Heat wave in Pakistan in June 2015: A comment

Early morning on 26 June PowerFM interviewed me for a few minutes in their news segment about the heat wave that south Pakistan was experiencing. For five days in a row temperatures reached low- to mid-40 degrees Celsius, leading to the deaths of over 2 000 people, and causing the prime minister of Pakistan to declare a state of emergency.

This has not been the first recent heat wave leading to such high deaths, and will highly likely not be the last:

  • In 2003 a heat wave hit Europe that killed over 50 000 people;
  • The 2010 Russian heat wave lead to the deaths of around 56 000 people; and
  • In May this year nearly 2 500 people died in India when temperatures reached above 45 degrees Celsius.

Heatwave as hell

(Source: Dave Granlund)

Whilst heat waves are already occurring more frequently in Europe, Asia and Australia, climate change is expected to lead to more hot days and warmer nights, and higher temperatures over nearly all land areas. The latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2014:19) found that it is “likely that human influence has more than doubled the probability of occurrence of heat waves in some locations”. Another study (Christidis et al 2015) found that human-caused climate change makes it ten times more likely than a decade ago for heat waves such as the 2003 one to occur in Europe again. Not only will heat waves occur more frequently in Europe, Asia and Australia due to climate change, but it is also expected to last longer and be more severe (Herring et al 214; Steffen et al 2014).

Like the radio interviewer (Lawrence Tlhabane), you might wonder how heat waves are related to climate change? Think of the striker of one of the top soccer teams. (For my niece I would have to make it Messi or Neymar). This player already scores many goals due to his talent and training; should he take performance-enhancing drugs, he is very likely to be even more on target and become immortalised as the best striker ever!

Messi & Neymar

(Source: FC Barcelona)

Global warming is the earth on performance-enhancing drugs; as the average temperature goes up, we’re more likely to experience frequent hotter days, and some areas are more likely to experience more heat waves. Thus, whilst it is not possible to say that a specific extreme weather event, such as the heat wave in Pakistan, is attributable to climate change, the scientific consensus is that extreme weather events (such as heat waves, floods and droughts) are more likely to occur with more intensity, due to climate change. Thus, it is likely for heat waves to occur more often, be higher in temperature and last longer.

What are some of the impacts of heat waves occurring more frequent and being more intense?

  • The most immediate impact of a heat wave is morbidity (illness) and premature mortality (death), as we have seen in Pakistan. We must remember our bodies’ normal temperature is 37-38C. Once it heats up to 39-40C, our muscles slow down and fatigue sets in. At 40-41C heat exhaustion and heatstroke is likely, and above 41C our bodies start to shut down, with risk of multiple organ failure (see BBC 2013). “In America on average over the last 30 years, excessive heat accounts for more reported deaths annually than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning combined.” (Adams). Various studies (quoted in Vescovi et al 2005) found the “strongest correlation factors between impacts of high temperature events on mortality and morbidity, and social factors include age (Besancenot 2002; Diaz et al 2002), poverty (INSERM 2003), social isolation (Besancenot 2002), and education level (Ballester et al. 1997). And a report released the end of June by The Lancet (Watts et al 2015) diagnoses climate change as ‘a medical emergency’, due to its health impacts.
  • Increased morbidity and mortality put pressure on existing health infrastructure. In Pakistan, for example, 14 000 people were seeking help at hospitals, and the mortuaries ran short of space (The New York Times 25 June 2015; News24 25 June 2015). In such a crisis it is likely that emergency staff will be overwhelmed and overworked by the scale of the crisis, also because such staff will themselves experience heat stress.
  • Current vulnerable social groups are more at risk than others to heat waves; for example, older people and children, those living alone, those with pre-existing diseases (especially cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses), those who are immobile, those suffering from mental illness, and the homeless and urban poor (due to the urban heat island effect). Such vulnerable people have limited adaptive capacity to deal with heat waves, and other extreme weather events.
  • Some argue that there is an association between heat waves / hot weather and social disturbances, unrest and crime – this remains debatable, and should rather be seen as speculative rather than definitive (see Anderson 1989; Anderson et al 1997; Cohn 1990, 1993; Field 1992; Rotton and Cohn 2000a, 2000b). In Karachi in Pakistan we saw sporadic protests blaming deaths on the government and the main power utility, after electricity blackouts (The Independent 25 June 2015; Time 24 June 2015).
  • But heat waves are likely to affect electricity supply. Not only is power outages more likely due to heat causing transmission lines to sag, but the increased demand for electricity to keep people cool through air conditioners further increase the likelihood of blackouts.
  • Another key service affected by heat waves is water services and infrastructure. Increased demand for water, combined with likely electricity outages, can lead to a crisis in water availability. Furthermore, the rise in water temperatures will reduce water quality, not only affecting human consumption and health, and increased cost to clean water, but fish populations and other organisms in the water ecosystem will also be affected.
  • Within the agricultural sector livestock may be affected, with, for example, milk production of cows being reduced; and wheat, maize and other plant growth being affected if a heat wave occurs at key developmental stages. Reduced harvests with have a knock-on effect on food security. With veldfires more likely in heat waves (refs), crops and grazing can be affected.
  • A warmer world, on average, means a more humid world (Huber & Gulledge 2011). In higher humidity our sweat don’t evaporate, and we feel hot and sweaty, thus increasing our discomfort. [Remember, in a heat wave there is little respite – the normal trend of cooler nights does not happen, combined with consecutive hot days.] Combined with labour power morbidity, reduced production is likely. In Pakistan, for example, an emergency was declared, with schools and government offices closed.
  • And, heat waves can lead to increased economic costs in transportation. In Pakistan, for example, road infrastructure was damaged. Railway tracks might bend, and mechanical failure in cars is likely due to stress on car cooling systems.

