Feb 1 2018

Clouds: Nature and Culture

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

To be on cloud nine!


by Richard Hamblyn, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, 2017, 240 pp.

From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from a muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change. Capturing their picturesque journey from “an ultimate art gallery above” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the “center of digital life below” as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multifaceted narrative about nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject to date.

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery of the subject, having already published two other books on clouds–– The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first captures everything to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation of our understanding of the science of clouds. In this third book, Hamblyn has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled some of their mystery. Throughout human history, attempts to understand clouds and their behavior has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless opportunities for creative contemplation.

Clouds is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modification. (Failed) American attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military efforts have invoked widespread prompting by the international community to declare clouds as “a resource that belongs to no one.” Legal remedies for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding may be needed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Science is only beginning to understand the role that clouds play in shaping future conditions on earth––a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behavior of clouds in ways that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightning strikes is one of many such surprises. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightning activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space?

Clouds challenge human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes have long professed that “from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.” Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomena or processes, Leonardo da Vinci described them as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability providing food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. Our current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to reimagine and reunderstand them. There may be clues in art and literature to help us make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contends that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind when embarking on geo-engineering projects aimed at tampering with the atmosphere and with clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, there is no way of knowing what will happen to our rapidly changing atmosphere.  Just as in centuries past, when clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubt and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come.

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, they have a larger role to play in keeping the earth hospitable for living beings. Clouds provides insights into the history and science of clouds, and offers guidance regarding the sensitive handling of the woolly product/process hovering between the sky and earth. Colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds.

Jul 31 2017

Democratizing Global Climate Governance

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Can global climate governance be more democratic? Assessing deliberative democracy and networked governance in pursuit of global climate goals. 


by Hayley Stevenson and John S. Dryzek Democratizing Global Climate Governance, Cambridge University Press, 2014, 256 pp.

In Democratizing Global Climate Governance Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek argue that global climate governance can be improved by engaging civil society in multilateral climate negotiations and in the growing networks of actors involved in climate change policymaking. Using critical discourse analysis, the authors examine the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); discussions surrounding the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit; and the work of networks of corporations, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, foundations, government and international organizations. Stevenson and Dryzek focus on discourse (and language) as a key mechanism linking a range of actors. While discourse analysis is a unique contribution to the literature on global climate governance, their discussion of the tension and potential synergy between the formal UNFCCC activity and less-formal networks encourages readers to rethink the role of democratic deliberation in climate governance.

The first two chapters introduce the authors’ argument along with a theory of deliberative democracy as it applies to global climate governance. Chapter 2 unpacks the seven components of their deliberative framework as well as four basic discourses: mainstream sustainability, expansive sustainability, limits and boundaries, and green radicalism. Chapter 3 focuses on discourse analysis in public spaces, assessing four discussions related to the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit: the World Business Summit on Climate Change, the Business for the Environment Summit, Klimaforum09, and the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth. The authors argue that “the democratization of global climate governance can be advanced in the absence of centralized, comprehensive and effective global agreement. […] this requires recognizing and harnessing the coordinating function that discourses play in political life” (p. 59). The subsequent chapters build on this notion by illustrating how a systems approach to deliberation empowers discourse in public spaces.

Chapters 4 and 5 each discuss a different empowered space, or a space where institutions make collective decisions and ensure some form of public accountability. Chapter 4 analyzes the UNFCCC as a formal empowered space and primarily finds support for mainstream sustainability discourse, in particular for “ecological modernization and climate marketization.” Chapter 5 analyzes the informal empowered space created by public partnerships, public-private partnerships and private initiatives. The networks of actors in this space differ from the UNFCCC networks. They obtain authority by filling gaps in regulation, identifying common interests and using peer pressure to support voluntary rules and standards. Three networked governance examples are analyzed in some detail: the Clean Technology Fund, the Climate Technology Initiative’s Private Financing Advisory Network and the Verified Carbon Standard. Based on a “deliberative democratic deficit” in these networked spaces, the authors argue for stronger linkages between the UNFCCC and networked governance.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the deliberative components of transmission and accountability. These two features of deliberative democracy are vital to the way ideas from public spaces are transmitted to empowered spaces and link accountability back to the public spaces. Yet, transmission and accountability tend to be weak in both formal and networked governance for climate change. Chapter 8 proposes a number of ways to strengthen transmission and accountability. Finally, chapter 9 concludes with a discussion of reflexivity in climate governance, highlighting opportunities to disrupt the status quo. Missing is a discussion of the part political power and financial resources play in forming and propagating the discourses present in the UNFCCC and networked governance. Democratizing Global Climate Governance provides researchers and practitioners with a whole new set of questions to ask.

