My last-minute assembly skills have failed me

According to my thesis schedule, I am meant to have my second chapter submitted now. Instead, I have 5200 words, only 1200 of which are about my case studies. Even within the analytical stuff, there is a lot of ambiguous sequencing, and a great many emphatic [ADD MORE HERE] editorial notes. It seems unlikely that this chapter can be completed tonight, regardless of caffeine consumption levels.

I need to:

  1. Complete the necessary reading, especially on pre-IPCC climate change science
  2. Trawl through the notes I have already made about sources, ideas, and themes
  3. Expand the case study portion of the chapter to about 5000 words, shifting the bits that are now independent into the case study narrative

I suppose I should get cracking on the first of those. The whole thing – three substantive chapters, a conclusion, and a revised introduction – needs to be submitted in 53 days. Time for another pot of coffee.

Noisy skies

Somerville College, Oxford

During the last day or so, there has been an unusually large amount of military air traffic over Oxford. Less than a minute ago, I saw a 101 Squadron Vickers VC-10 fly overhead, northwards (official site). The VC-10 is fairly unmistakable, due to the engine configuration: two on either side of the fuselage, back near the tail. Last night, we saw at least three large, slow moving transports heading in the same direction. I would have suspected that it was a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, from the 99 Squadron but apparently they only have one of those (official site).

They are probably flying to Brize Norton: the largest airbase operated by the Royal Air Force. It is located just eighteen miles west of here, between Carterton and Whitney. It might be an interesting place to visit at some point.

Quite possibly, the volume of traffic is connected with the recent British announcement that they are pulling forces out of Iraq. With 1,600 troops returning to the UK during the next few months, there must be a lot of gear and people to move around.

Some strategy

Perhaps it would be wise to interrupt regular blogging, while my thesis is coming together. Upon reflection, however, I find that the issue is more that I am not using time efficiently, and less that important tasks are absorbing too much of it. As ‘a’ (and probably ‘the’) major conduit between myself and most of those who are important to me, internet based communication does not seem unimportant. The task, then, is to pare away activities that do not contribute to the completion of this task (itself unlikely to be relevant in five or ten years) and focus upon those that advance towards the goal.

Filling the gaps in chapter two

St Anne’s College, Oxford

The conclusion from working on my second chapter is that I have read too much general background material and not enough on my case studies. I am fairly well covered on POPs, since I have done research on them before. Naturally, adding a few more sources would be nice, though there are not really a great many out there. I am also quite well covered on current events relating to climate change, because there has been such a raft of coverage and discussion. While my intention has never been to write a blow-by-blow account of either (how could I possibly do so in 30,000 words?), it is certainly necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of the history, before any important and valid analysis can be done.

As such, I need to fill in my knowledge on recent developments pertaining to POPs, which should not be hugely difficult. Then, I need to shore up my section on the early history of the climate change debate. Aside from the mandatory OUSSG dinner and talk tonight, I suspect this will fill the next 32 hours. Naturally, I am interpreting my promise to Dr. Hurrell of having a second chapter dropped off at Nuffield by Wednesday as having that chapter dropped off, by my own hand, in time for him to read it on Thursday morning.

Policy{hyphen, space, nothing}making

One minor hiccough regarding the thesis has been cropping up continuously of late. One of my key terms has a trio of possible forms, each of which has a certain appeal and a certain problem:

  1. Policy making
  2. Policy-making
  3. Policymaking

I think all three are acceptable English, and my preference vacillates between the three based on the context in which the word is used. When it is being used as the subject of a sentence, the two word version seems more natural: “Consideration of framing issues is important for those involved in policy making.” When it is modifying a noun, either the conglomerated or hyphenated version seems better: “The policymaking process is fraught with uncertainties.”

I should, however, choose a single form to use in the entire thesis, and do so before I need to wade through too many tens of thousands of words and footnotes to set the standard. Preferences, anyone?

