Last week it was Donegal, this week it's Houston (see also the Mann article linked below), in the weeks prior it was Vietnam, India, and numerous other places.

Heavy rainfall and flooding were also identified by the photovoice participants in My Loi as their primary worry in relation to climate-related risks:

Watermarks on the wall in this house are a reminder of the previous year's floods.

 

Is the seemingly endless news of 'catastrophic' flooding events the result of a hyper-vigilant and ubiquitous media presence or is there a real climate-related trend? Studies have shown that as the planet warms, rates of evaporation will increase, and the air will hold more moisture, leading to what sound like manageable increases in precipitation. No more than with temperature however, averages can be deceptive (for example, the Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than the global average). As remarked in a 2016 article in Nature Climate Change 'Global average precipitation is expected to increase moderately with global warming, but nobody lives in the global average.'

Future trends?

While there is considerable uncertainty, particularly in relation to spatial variability, it looks like the future holds further increases in extreme rainfall events in both wet and dry regions, even while the overall trend may be towards a 'wet gets wetter, dry gets drier' scenario (Collins, M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 10291136 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013) quoted in https://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v6/n5/full/nclimate2966.html#ref2).

See:

Donat, M. G., Lowry, A. L., Alexander, L. V., Ogorman, P. A., & Maher, N. (2016). More extreme precipitation in the world[rsquor]s dry and wet regions [Letter]. Nature Clim. Change, 6(5), 508-513. doi:10.1038/nclimate2941

Ingram, W. (2016). Extreme precipitation: Increases all round [News and Views]. Nature Clim. Change, 6(5), 443-444. doi:10.1038/nclimate2966

Michael Mann on the climate change impact on the Houston floods

Research using photography has a long history, going back at least to the 1890s and its prominent use in the American Journal of Sociology. However, as a valid element or form of research, its legitimacy has been questioned. As pointed out by Michael Guggenheim, the scientific community has largely refused to accept the legitimacy of photographs as data. Or rather, he says, the social science community has, succumbing to what he calls ‘asymmetric media-determinism … the idea that textual media are non-determinist, while other media are determinist’ (Guggenheim, 2015).

Data or message?

According to Guggenheim, this problem is particularly relevant in the social sciences (visual sociology, visual ethnography, visual anthropology, for example). He points out that ‘in many other disciplines the same situation does not apply. There is no visual astronomy or biology or chemistry. A non-visual astronomy simply does not exist. What would astronomers do without producing visual traces of other stars, planets and galaxies?’  (The point here is that visual data including photography is accepted in mainstream astronomy, whereas sociology is sufficiently sceptical of the format to fence it off in a sub-division of 'visual sociology'.)

In relation to the sociology viewpoint, Guggenheim has a point. Why does academia attribute a kind of neutrality to texts (when texts can obviously be as emotionally charged, duplicitous, or ‘cropped’ as any photograph), while assuming photographs are somehow only ‘good for producing emotional reactions, and for popularizing research results’.

Nonetheless, the more orthodox view of photographs as documentary evidence or ‘readable documents’ remains that they are ‘both supremely compelling and supremely slippery’. Part of the reason why may be the intended aims with which photography has often been produced: as a way to bring about change in society. In fact, it is claimed that the very reason the American Journal of Sociology moved away from a reliance on photographs was ‘due to a shift towards more scientific sociology, whereby taking photographs was associated with the (often female) social reformers’.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA)-sponsored photography of environmental degradation and ‘human erosion' that attended the increasing mechanization of farming across the agricultural regions of the USA in the 1930s produced particularly powerful visual artifacts, and is often pointed to as a high point in the history of social documentary photography. However, adding to the sense that photography was non-objective, these too were created specifically to gain support for policy intervention: ‘FSA photography was a political campaign'.

The situation largely persists to this day. While there may be no objective reason to view a photograph any more slyly than any other piece of graphical or textual material, it remains the case that research with photography is often research with intent (as photovoice is). Thus, photographs are created in support of a narrative of change, often presented in ways remarkably similar to how they were a hundred years ago, and still ‘often commissioned by philanthropic organizations for their publicity campaigns’ (Johnson, 2011).