Jul 31 2017

Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017.

While the United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels, in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain a concern.



by Sean W. Fleming, Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways,  Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pp.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite its abundance, access to water eludes millions of people, and the stress on the ecosystems involved continues to grow. More than one billion people lack access to clean water, and in the near future, the global demand for water will be twice what it is now. With no substitute for this life-nurturing fluid, it is more important than ever that we ask the right questions so we can get past the current muddle.

All rivers are alike in the broadest sense, but they have different meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models are insufficient. Indeed, many of the best modelers don’t rate their results too highly. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, reducing elaborate systems into simpler subsystems doesn’t necessarily help: we end up learning more about less. Such an approach is particularly unhelpful when we are trying to understand river hydrology. The uncertainty involved is a function of a great many environmental and social factors that shape stream flow and underlying aquifers.

Sean Fleming’s Where the River Flows calls for a paradigm shift. He favors a radical departure from the usual disciplinary thinking; indeed, since rivers are a reflection of the profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems and societies, no disciplinary perspective can adequately address their complex dynamics. He believes that fractal mathematics along with chaos and information theory can be used to generate new insights into the overall patterns of river systems. As anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment (like climate change) accelerate, there is a need for both finer detailed forecasts (e.g., will my farm get rain next week?) and big picture understanding (e.g., will the river topple its banks this coming season?). New insights in both dimensions are critical to understanding the common but differentiated patterns that each river generates in its unique geomorphological setting.

Unfortunately, a counter narrative persists, making it harder to get a better sense of river hydrology. Damming, diversion and contamination pose formidable challenges, beyond the normal ecological complexity, to figuring out how to sustain healthy stream flows for human welfare and ecosystem survival. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, river degradation has thrown off balance the delicate equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, but the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like good news, the net impact of all that pumping on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle. River water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.

Fleming calls for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, suggesting that we need to process vast and complex information to reconceptualize and understand the dynamics of the natural environment. But can reams of hard data and new quantitative modeling techniques give us a better sense of river systems that are not only dynamic but also living entities? As the need for more accurate, precise and consistent forecasts move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, somehow cultural perspectives must also be included. It is not clear how we can convert human observations into actionable information.


Apr 10 2017

The Climate Resilient Organization: Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change and Weather Extremes

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute for Technology

Given the impacts of climate change, what are the things that private organizations can do to adapt?

Climate Resilient_SendInBlue

by Martina K. Linnenluecke and Andrew Griffiths The Climate Resilient Organization: Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change and Weather Extremes, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 222 pp

What is a climate resilient organization? Martina K. Linnenluecke and Andrew Griffiths’s call for integrating mitigation, adaptation and resilience recognizes that this will require efforts beyond the organization itself. They assert that “a future key activity will be to create climate change resilient organizations,” which can deal with gradual and extreme changes (v). This begs the question, why is this a future activity and not a present-day one, especially given their lengthy explanation of climate impacts.

The book is divided into two sections, which could have easily been two different books. The first section provides a general overview on climate change impacts and politics. The authors outline the history of international climate policy until 2013 with a particular focus on adaptation and how these international commitments have played out on the national scale. Chapter 2 helpfully presents a short summary of the impacts on the private sector including investment risks, insurance and legal risks.

The second part of the book is more prescriptive and focused on organizational responses to climate change. It includes presenting the impacts of climate change on organizations and challenges to adaptation and resilience. This is primarily focused on private sector organizations. The authors provide an overview of different tools to assist organizations in assessing vulnerabilities and developing adaptation priorities. They also offer a general step-by-step list of activities (drawing on the UK Climate Impacts program) to assess adaptation options, which the authors also suggest using for resilience measures. Short cases studies are scattered throughout and are illustrative of the various ways private sector organizations are tackling climate change but are too cursory to guide decision-making.

Geared toward organizational decision-makers and policymakers, The Climate Resilient Organization is clearly written, nicely summarizes the literature and draws heavily on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. It is a good starting point for those looking for an introduction to climate change and how it might influence their business.

Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Framing resilience properly could lead to radical institutional reforms

Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk: Beyond Fragmented Responses, by Geoff O’Brien and Phil O’Keefe, Routledge, 2014

Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk provides a critical analysis of development, adaptation and disaster management, arguing for the importance of resilience as a means of connecting these siloed fields and developing a people-centred response to extreme events, which the authors see as the primary climate risk of concern. The book, to its credit, criticizes the various uses of resilience, recognizing that the term can lead to the abdication of political responsibility and the continuation of the status quo. The authors instead call for a framing of resilience that could lead to radical institutional change in the relationship between people and the environment, refocusing the discussion where sustainability has failed.  The authors make clear that their argument is grounded in a critique of capitalism and the neoliberal project, which has produced poverty, inequality and increased vulnerability. At the heart of the book is the assumption that humans can adapt and learn in times of stress, which we are currently facing given the urgency of climate change.

Written in clear and accessible language and filled with examples, the book is a useful text for newcomers to the topics discussed. The sections include detailed historical analyses and a literature review with helpful diagrams and tables.  The chapters feel a bit fragmented and certainly could be read separately. The final chapter links resilience to social capital and social learning, a refreshing addition to the argument, demonstrating how new ways of thinking and learning can support transformational change. In the end, the book calls for reform of governance and institutions, driven by proactive bottom-up processes and a concern about equity. This is a welcome thought, but it seems like a big mouthful for resilience to chew.

Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Daniel Gallagher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A timely call for scholars of urban planning and coastal systems to join forces 

Megacities and the Coast: Risk, Resilience and Transformation, by Mark Pelling and Sophie Blackburn, Routledge, 2013

In their introduction to Megacities and the Coast, Mark Pelling and Sophie Blackburn argue that the lack of focus at the interface of megacities and coastal systems is a dangerous gap in scholarship. This edited volume responds to this gap through a comprehensive synthesis of an international study involving over 60 contributing authors from the environmental sciences, disaster risk management, urban governance, and climate adaptation.

The report explores the definitional challenge of identifying coastal megacities, and locates 23 such cities across five continents. It provides a comprehensive tour of the societal and environmental impacts of urban growth, pointing to strong existing research on earth sub-systems. Where more study is required, they argue, is on integrated, system-level research that captures the dynamic feedback between natural and social systems.

Of most value to policymakers and scholars of urban planning will be the report’s discussion on risk governance.  Drawing on empirical study of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation, it shows how scholarship must move beyond the universalistic ‘good governance’ discourse to recognize that municipal government autonomy varies hugely with local politics and social networks. The authors argue convincingly that scholars of urban planning and coastal management ought to pursue more joined-up research that recognizes the co-evolution of political, economic and physical systems.

The scholarly argument is complemented by seven case studies of coastal megacities. Although brief, the case studies stay true to the joined-up perspective that the report calls for by stressing the particularities of political economy and context in which public policy responses are formed.

At a time when megacities continue to grapple with long-standing socio-economic issues and the added stresses of disasters and climate change, this volume will be of immense value to scholars of urban planning and coastal systems who seek to undertake cross-disciplinary research at the important intersection between their disciplines.




Sep 12 2014


Reviewed by Mike Gunter, Jr., Rollins College

 A thought-provoking analysis of the rather pessimistic prospects for dealing effectively with climate change and energy security

Jorg Freidrichs2

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be, by Jörg Friedrichs, MIT Press, 2013

International development scholar Jörg Friedrichs offers a thought-provoking analysis of the rather pessimistic prospects for dealing effectively with climate change and energy security. Arguing our industrial society is inherently transitory, Friedrichs goes beyond other recent analyses on climate change politics, spelling out in his sixth chapter the “moral economy of inaction.” Such inaction prevails thanks to the four obstinate obstacles of free-riding with collective action problems, psychological coping with seemingly intractable threats, and the discount factors of both time and space. This follows the logic of David Hume (1739) that the more distant a threat is, the less one cares.

After introducing his topic and discussing the links between climate change and energy scarcity in his first two chapters, chapters three and four delve into an intriguing set of case studies. With its focus upon climate change, the second case study in chapter three contrasts the medieval Norse settlements of Iceland and Greenland during the Little Ice Age (pp. 67–71) and makes a convincing argument that settlers in Iceland were more flexible then their Greenland brethren, adjusting agriculturally and becoming more accomplished fishermen.

Similarly, chapter four offers two case studies focusing upon energy scarcity. The latter study, which compares the Hermit Kingdom in North Korea to the Castro regime in Cuba, is more interesting. Both communist regimes were hurt by the loss of Soviet oil subsides at the end of the Cold War. However, while hundreds of thousands died from hunger in mid-1990s in North Korea, those in Cuba exploited the social capital offered by family, friends, and neighbors and survived.