India road melting 2

(Source: The Huffington Post – from Hindustan Times)

In increased likelihood of occurrences of extreme weather events – such as heat waves, floods and drought – means that we have to look at mitigation. Two recent court judgements – one in the US and the other in the Netherlands – highlight this. In the US in King County a court asked the Washington state Department of Ecology to reconsider a petition by eight youth for state-wide reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions (Western Environmental Law Center 2015). And the end of June a Dutch court ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse emission by 2010 with 25% compared to 1990 levels, in order to protect its people from global warming (Nature 24 June 2015). But mitigation is not enough; we need adaptation as well. And adaptation requires that we reconsider the values that underpin our living in the age of the Anthropocene. In a recent research article Gina Ziervogel and colleagues (2014:615) argued that “Climate change adaptation requires forward-looking decision-making that marries scientific diagnoses and technical innovation with social organisation and political debate around competing value systems.” And in June Pope Francis wrote in an encyclical on the environment that “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.” Indeed, climate change (and extreme weather events such as heat waves) is not only an environmental problem, but also a political, development, economic and social challenge.

List of references

Adams CR Impacts of temperature extremes. Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, Colorado State University:
Fort Collins

BBC (18 July) 2013 What happens to the body in extreme heat?

Christidis N, Jones GS & Stott PA 2015 Dramatically increasing chance of extremely hot summers since the 2003 European heatwaveNature Climate Change 5: 46–50. doi:10.1038/nclimate2468

Herring SC, Hoerling MP, Peterson TC & Stott PA (eds) 2014 Explaining extreme events of 2013 from a climate perspective. Special Supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 95(9)

Huber D & Gulledge J 2011 Extreme weather and climate change: Understanding the link and managing the risk. Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions.

IPCC 2014 Climate change 2013: The physical science basis (Working Group 1 contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC). New York: Cambridge University Press

Nature 24 June 2015 Landmark court ruling tells Dutch government to do more on climate change

News24 25 June 2015 Pakistan morgues run out of space as heat wave kills 1 000

Steffen W, Hughes L & Perkins S 2014 Heat waves: Hotter, longer and more often. Climate Council of Australia.

The Independent 25 June 2015 Karachi heat wave: Death toll tops 1 000 as government and electricity company trade blame

The New York Times 25 June 2015 Death toll from heat wave in Karachi, Pakistan, hits 1000

Time 24 June 2015 Pakistan declares a state of emergency as heat wave death toll soars to nearly 800

Vescovi L, Rebetez M & Rong F 2005 Assessing public health risk due to extremely high temperature events: Climate and social parameters. Climate Research 30: 71-78

Watts N et al 2015 Health and climate change: Policy responses to protect public health. The Lancet

Western Environmental Law Center 2015 Washington State youth win unprecedented decision in their climate change lawsuit – Press release on 24 June

Ziervogel G 2014 Climate change impacts and adaptation in South Africa. WIREs Climate Change 5: 605-620. doi: 10.1002/wcc.295


Links on climate change: First half of 2015

In this post I curate a few links related to climate change research, that in some way relate to the focus of our research project on diverse knowledges on the relations between changing climate and water.

For a history of climate change science (until 2009), look at the OSS Foundation’s site.

On Wednesday the blog GlacierHub, about research and information on glaciers around the world, will be one year old – congrats, and thanks for sharing!

Interactions of drought and climate adaptation for urban water is the website of a project about drought management strategies to support urban water systems.

Read John Dryzek, Richard Norgaard and David Schlosberg’s book Climate-challenged society. The publisher writes about the book: “This book is an original, accessible, and thought-provoking introduction to the severe and broad-ranging challenges that climate change presents and how societies can respond. It synthesises and deploys cutting-edge scholarship on the range of social, economic, political, and philosophical issues surrounding climate change. The treatment is introductory, but the book is written ‘with attitude’, for nobody has yet charted in coherent, integrative, and effective fashion a way to move societies beyond their current paralysis as they face the challenges of climate change. The coverage begins with an examination of science, public opinion, and policy making, with special attention to organised climate change denial. The book then moves to economic analysis and its limits; different kinds of policies; climate justice; governance at all levels from the local to the global; and the challenge of an emerging ‘Anthropocene’ in which the mostly unintended consequences of human action drive the earth system into a more chaotic and unstable era. The conclusion considers the prospects for fundamental transition in ideas, movements, economics, and governance.”