I am working on developing presentation standards for the whole thesis. I am told Oxford has some rules of its own, but I am not sure where to find them.

Framing, selection, and presentation issues

Harris Manchester College, Oxford

One of the major issues that arises when examining the connections between science and policy are the ways information is framed. You can say that the rate of skin cancer caused by a particular phenomenon has increased from one in ten million cases to one in a million cases. You can say that the rate has increased tenfold, or that it has gone up by 1000%. Finally, you could say that an individual’s chances of getting skin cancer from this source have gone up from one tiny figure to a larger, but still tiny seeming, figure. People seem to perceive the risks involved in each presentation differently, and people pushing for one policy or another can manipulate that. This can be especially true when the situations being described are of not comparably rare: having your chances of being killed through domestic violence reduced 1% is a much greater absolute reduction than having your chances of dying in a terrorist attack reduced by 90%.


When talking about presentation of information, graphs are an important case. Normally, they are a great boon to understanding. A row of figures means very little to most people, but a graph provides a wealth of comprehensible information. You can see if there is a trend, what direction it is in, and approximately how strong it is. The right sort of graph, properly presented, can immediately illuminate the meaning of a dataset. Likewise, it can provide a compelling argument: at least, between those who disagree more about what is going on than how it would be appropriate to respond to different situations.

People see patterns intuitively, though sometimes they see order in chaos (the man on the moon, images of the Virgin Mary in cheese sandwiches). Even better, they have an automatic grasp of calculus. People who couldn’t tell you a thing about concavity and the second derivative can immediately see when a slope is upwards and growing ever steeper: likewise, one where something is increasing or decreasing, but at a decreasing rate. They can see what trends will level off, and which ones will explode off the scale. My post on global warming damage curves illustrates this.

Naturally, it is possible to use graphs in a manipulative way. You can tweak the scale, use a broken scale, or use a logarithmic scale without making clear what that means. You can position pie charts so that one part or another is emphasized, as well as abuse colour and three dimensional effects. That said, the advantages of graphs clearly outweigh the risks.

It is interesting to note how central a role one graph seems to have played in the debate about CFCs and ozone: the one of the concentration of chlorine in the stratosphere. Since that is what CFCs break down to produce, and that is what causes the breakdown of ozone, the concentration is clearly important. The graph clearly showing that concentrations would continue to rise, even under the original Montreal Protocol, seems to have had a big impact on the two rounds of further tightening. Perhaps the graph used so prominently in Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth (the trends on display literally dwarfing him) will eventually have a similar effect.

Stats in recent personal experience

My six-month old Etymotic ER6i headphones are being returned to manufacturer tomorrow, because of the problems with the connector I reported earlier. Really not something you expect for such a premium product, but I suppose there are always going to be some defects that arise in a manufacturing process. Of course, being without good noise isolating headphones for the time it will take them to be shipped to the US, repaired or replaced, and returned means that reading in coffee shops is not a possibility. Their advantage over libraries only exists when you are capable of excluding the great majority of outside noise and of drowning the rest in suitable music.

Speaking of trends, I do wonder why so many of my electronics seem to run into problems. I think this is due to a host of selection effects. I (a) have more electronics than most people (b) use them a great deal (c) know how they are meant to work (d) know what sort of warranties they have and for how long (e) treat them so carefully that manufacturers can never claim they were abused (f) maintain a willingness to return defective products, as many times as is necessary and possible under the warranty. Given all that, it is not surprising that my own experience with electronics failing and being replaced under warranty is a lot greater than what you might estimate the background rate of such activity to be.

Two other considerations are also relevant. It is cheaper for manufacturers to rely upon consumers to test whether a particular item is defective, especially since some consumers will lose the item, abuse it, or simply not bother to return it even if defective. Secondly, it is almost always cheaper to simply replace consumer electronics to fix them, because of the economies of scale involved in either activity. From one perspective, it seems wasteful. From another, it seems the more frugal option. A bit of a paradox, really.

