A response to Mike Hulme’s “Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisal”

By Werner Krauss, University of Hamburg, Germany

A cultural appraisal of climate and its changes is more than only adding social sciences and humanities to climate research; it fundamentally changes the concept of climate change and, as a consequence, the nature of climate politics. For a long time, culture has been considered as the object of analysis for social sciences as their contribution to successfully implementing science-based climate policies. But Mike Hulme (2015) reminds us in a friendly fashion that climate is more than the statistics of average weather or a system of interconnected spheres and global thresholds. For him, climate is first and foremost an idea that helps to stabilise the relationships between cultures and weather, with climate change as the latest step in the cultural evolution of this idea. His approach fundamentally differs from the conception of global climate politics framed by planetary boundaries and aiming at stabilising climate at 2-or less degrees above preindustrial levels; his cultural appraisal suggests an alternative to the regime of experts and the fantasies about the magic of big data and technological solutions.

The anthropologist Melissa Leach once coined in an interview with the Guardian (2007) the drastic term “bullshit research”. She conducted ethnographic research in hot spots of environmental and climate change in Africa, and there the reality she encountered differed profoundly from scientific scenarios. Explaining the causes of drought, of migration or conflict as a result of climate change was more often than not plain wrong; the causes were complex, the scientific attributions were prematurely drawn from model calculations and not based on empirical evidence. Together with James Fairhead, in their book Misreading Landscapes (1996), they documented how scientists and environmentalists had interpreted desertification in the savannah as a result of deforestation by the indigenous population; in reality, it was indigenous people who had planted the existing trees to fight desertification. This case is not unique, and in many case studies, ethnographers find complex realities instead of simple and mono-dimensional explanations like water- or climate-wars.

While Mike Hulme’s article focuses on making a general argument for introducing culture into the debate about a changing climate, there remains the question of what a no-bullshit research agenda might look like. I doubt that “culture” is an appropriate entity for research; while it makes sense to say that “other cultures” have differing concepts of the culture-weather nexus from our “modern” ones, it is impossible to single out specific cultures as consistent and autonomous, even less to delineate a geographical space identical with cultures (even though in climate research, outdated conceptions like culture areas or climate determinism come to life again). But how to conduct climate research and avoid the pitfalls of current top-down conceptions?

In his article, Mike Hulme introduces the concept of landscape to illustrate the “dyad of climate-culture”. Landscapes are far more than visual or aesthetic representations, nor are they static formations frozen in time and space. Instead, they are social practices and designate the process of making space. They are the result of the interaction of nature, culture and history, but also of symbols, perceptions and imaginaries; or, in the terms of Latour’s actor-network-theory, they are networks animated by human and non-human interactions. It is here where we can observe and critically analyse the transition from land- into climate-scapes, with climate politics as one of the main drivers. Landscapes are political assemblies where matters of concern are decided, such as questions concerning property, access to land or weather-related issues like coastal protection or the transition of former rural areas into emerging energy landscapes. To manage landscapes successfully needs the consent of those who inhabit, shape and administer them; only then, climate change indeed means the “re-negotiation of cultural relationships between humans and their changing weather”, and climate change finally becomes an emergent form of life (Callison 2014).

Thus, Mike Hulme indeed offers an approach to climate change that profoundly differs from the current science-based understanding. There is more to his cultural appraisal than simply adding social sciences and humanities to climate science; the question is about differing ideas of governance, of democracy and about power relations, inside science and in the relation between science, politics and society. Conflicts and frictions are unavoidable where expert regimes rub with societies and cultures; instead of dreaming the impossible dream of stabilizing climate, a cultural appraisal of climate offers insight into the potential of specific landscapes to deal with changing climates.

About the author:

Werner Krauss is currently a fellow at the Cluster of Excellence “CliSAP” (Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction), University of Hamburg, project “Understanding science in interaction” (USI). As a cultural anthropologist, his main focus of research is on human-environment relationships, the anthropology of landscapes and heritage, and climate change. He is an editor of the climate blog Die Klimazwiebel.

References:

Callison, Candis (2014) How Climate Change Comes to Matter: the Communal Life of Facts. Duke University Press.

Fairhead, J. and M. Leach (1996) Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge University Press.

The Guardian (2007) Melissa Leach: The Village Voice. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/jul/17/highereducationprofile.academicexperts (accessed 07/17/2015).