There’s also Mike Hulme’s 2014 book, Exploring climate change through science and in society. It is an anthology of his essays, interviews and speeches from the late 1980s. His other books on climate change are Can science fix climate change: A case against climate engineering, and Why we disagree about climate change: Understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity

Another book is by Candis Callison, How climate change comes to matter: The communal life of facts. The publisher describes the book as: “During the past decade, skepticism about climate change has frustrated those seeking to engage broad publics and motivate them to take action on the issue. In this innovative ethnography, Candis Callison examines the initiatives of social and professional groups as they encourage diverse American publics to care about climate change. She explores the efforts of science journalists, scientists who have become expert voices for and about climate change, American evangelicals, Indigenous leaders, and advocates for corporate social responsibility. The disparate efforts of these groups illuminate the challenge of maintaining fidelity to scientific facts while transforming them into ethical and moral calls to action. Callison investigates the different vernaculars through which we understand and articulate our worlds, as well as the nuanced and pluralistic understandings of climate change evident in different forms of advocacy. As she demonstrates, climate change offers an opportunity to look deeply at how issues and problems that begin in a scientific context come to matter to wide publics, and to rethink emerging interactions among different kinds of knowledge and experience, evolving media landscapes, and claims to authority and expertise.”

For reviews of Naomi Klein’s book on climate change, This changes everything, read John Gray, or read Elizabeth Kolbert’s review, and Naomi’s response in The New York Review of Books.


(Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/07/niels-bugge-cartoon-award_n_5455509.html)

The Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup of the USA’s Third National Climate Assessment in 2014 released Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives.

Have a look at the presentation of the key findings related to Africa of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report: What’s in it for Africa?

One of the research projects of the Centre for Science & Technology is about Knowledge, power and the coproduction of climate information for adaptation to climate change in Tanzania. The website describes the projects as follows: “Lisa Dilling, Meaghan Daly, Mara Goldman and Eric Lovell are conducting a project that aims to improve understanding of processes to effectively link climate information and adaptation at national and local scales in Tanzania. The approach is to explicitly recognise and examine the ways in which the varying epistemological traditions and relations of power among vulnerable communities, disaster management professionals, and climate experts influence the perceived value of climate information for improved early warning and climate adaptation. The primary research question is ‘what processes or institutions can support improved application of technical climate information to facilitate successful adaptation to climate related disasters?’ This research draws upon theoretical contributions from the fields of science policy, disaster research, science and technology studies, and political ecology to support a mixed-methods research approach to explore practices and modes of engagement that may best facilitate the production of usable science that can be successfully integrated within adaptation decision-making and policy development processes.”

Specific to South Africa, Gina Ziervogel and colleagues from mainly UCT has an article in WIREs Climate Change on Climate change impacts and adaptation in South Africa. The abstract of their paper states: “In this paper we review current approaches and recent advances in research on climate impacts and adaptation in South Africa. South Africa has a well-developed earth system science research program that underpins the climate change scenarios developed for the southern African region. Established research on the biophysical impacts of climate change on key sectors (water, agriculture, and biodiversity) integrates the climate change scenarios but further research is needed in a number of areas, such as the climate impacts on cities and the built environment. National government has developed a National Climate Change Response White Paper, but this has yet to translate into policy that mainstreams adaptation in everyday practice and longer-term planning in all spheres and levels of government. A national process to scope long-term adaptation scenarios is underway, focusing on cross-sectoral linkages in adaptation responses at a national level. Adaptation responses are emerging in certain sectors. Some notable city-scale and project-based adaptation responses have been implemented, but institutional challenges persist. In addition, a number of knowledge gaps remain in relation to the biophysical and socio-economic impacts of climate change. A particular need is to develop South Africa’s capacity to undertake integrated assessments of climate change that can support climate-resilient development planning.”

In the South African Journal of Science, there is an article on Observed and modelled trends in rainfall and temperature for South Africa: 1960–2010.

Have a look at the 2010 book by PG Alcock, called Rainbows in the mist: indigenous weather knowledge, beliefs and folklore in South Africa.

Understanding ‘climate change’ and related concepts

In the Anthropology Honours class about science and society that I am currently facilitating, we talked about climate change this week. If you want to understand the debates and issues related to climate change, you have to clearly differentiate between the various related concepts, such as weather versus climate, climate variability versus anthropogenic climate change, and global warming (in another posting I will add ‘changing climate’ to these concepts).

The most useful discussion on the difference between weather and climate most surely is from Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos. He explains weather as the short-term (daily and weekly) highly unpredictable changes in atmospheric conditions (measured through quantities such as temperature, precipitation and wind), whilst climate is the longer-term (over years) ‘average weather’, that is more predictable. The analogy he uses of him walking with his dog is revealing: the meandering dog that is running around all over the place (though within the parameters of the leash he is on), indicates the weather. The steady progress of Neil, and the much-more straight path he is walking on, is the climate.