 

For more on this topic, see:

Guggenheim, M. (2013) What Was Visual Sociology? Retrieved from http://www.csisponline.net/2013/07/01/what-was-visual-sociology/

Guggenheim, M. (2015). The media of sociology: tight or loose translations? The British Journal of Sociology, 66(2), 345-372. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12125

Johnson, W. (2011). Social-Documentary Photography, back in Context. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/social-documentary-photography-back-in-context

Morse, G. A., Haque, M. S., Sharland, M. R., & Burke, F. J. T. (2010). The use of clinical photography by UK general dental practitioners [10.1038/sj.bdj.2010.2]. Br Dent J, 208(1), E1-E1.

Natanson, N. (1992). The Black Image in the New Deal. The Politics of FSA Photography. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

Neimand, A. (2015). Using Documentary Photography to Drive Change: An interview with Charlotte Kesl. Retrieved 8/8/2017, from http://frank.jou.ufl.edu/2015/10/using-documentary-photography-to-drive-change-an-interview-with-charlotte-kesl/

Pauwels, L. (2010). Visual Sociology Reframed: An Analytical Synthesis and Discussion of Visual Methods in Social and Cultural Research. Sociological Methods & Research, 38(4), 545-581. doi:10.1177/0049124110366233

Who hasn't been moved by a good story, right? A piece in Nature Climate Change in 2015 makes the case that the most effective way to mobilise public action on climate change would be to formulate a 'strategic narrative'. A kind of story of stories that would from the underlying motivational guide for individual actions in response to the planet's current crisis. It would be made up of aligned sub-stories with relevant take-aways for all manner of people, leading to a national, or even a global unification of effort under the guiding narrative, similar to the way America was unified (?) under the story of getting to the moon in the 1960s - the authors quoting a cleaner at NASA in 1962 who reportedly responded to President Kennedy's question about what he was doing with a quick 'I'm helping put a man on the moon'.

I'm not convinced. History has shown on numerous occasions how legitimate divisions and objections can be masked or disappeared under the imperatives of grand narratives, the 'art of rhetoric' being effectively co-opted to nefarious ends. In any case, the strategic narrative approach sounds like an impossibility in today's era of diversity, specialisation, and polarisation, and maybe that's a good thing.

If you've read some of the previous posts, you'll know that the farmers in My Loi pointed to severe rainfall, flooding events, erosion and landslides as some of the most severe impacts of climate change in their part of Ha Tinh province.

This week, further north in Vietnam (Yen Bai province, home to Ma CSV) was hit by severe floods that have left several people dead and significant damage to homes and public infrastructure. Hundreds of acres of crops have also been affected.

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/death-toll-rises-northern-vietnam-flash-floods-170804061413359.html

My first impression from going through the photographs and testimony of farmers in relation to climate impacts in Ky Son was that landslides and erosion more generally seemed to be the main complaint. A more thorough check of the data confirms that to be the case, almost matched however by problems of dry spells and high temperatures. 

Although erosion and landslides are obviously strongly linked to flooding, I've kept them separate in the pie chart - flooding here typically refers to shorter-term impacts such as loss of crops (similar to a how a dry, hot period may impact crops intra-seasonally), whereas landslides are typically irreversible. There were several farmers who pointed to complete loss of formerly productive land due to hillside and riverbank erosion and landslide:

Rough translation of caption for this image from Mr Nguyễn Văn Nhàn: Formerly a hill of acacia production, farming. But three years ago, due to the impact of rain and storms so the whole land was landslide and erosion. Now, nothing can be farmed on this land. This loss area is about 0.5 hectares of a household in the village.

On the positive side, preventive measures were also mentioned. Bamboo was cited by several people as a suitable tree for riverbank stabilisation, while methods of controlling hillside erosion and subsequent land loss were also mentioned. These include planting (elephant) grass on contour, more careful and well-planned acacia plantation management and harvest, and switching to perennial tree crops (orange and mandarin, for example) on hillsides.

Bamboo has been a traditional tree for maintaing river banks and has the co-benefit of providing material for handicrafts, as pointed out by Ms Le Thi Than:

Rough translation of Vietnamese caption: '... previously this land was used to grow peanuts. When (affected by) landslide, the family also studied with many people ahead of planting bamboo trees to prevent landslide and this is also one of the current solutions of the family. If using sandbags, it will not be effective and not economical due to the wide area of the landslide... Bamboo is used to prevent erosion, it is also used to create handicraft products such as basket weaving'