Friedrichs next prescribes four solutions for our twin threats including lower energy consumption, better energy efficiency, the switch from fossil fuels, and carbon capture and storage. At the same time, he takes into account realistic limitations. The rebound effect, or Jevons paradox, for example, limits efficiency as there is considerable risk it will not lead to lower consumption, but will rather, because of reduced costs, actually encourage higher consumption.

Finally, despite its numerous strengths, the book falls short in the fifth chapter, a critique of the struggle over knowledge about climate change and peak oil. While Friedrichs is certainly correct that our knowledge base is flawed, one might take issue with his analysis as to why. Regarding climate in particular, Friedrichs gives the so-called skeptics too much credit. Mainstream climate scientists are labeled as alarmists while skeptics are assigned their preferred choice of terminology (instead of the deniers label) simply for the reason that they “openly talk about climate change” (p. 129).

Friedrichs justifies this reasoning by saying that the deniers label should only be reserved for those who avoid the issue altogether, but in doing so cedes significant rhetorical power to skeptics in terms of agenda setting. Additional references to skeptics as typically less published and less cited than peers (p. 133) is a gross understatement and there is a lack of attention to their financial connections to the fossil fuel industry.

Sep 10 2014


Reviewed by Danya Rumore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The book fails to provide a cohesive message or specific take-aways

Climate Change Adaptation in Practice: From Strategy Development to Implementation, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

For those working in the field of climate change adaptation, the fundamental question is, “What does effective adaptation look like in practice?” We have many theories and ideas about how to help communities and ecosystems become more resilient; yet, just how these approaches will play out remains to be seen. Hence, it was with quite a bit of curiosity—as well as some skepticism—that I picked up Climate Change Adaptation in Practice.

The book draws together diverse case studies from the European Climate Change: Impacts, Costs, and Adaptation in the Baltic Sea Region (BaltCICA) project. The chapters, written by a range of academics and practitioners, review case studies ranging from efforts to support participatory adaptation decision-making in Kalundborg, Denmark, to ways of modeling climate change effects on groundwater in Hanko, Finland.  In so doing, the book seeks to illuminate a wide variety of technical and political approaches to preparing for and managing climate change risks.

While it does provide a snapshot of early adaptation efforts, possible technical approaches, and various engagement strategies, the book’s usefulness is limited.  The cases are largely descriptive, devoid of empirical evaluation. Although it is written in a scholarly style, the cases offer little by way of theoretical development. Additionally, like many scholarly collections, the book fails to provide a cohesive message or specific take-aways. Given that adaptation scholarship and practice are still in their early stages, a descriptive collection like this may prove useful to those looking for information on what is going on in communities worldwide, particularly the Baltic Region of Europe; however, beyond this, it is not clear that Climate Change Adaptation in Practice makes an important contribution to the field.

Sep 9 2014


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Extremely useful for anyone focused on climate science and climate policy development

Managing Ocean Environments In A Changing Climate: Sustainability and Economic Perspectives, Elsevier, 2013

Managing Ocean Environments in a Changing Climate provides a state-of-the-science examination of several high profile threats to the ocean environment. These include acidification, warming, hypoxia, sea level rise, pollution, and over extraction of resources (the primary focus is fisheries). Where this book differs from others with similar aims is that it does not to discuss each of these global stressors in isolation, rather, it speaks to their relationships to each other, including their synergies, amplifications, and feedbacks across scales. Given such a complex scope, it cannot achieve everything it sets out to do. Some of the more successful chapters include a very practical section on Policy Recommendations, as well as its concluding chapter on Multiple Stressors. At times the discussion of the relationships among the stressors felt a bit vague; however, this does not detract from the overall effectiveness of the volume.

This book is written for a diverse audience, including academics, policy makers, and NGO personnel. The book’s concise and well-written literature reviews of the most up-to-date science in the field are very helpful, and they do converse with one another in the later chapters. The authors also use scenarios to be intentionally consistent with the IPCC Assessment Report 5. The use of scenarios, or storylines of possible future development and resource requirements, help to make the book accessible to the wider audience it is seeking to reach. The scenarios generate a narrative feel that makes for more interesting reading as compared to a technical document like the IPCC report it is meant to accompany. The focus on the relationships among six key stressors also helps to achieve consistency with the research aims of the IPCC Assessment Report 5. Thus, this volume is extremely useful for anyone focused on climate science and climate policy development. It is a timely read in the run up to COP 19 in Lima.

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