Weather vs climate _ Neil deGrasse

Source: http://plannedresilience.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/weather-climate.jpg

Weather then is short-term meteorological events in terms of days, weeks, and months. The popular definition of climate is from the World Meteorological Organisation that explains climate as “a statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant meteorological quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years.” The interactions between the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the lithosphere and the biosphere explains climate.

Whilst this natural science definition indicating the physicality of climate is crucial, the social understanding of climate is just as important. David Hulme (2015:175) states: “My argument is that climate—as it is imagined and acted upon [my emphasis] — needs to be understood, first and foremost, culturally and that the environmental humanities can enrich and deepen such an understanding.”

Another crucial distinction to make is between climate variability and climate change. Climate on earth has always been variable, meaning it had never been constant but has been changing due to various natural process, such as the earth’s tilting, volcanic eruptions, tectonic plate movement, eruptions on the sun, etc. The occurances of ice ages in previous millennia indicates such climate variability. Climate change though is climate variability due to anthropogenic (human-induced) causes; in this definition I am following the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Such climate change is occurring, and thus only observable, over decades and centuries.

The main human-induced cause is rapidly increasing the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect, that is causing the average temperature on earth to rise. And that then is global warming:  It is mainly through our burning of fossil fuels for our energy-hungry economies and lives, increased deforestation, and other land-use changes, that we are increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And this is leading to “overall warming of the earth, based on average increases in temperature over the entire land and ocean surface” (Davis 2011:16).

For further clarification of various climate change related concepts, see the FAO Climate Change and Bio-energy Glossary.

List of reference

Davis C (ed) 2011 Climate risk and vulnerability: A handbook for southern Africa. Pretoria: CSIR

Hulme M 2015 ClimateEnvironmental Humanities 6: 175-178

Interesting links: First half of 2014 (1) – Climate change, water and evidence

The year has sped by, and I have not been able to get to the blog 😦 But I have a week of recess before the new teaching term starts, so thought I should update the blog with the interesting links and articles I have been bookmarking during the first half of the year. So here goes the first set of links related to climate change, water, and evidence. In a second post related to the interesting sources I found during the first half of 2014, I will post about the ontological turn in anthropology and sources related to the Anthropocene.

Weather and climate change

The last two of 5th assessment reports of the IPPC was released in the first half of 2014, namely Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and Mitigation of climate change.

I am enrolled for the MOOC offered by UC San Diego on Climate change in four dimensions (#climatechange4D). The short description of the course is that it “views climate change from a variety of perspectives at the intersection of the natural sciences, technology, and the social sciences and humanities” – it runs from 1 July until 1 September.

The anthropologists Ben Orlove chats about why he studies El Nino (video) [read his co-published article on El Nino’s impacts on water, agriculture and health], and Gavin Schmidt did a TED talk on the emergent patterns of climate change (video).

The journal Environment and Urbanization has made a list (and made free access) all the articles published in the journal on cities and climate change since 2007. And the ICLEI at the Cambridge University did a great job of summarising the key findings of the IPPC Fifth Assessment Report as it relates climate change and cities.

The CODESRIA Bulletin 1 of 2014 has an article by James Murombedzi about accumulation by dispossession: Climate change & natural resource management in Africa (see pages 38-40). Also watch this short film produced at the first southern African adaptation colloquium.

Although published a while ago (in 2006 in Anthropology in Action), the article by Mariella Marzano about changes in the weather: A Sri Lankan village case study does seem useful to the research project on this blog. The abstract states: “As the impacts of climate change are expected to increase, there is growing concern in development contexts over how best to assist the poor and vulnerable to adapt to such changes whilst ensuring environmental and livelihood security. Climate variability is a persistent and progressively more worrying feature in the everyday lives of individuals and communities in rural areas around the world, and there is a pressing need for comprehensive knowledge of the complex relationships between humans, and between them and their environment. Thus there is a growing movement towards bridging the gap between top-down decision-making and more grassroots approaches that encompass local knowledge and experiences. Drawing upon fieldwork in Sri Lanka, this article examines the potential of taking an indigenous knowledge research (IKR) approach to understanding local adaptation to climate change, specifically how local people are adapting their livelihood strategies to what they perceive to be increasing variability in weather patterns. It also explores the prospect of indigenous knowledge networks as vehicles for rapidly sharing information and building links between policy making and local reality.”

For a laugh (on a serious matter), watch John Oliver on Tonight talking about the climate change debate in the US (video).


Watch this talk by Cynthia Barnett on a water ethic for America (video), and don’t miss one of my favourite water researchers, Erik Swyngedouw, talking about Urban water: Urban environmental justice or political ecology?  There is also a short film about the threats of 12 mega-dams to the people and rainforest of Sarawak in Malaysia, called Damming our future (video).

