, what truly defines a geographer is their unique perspective and outlook on the world, which can then relate to other disciplines – it is the latter (the synthesising) that makes geographers so special and employable in today’s modern world.  In addition Professor Viles of Oxford University emphasises a skill that is often forgotten, but one which defines us as geographers: “one of our greatest skills is to get into the environment and get to the bottom of what is going on” - in other words, we like getting our hands dirty.

Another over-looked aspect of Geography is how it encourages one to travel and explore the world.  My passion for Geography was first catalysed by a trip to the Mathare Valley slums in Nairobi, Kenya at the tender age of 16. Since this seminal moment my study of Geography both as student, researcher and teacher has enabled me to: live in a rainforest studying local communities in Honduras; walk China’s Great wall; and study the stunning glaciated valley of Yosemite National Park in California. Therefore, I believe that geographers have a genuine interest in the world around them and an enquiring mind that is willing to ask questions.

A different discipline – YES indeed!
In a time-space compressed world that is increasingly becoming over-populated and hazardous it seems that Geography (quintessentially the study of place and space) has never been more relevant. Geographers not only are well-equipped to understand the causes of the problem(s) but also have the ability to find solutions; recently seen in the area of Biodiversity and conservation management. 

Also, Geography over recent years has indeed seen an increase in popularity and credibility – the Geography Matters campaign, the new curriculum from the Geographical Association and the plethora of TV programmes on geographic topics such as the centre of the earth, megacities, the Blue Planet and the Human Planet all touch upon key geographic themes explored in more depth at GCSE and A-level. It is also clear that without knowing most of us use one (if not more) of Taylor’s types of geographic knowledge in our daily lives – and for all those parents whose children want to study Geography at university – do not worry as it would appear that geography as gainful knowledge within the major city firms is highly valued and very employable!

Most importantly Geography has the ability to build the bridge over the abyss and link the two bodies of the physical and human world, which have (and will always) come into conflict. The discipline provides us with an overview of the local, regional, national and global spatial processes that define and govern the world we live in.  It is a contested discipline, but one which is constantly evolving as there is always something new to research: new nation states being created or a new natural disaster affecting a vulnerable population. As geographers we aim to synthesise and explore the connections and flows between space and place and this is what makes it a different sort of discipline, well-placed to make a difference as we move towards the new paradigm of sustainability science.

Further reading/links:

Alternative career pathways (other than a weatherman or teacher!):

Transport logistics manager
Land use planner
CEO of Green Economics Institute 
GIS Industry manager
Work for Google
Water resources engineer
Founder of a renewable energy company
Environmental consultant in Africa

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Data Blog - Facts are Sacred - Sub-Saharan Africa

An excellent site here, illustrating how dynamic geography has become as a discipline with regards to presenting geographical data in new ways. Data provides geographers with a brief snapshot of a country and much can be gleamed from accurate information.

The changing face of Britain - Ordnance survey maps

The Ordnance survey blog shows an interesting clip on how the geography of Britain changes constantly and how these changes are mapped and recorded on the OS Master map database; in their own words the nation's 21st century Doomsday book!

The video shows an 18 month period in which you’ll see there isn’t a single part of the country that hasn’t been updated. That’s a lot of change.

India in a multi-polar world

I found this article and it fits nicely into my teaching of Superpowers at the moment (Edexcel A2); having moved from a uni-polar world (British Empire), to a bi-polar one (Cold War) and then back to a uni-polar world again with the U.S. as the world's number one hegemonic superpower. The question is, for how much longer will the U.S be number 1; especially considering how interconnected the world is through globalisation and the rise of emerging superpowers like China and India.,,contentMDK:22920320~pagePK:64257043~piPK:437376~theSitePK:4607,00.html

Is this our attitude towards climate change?

In the Times a couple of weeks ago I noted down the following quote from Hugo Rifkind as it seemed to acutely capture 'our' attitude towards climate change and sustainability:

"We care, but not quite enough, we'd quite like something to be done, but not now and not paid for by us. Our fatalism has almost become romantic."
Do you agree?