Hulme, Mike (2015) Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisalGeo: Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.5

Response to Leonelli et al (2015): Thinking About “Open” Science

By James Porter, University of Leeds, UK

As a research community we’re being urged to “open” science up like never before. Whether it’s our research results, methods used to make sense of them, or even the underlying raw data itself, everything we do should be made freely and easily accessible to the widest variety of people possible, in the widest variety of ways. Already great strides have been made. As Leonelli et al (2015) note, we’ve seen the push towards “open” access of published research results; “open” data deposited in repositories; and “open” source licenses for research materials (e.g. codes, models etc). All of this edges us closer to the ethos behind “open” science or Science 2.0. That is, to encourage greater equality, widen participation, and stimulate innovation.

Indeed, “open” science has already been heralded as a success. It’s helped scientists find answers to decade old problems. Scientists at the University of Washington struggling to discover the structure of a protein that helps HIV multiply, turned to developers of Foldit, for example. As an online game, players are asked to rearrange the protein to find its most stable configuration, likely to be it’s natural form. Within three weeks over 57,000 players had arrived at an answer, which was published in Nature Structural. None of this would have been possible if that research had remained hidden from public view behind journal subscriptions or locked away in our ivory towers.

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that we’re being asked to make things “open” yet constantly reminded to refrain from sharing our findings prematurely. This is due in no small part to a prevailing institutional culture of publish or perish (i.e. REF); the creep to commercialise science and lockdown intellectual property or block rivals (e.g. OncoMouse); and concerns over allowing others to cast doubt or breed misunderstandings (i.e. UEA leaked emails). How science is opened up so that it’s usable and useful, not just available; who should be doing it – early career researchers or established professors; and when research is released – before/after publication; are all tricky questions that researchers must grapple with today. “Sticks” and “carrots”, as Leonelli et al (2015) argue, may incentivise “open” science but it’s unlikely to fully succeed unless the underlying institutional and social norms/values governing research are addressed as well. Many of these institutional and epistemic norms touch on the changing spaces of science engaged by geographers.

The UK government, for instance, has set the Met Office on a course for “open” science. In a pointed rebuttal to critics who claim that it has stifled innovation through a monopoly over meteorological and climate data, the Met Office is set to “open” things up. The once fine distinction between data used for non-commercial purposes and commercial ones is no more. Today, a new policy breaks data into one of three categories (open, research and managed), which dictates who can access it and what they can do with it (not everyone can be trusted, apparently). Making the data fit into these categories ignores its hybrid, contested, and evolving nature, where it may start life as one thing but over time change as more things are added. Efforts to make the data manageable not only reflect politics to do with their construction and circulation but also reflect the tension faced by the Met Office to give away and make money from its data/services.

Much of the logic behind the “open” science movement shares similarities with neoliberal thinking. Will making raw data freely available via repositories reduce inequalities between the data-rich and data-poor, or simply allow those with the resources, capacity and infrastructures to increase them? Will the ability to reproduce, verify, and challenge research results bolster the status of science, a la Robert Merton, or make it harder to differentiate rigorous science from junk science, making it easier to sell for PR purposes? And does opening up research results, data and materials, constitute a valuable endeavour in itself, or one that’s only realisable when equipped with the right expertise?

Yes “open” science is certainly welcome in exposing a whole raft of cultural practices (and politics) we take for granted in academia today and helps us respond to the needs of the twentieth-first century. But before we fully embrace “open” science we need to think critically about its politics. Critical scholars have told us time and again how neoliberalism worsen inequalities, reduces participation, and restricts innovation to only marketable products/services. We need to ask for “whom” is science being opened, how “democratic” is that process, and of course what deep-seated politics are being advanced as things get opened-up? These are issues Leonelli has raised in relation to biology in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, but tracing these unfolding dynamics in relation to geographical data and in open access journals like Geo is up to all of us.

About the author: 

Dr James Porter is a Research Fellow in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds. James’ work specialises in how institutional politics shapes the production, and in turn, use of environmental knowledge for policy, through the lens of science and technology studies (STS) and the management of risk/uncertainty.

References:

Leonelli, S. et al. (2015) Sticks and Carrots: Encouraging Open Science at its sourceGeo: Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.2.