Cameron Harrington published an article in the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal – Toward a critical water security: Hydrosolidarity and emancipation. The abstract sounds enticing: “Traditional approaches to water security presume that water will be a primary vehicle that will drive conflict in the future, and may in fact lead to war between states or armed intra-state groups. This article begins by pointing out the limitations of the connections between water scarcity and traditional security and examines the role of emancipation as an aim for the study and practice of water security. It aims to uncover the complex relationships individuals and political communities have with scarce water sources; relationships that defy simple classification as competitive and protectionist, as traditional security views might have us believe. An individual’s connection with water is characterised by a wide and shifting confluence of personal and social needs and identities. Thus, this article seeks to reveal the wide range of approaches used by individuals and political communities to manage their relationships with water, and more broadly, with each other. In particular, the concept of “hydrosolidarity” is studied as a potential emancipatory alternative to hostility, strategy, and conflict in water relations.”

Evidence and systematic reviews

Noah Feldman talks about the Nature of evidence (video), Yves Gingras talks about Transformations in the relations between science, policy and citizens (video), and Stathis Psillos discusses From the bankruptcy of science to the death of evidence.

Recently Jon Turney wrote a post about whether conversation can turn research into action, and Duncan Green asks whether politics and evidence are compatible. And on the BBC website you’ll find an article highlighting the difference between correlation and causation – it shows the spurious correlation between consumption of margarine and divorce rates in Maine, and shows why we cannot claim that eating margarine will cause your marriage to fail.

Be sure to follow the blog of Kirsty Newman, the head of DFID’s Evidence into Action team – all her posting will have you thinking and questioning. I loved these two on bringing research rigour and context together and where evidence fits in between top-down and bottom-up development approaches. Sarah Morton blogs about her talk in Canada on evidence-based service delivery and development – she addresses three issues: what do we mean by research-utilisation; what is evidence for service and practice; and key ways of improving research use.

The annual conference of the Campbell Collaboration took place in June in Belfast. Whilst I did not attend, I had colleagues attending and presenting, and I tried to keep abreast by following the tweets from #c2Belfast. One of the outcomes is that the Campbell Collaboration has adopted MECIR standards as guidance for its systematic reviews.

My colleagues at the Centre for Anthropological Research (CfAR) at the University of Johannesburg launched UJ-BCURE – see the video of the launch. BCURE  is a DFID-funded project to build capacity to use research evidence.

The website of the Africa Evidence Network was launched recently – be sure to visit regularly, join as a member, and attend the November colloquium meeting of this network in Johannesburg.

My colleagues Laurenz Langer and Ruth Stewart of the CfAR have an article out in Journal of Development Effectiveness – What have we learned from the application of systematic review methodology in international development – a thematic overview. Ruth’s article, Changing the world one systematic review at a time, also appeared in Development Southern Africa.

Birte Snilstveit and colleagues published a working paper with the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group, called Evidence gap maps: A tool for promoting evidence-informed policy and prioritising future research. The abstracts reads: “Evidence-gap maps present a new addition to the tools available to support evidence-informed policy making. Evidence-gap maps are thematic evidence collections covering a range of issues such as maternal health, HIV/AIDS, and agriculture. They present a visual overview of existing systematic reviews or impact evaluations in a sector or subsector, schematically representing the types of interventions evaluated and outcomes reported. Gap maps enable policy makers and practitioners to explore the findings and quality of the existing evidence and facilitate informed judgment and evidence-based decision making in international development policy and practice. The gap map also identifies key ‘gaps’ where little or no evidence from impact evaluations and systematic reviews is available and where future research should be focused. Thus, gap maps can be a useful tool for developing a strategic approach to building the evidence base in a particular sector. This paper provides an introduction to evidence-gap maps, outlines the gap-map methodology, and presents some examples.”

Elaine Barnett-Page and James Thomas wrote an article in 2009 (Methods for the synthesis of qualitative research: A critical review) in BMC Medical Research Methodology – useful.

Thomas Winderl wrote a guest post on the blog Better Evaluation on innovation in development evaluation.

I love this tweet by Irene Guijt (on 13 March) about evidence!

CEGSS from evidence to convince authorities to evidence to mobilise citizens.

My second blog post on interesting sources I found in the first half of 2014 will follow – it will contain links re the ontological turn in anthropology and sources related to the Anthropocene.

Interesting links: November and December 2013

A visit last night by a virtual connection turned real friend inspired me (without any conversation about blogging per se) to book time this weekend to finish some of the half-done postings I have worked on over the December holidays. So, I’ll start with the numerous links I saved over November and December – such links posted on this blog serves as bookmarking of sources and ideas for those working on this project; hopefully others will also find them useful.

On climate change

Towards the end of November 2013, the IPCC released it Fifth Assessment Report on physical sciences; see the whole report in 19 illustrated haiku – clear and to the point. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and Globaia produced a video visualising and summarising the findings of the 5ht IPCC physical sciences report – see Climate change and and the state of the science. Joseph Stromberg helps with clarity by writing on the Smithsonian blog about Six things we learned about our changing climate in 2013. In early December 2013 David Keith and Mike Hulme debated on another at Oxford on climate geo-engineering – watch the video of this debate. WIREs Climate Change is an open-access cross-disciplinary journal on climate change, and WIREs Water – coming in 2014, will be the same on the topic of water.

At the American Anthropological Association (AAA) conference in Chicago in 2013, Shirley Fiske and Tony Oliver-Smith, both members of the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force, spoke to Anthropology TV about the role of this task force. Another member of this task force, Sarah Strauss, in the December Anthropology News highlighted the work of Cindy Isenhour on climate change and consumer societies. And Jamie Clarke posted on the Global Policy blog that Values, not just science, need to be central to the climate change debate. In a short documentary, Maasai Voice on climate change group of young Maasai pastoralists from Kenya share their perspectives on climate change, whilst in a new book – Media and the politics of Arctic climate change – Annika Nilsson, Miyase Christensen and Nina Wormbs examine new narratives about the Arctic and climate change, indicating what is lost when simple story-lines dominate over the reality of complex, dynamic, interrelated issues. In the December 2013 issue of Anthropological Theory, Jerome Whitington has an article on Fingerprint, bellwether, model event: Climate change as speculative anthropologyYou can read a short excerpt from Rebecca Costa’s book The Watchman’s Rattle on the Mayan civilisation and drought. Lastly, watch the trailer of a new TV series called Years of living dangerously, which will start in April in the US on Showtime – it tells the stories of people touched by climate change.

Years of living dangerously

(Source: http://www.sho.com/sho/years-of-living-dangerously/home)

On systematic review methodology and evidence-based policy
There’s a quick guidebook out by Gough, Oliver and Thomas, called Learning from research: Systematic reviews for informing policy decisions. The same authors published a useful article in Systematic Reviews in 2012 on Clarifying differences between review designs and methods. And then there’s a new book edited by Boland, Cherry and Dickson (all from the University of Liverpool): Doing a systematic review – A student’s guide. In a critical engagement with systematic review methodology, Loevinsohn and colleagues from the IDS did a review of a systematic review of the impact of water, sanitation and hygiene interventions have on child diarrhoea morbidity . Their findings raise questions about the impact pathways used in the systematic review, and contributes to the debate about appropriate methods to evaluate and synthesise evidence on complex interventions.
I’ve come across numerous articles engaging the debate on the nature and usefulness of of evidence-based policy. One is by Nina Vohnsen in Anthropology Today on Evidence-based policy: Some pitfalls in the meeting of scientific research politics. Another is Brain Head’s article, Evidence-based policymaking – Speaking truth to power?, in the November 2013 edition of the Australian Journal of Public Administration, highlighting the relationships between evidence and policy. Oliver and colleagues wrote up A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers in BMC Health Services Research.  And Ben Taylor has a working paper out on Evidence-based policy and systemic change: Conflicting trends? The abstract states: “Two concurrent but incompatible trends have emerged in development in recent years. Firstly, evidence-based policy and the results agenda have come become ubiquitous amongst government policy-makers in recent years including in development. Secondly, there has been a realisation of the utility of systemic approaches to development policy and programming in order to bring about sustainable change for larger numbers of people. This paper highlights the negative impacts of this former trend on development and, more acutely, its incompatibility with the latter trend. The paper then highlights positive signs of a change in thinking in development that have begun to emerge to lead to a more pragmatic and contextually nuanced approach to measuring progress and identifies the need for further research in this area, calling for evaluation of approaches rather than searching for a silver bullet.” Lastly is Ruth Levitt’s The challenges of evidence.

I did not attend the  2013 conference of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), but did scan #AAA2013 for tweets from there. I was struck by two words: ontology and anthropocene. Below a few links that indicate some of the discussions regarding these ideas, not only at AAA2013 but also wider.


In Cultural Anthropology there is a set of position papers on The politics of ontology. It is from the roundtable discussion at the 2013 AAA meeting in Chicago which explored theoretical positions and methodological projects on the political implications of the ontological ‘turn’ in anthropology. Also read the posting (and the comments) on Savage Minds on Ontology as the major theme of AAA 2013. This debate is not new though – see Ontology is just another word for culture, a debate on a motion table at the 2008 meeting of the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory. Also read  Relativism and the ontological turn within Anthropology  by Martin Paleček and Mark Risjord, and Common sense: A review of certain recent reviews of the ‘ontological turn’, by Morten Axel Pedersen. Not on this debate, but related, is Daniel Little writing on his blog Understanding Society about ANT and the philosophy of science.

Be sure you sign in to Bruno Latour and colleagues’s project, An inquiry into modes of existence. Over the next few months I will be reading and engaging with their project, which will frame some of our research project’s questions about the nature of evidence, for whom, for what. You can also register for Latour’s open online course on Scientific Humanities, which starts the 10th of February 2014.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour (Source: http://vimeo.com/49849864)

And what about listening to Tom Ingold’s lecture, entitled Towards an ecology of materials. The abstract for the lecture is as follows: “Both material culture studies and ecological anthropology are concerned with the material conditions of social and cultural life. Yet despite advances in each of these fields which have eroded traditional divisions between humanistic and science-based approaches, their respective practitioners continue to talk past one another in largely incommensurate theoretical languages. Through a review of recent trends in the study of material culture, the reasons for this are found to lie in: (1) a conception of the material world and the non-human that leaves no space for living organisms; (2) an emphasis on materiality that prioritises finished artefacts over the properties of materials, and (3) a conflation of things with objects that stops up the flows of energy and circulations of materials on which life depends. To overcome these limitations, an ecology of materials is proposed that focuses on their enrolment in form-making processes. The paper concludes with some observations on materials, mind and time.”

On the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene refers to the idea of a new geological era for earth, one formed due to the influence of humans – see the video Welcome to the Anthropocene. Debates on ontology and the Anthropocene is brought together in a conversation between Phillipe Descola and Bruno Latour about approaches to the Anthropocene – see the video of this discussion. And read Descola’s Beyond nature and culture (a review by Des Fitzgerald is here).

Anna Tsing, author of Friction: An ethnography of global connection, has started a new research programme with Niels Bohr, called ‘Living in the Anthropocene’; the website for this project is here. Melissa Leach, the new director of the IDS, gave a talk in Stockholm about Science-governance challenges in the Anthropocene, and you can listen to a keynote speech by Elizabeth A Povinelli on The Anthropocene ProjectA new journal was launched in December 2013, called Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. It publishes “original research reporting new knowledge of the Earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems during this era of human impacts; feedbacks between human and natural systems; and steps that can be taken to mitigate and adapt to environmental change”; it’s an open-access journal. And lastly, Tony Turton wrote for Global Dialogue about Water wars in the Anthropocene: A South African perspective.

December being the month that my country’s first black president died, I end my post quoting from a poem by William Ernest Henley called Invictus, which was one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite poems:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


(Source: http://www.urhobovanguard.com/2013/12/10/nelson-mandela/)

Interesting links: August – October 2013

I had high hopes of regular blogging when we started the journey of the Thuthuka-project. But the second part of the year got much more busy than I initially anticipated, and thus my postings on the blog dropped right off.  But now the teaching term has come to an end, students are preparing for exams, and I have moments for deeper breathing and looking up to the expansive blue sky for thinking inspiration. I’ll start my return to the blog in an easy way: sharing some of the resources and links I have saved over the last few months.

Climate-related links

The biggest news in this time period was the release of the Working Group 1 contribution, to the IPCC’s Fifth assessment report, on the physical science basis of climate change. Watch a short video, 5 things we learned about climate change, that highlights key findings.

For me another informative event is a Coursera course focused on the conversations on climate change; it’s called Climate literacy: Navigating climate change conversations, and is presented by Dr Sarah Burch and Dr Sara Harris. I enrolled for this course in September, but did not get far with it; hopefully I’ll pick-up speed in the next few weeks.

Climate Change Word CloudSource: https://d396qusza40orc.cloudfront.net/climateliteracy%2FAnnouncement%20attachments%2FWordCloudFall2013.jpg

Another site I want to explore for its rich resources is the website ‘Dissertations initiative for the advancement of climate change research’; for short DISCCRS. DISCCRS is about fostering interdisciplinary work on climate change between new researchers. Its website offers a database of PhD dissertations, and various resources on funding, news and projects re climate change,

Margot Hill has got a book out, called Climate change and water governance: Adaptive capacity in Chile and Switzerland. The synopsis of the book states that the book “presents the results of several years’ research focusing on adaptive capacity and water governance in two widely-separated regions of the globe, namely the Swiss Alps and the Chilean Andes. The two regions share many similarities in hydrology and water resources: shifting precipitation patterns, highly variable winter snow pack and receding glaciers, resulting in changing seasonality and amounts of runoff that will subtly modify water availability and water use. As climate change is likely to amplify trends in surface run-off, the author investigates whether adaptive capacity in these two regions is sufficiently robust to respond to a situation which has never been experienced to date. … In order to understand and assess the interplay of complex and interlinked environmental and socio-economic issues, the author looks beyond the technology, modelling, engineering and infrastructure associated with water resources management and climate change adaptation, to assess the decision-making environment within which water and adaptation policy and practices are devised and executed. Using these insights, the author introduces, tests and enhances an indicator framework for the assessment of adaptive capacity. The aim is to help readers better understand the adaptive processes that allow the regimes governing water resources to respond to new shocks and changes in the hydrological system, in order to build more resilient water governance systems that can bend, but not break, in the face of new and unexpected challenges.” (Springer website).

Another book I hope to read soon is the edited collection ‘Water and climate change in Africa: Challenges and community initiatives in Durban, Maputo and Nairobi’. This book is edited Prof Patricia E Perkins, the principal investigator of a three year research project of the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) program, a joint initiative of Canada’s International Development Research Centre and the UK’s DFID. The book provides an overview of the ways in climate change is affecting the cities of Durban, Maputo and Nairobi. It takes an equity and climate justice approach, and discusses a range of initiatives at the grassroots level.

Water & climate change book

An article by Gary Gutting in the opinion pages of the New York Times calls on scientists to work with colleagues from the Humanities in an interdisciplinary approach to understand and address the issues related to climate change.

In South Africa Louis Scott of the University of the Free State is a leading scholar in the field of Palaeoecology. He recently retired, and to celebrate his career and contributions to palaeoscience a conference is being organised from 7 to 11 July 2014 at the University of the Free State. A call for papers to this conference – From past to present: Changing climates, ecosystems and environments of arid southern Africa – is out.

Methodology-related links

The Campbell Collaboration has an useful webpage indicating various open access evidence libraries on systematic reviews and impact evaluation studies.

The Collaboration for Environmental Evidence has a very useful page on their website about systematic maps.

Interesting links: May and June 2013

In this posting I report briefly on a few interesting links I came across the last two months. This is partly to keep a record for myself of things I want to read again and spaces I want to visit again, but also to entice you to go read and visit.

If you do not yet, you should follow Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc – I am learning much, and my mind is stimulated by the engaged comments on the blog postings. The blog really is providing a forum for discussions on topics related to climate science. Whilst as a social scientist I am not always able to make in-depth sense, I am intrigued and challenged to keep on reading and visiting. In late May and early June, for example, Judith posted Forget sustainability – it’s about resilience,  What exactly are we debating? (indicating matters of agreement and disagreement in climate science in an nuanced manner) and The inevitable climate catastrophe (excerpts from a book by Geoffrey Parker on what we can learn about our future climate catastrophe from the climate of the 17th century). More recently Tony Brown posted ‘Noticeable’ climate change (showing recent climate as less volatile than in the past).

In mid-April 2013 at an international conference at the University of York, Mike Hulme gave a talk on why humanities matter in climate science (in another post I will engage this more). Here I want to report a blog posting Hulme did on Metaphors: Taking responsibility for our choices, where he highlights the crucial influence of metaphors in how we understand and communicate environmental science, and also climate science.

Jerome Whitington wrote on his blog a posting called Speculation, quantification, anthropogenesis: The numerology of climate change. The abstract states: “One does not need to go far in the public discourse surrounding climate change to be inundated with the mystique of number. In the United States, where viewers of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth were treated to specific stunts of quantificatory pontification, just as in Singapore, where I teach climate change to nonspecialist undergraduates, the numberwork of graphs and charts has its own techie vitality. Drawing on my on-going research on the imaginative dimensions of carbon accounting, in this commentary I look toward key moments in the emergence of climate change science to identify why the numbers mystique holds such powerful sway over the possibilities for thinking climate change. Part of the story must include the promises of ‘big data’ and sheer computational prowess of the late-20th century. But what fascinates me are very early moments in climate science that seem to have secured the terms through which contemporary political thought takes place. Joseph Fourier, working in the first decade of the 19th century, secured the mathematical speculation at the heart of climate modeling and associated debates about uncertainty. Svante Arrhenius, often credited with articulating the first complete theory of climate change, published in 1896, decisively established the quantification of carbon dioxide as the key independent variable, and articulated this in the same form through which carbon quantification is dealt with today. Lastly, Dave Keeling’s monumental efforts to rigorously measure global CO2 levels have established the unity of climate change as a scientific and political issue based on its theoretical human etiology. When one imagines scary apocalyptic futures fraught with uncertainty but which hinge on that single variable, through these three elements—speculation, quantification and anthropogenesis—that imagination is possible.”

Turning towards links related to anthropology and climate change, in November 2012 Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, spoke at Swarthmore College about the anthropology of climate change. Listen to and read a transcription of her talk at http://www.swarthmore.edu/the-anthropology-of-climate-change.xml.

I am looking forward to reading with attention an article by Rebecca Cassidy in the 2012 Annual Review of Anthropology, Lives with others: Climate change and human-animal relations. The abstract of the article indicates: “This review assesses the contribution that a holistic, multisited, and multiscalar anthropology can make to the investigation of climate change and its impact on various human-animal assemblages. Anthropologists have a long-standing interest in animal management under changing environmental conditions. I focus on recent material that investigates the impact of anthropogenic climate change on human-animal relations using ethnography from Africa, Amazonia, and the circumpolar rim. I argue that the value of juxtaposing work in diverse settings and across various scales is to highlight the asymmetry of encounters between different perceptions of climate change and the responses they require. Anthropology’s critical, holistic approach is especially valuable in places where people, animals, landscapes, the weather, and indeed climate change itself are aspects of an undifferentiated, spiritually lively, animate environment.”

And lastly, a methodological link: Tricia Wang writes on the blog Ethnography matters on Big data needs thick data, wherein she argues that ethnographers are to engage with ‘big data’ through ‘thick data’ (ethnographic approaches to uncover the meanings behind big data). She writes: ” There’s a big difference between anecdotes and stories, however. Anecdotes are casually gathered stories that are casually shared. Within a research context, stories are intentionally gathered and systematically sampled, shared, debriefed, and analysed which produces insights (analysis in academia).  Great insights inspire design, strategy, and innovation.”



Arial view of the Hartbeespoort Dam (photo from Facebook)                                                                                  Close-up of water released through the sluices at the dam wall – Hartbeespoort Dam (own photo)