[14 March 2007] My replacement Etymotic headphones arrived today. Reading in coffee shops is possible again, and none too soon.

Exploring Oxford colleges

At the same time as the second chapter of my thesis is firming up, my initiative to visit and photograph all 39 colleges is proceeding apace. Today, I visited Somerville College (where Margaret Thatcher read chemistry, a factor that may have contributed to her eventual strong support for CFC regulation, despite her ideological leanings) as well as Kellogg, St. Peter’s, and Lincoln. Only Linacre, Mansfield, Oriel, Pembroke, St Cross, St Hilda’s, and Templeton College have been spared from my lenses as of now. That said, not all the photos I have taken in recent days have had the chance to be posted yet. When one is mired in academic work, it is good to have a reserve. Likewise, it is good to have a pattern of exploration, using a quad or coffee shop here or there to read a chapter or two, before moving on to the next target.

A tip for fellow explorers: make sure you speak to the porters, before wandering in. Particularly in the less well known colleges, they will be happy to let you in if you tell them that you are a student at a different college and have been wanting to have a look at some of those you haven’t seen previously. Among all the colleges I have visited so far, the porters at Kellogg and Lincoln have been the most helpful. The only colleges that have refused me admission (or demanded money) are Christ Church and Magdalen. While I understand that they risk being besieged by tourists, it is hardly appropriate to bar the foreign graduate students who are subsidizing their fine stonework and scores of undergraduates.

In any case, I expect that the collection will be complete by the time this site gets its 50,000th visit. That should be within the next two weeks, at which time I will be spending my days fretting about drafting chapter three.

On darkness

A student housing vignette

When one of your circuit breakers blows, you need to go ask your landlords for the key to the cupboard where the switches are. When the light bulb in one room burns out, you use candles until the college replaces it.

The first, you can really do very little about. The second reflects the transitivity of the whole experience.

Favourite reading spots in Oxford

Queen’s College, Oxford

One of the most telling things about a person’s personality may be which places they choose to do the masses of reading meant to dominate the lives of an Oxford student. There is a certain sort that appreciates the reading rooms in the Bodleian (and another sort forced there due to the location of necessary materials). Some people like the cold modernism of the Social Sciences Library, while others adore the grandeur of the Upper Camera.

Personally, I tend to stick to a collection of locations around the centre of town. These include the Wadham Library (more for a sense of connection to the college than because it is attractive or has useful materials), the Wadham MCR, the Codrington Library, the Upper Camera, and the Starbucks locations on the High Street and Cornmarket Street. Sometimes, if it is nice, the Wadham gardens get added to the rotation, especially the little area at the western edge of the private fellows’ garden that is a bit obscured by plants. That said, I probably read more in my room than in all other places put together – enormously more if you include things read on the computer.

What places do other residents appreciate? Are there any that I simply must try during the 125 days that remain to me here?

The identification of environmental problems

The identification of an environmental ‘problem’ is not a single crystalline moment of transition, from ignorance to understanding. Rather, it is ambiguous, contingent, and dependent upon the roles and modes of thinking of the actors involved, and values that inform judgments. Rather like Thomas Kuhn’s example about the discovery of oxygen (with different people accessing different aspects of the element’s nature, and understanding it in different contexts), the emergence of what is perceived as a new environmental problem occurs at the confluence of facts, roles, and existing understandings. While one or more causal connections ultimately form the core of how an environmental problem is understood, they are given comprehensibility and salience as the result of factors that are not strictly rational. From the perspective of global environmental politics and international relations, environmental problems are best understood as complexes of facts and judgments: human understandings that are subjective and dynamic, despite how elements of their composition are firmly grounded in the empirical realities of the world.

POPs and climate change

Consider first the case of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The toxicity of chemicals like dioxins was known well before any of the key events that led to the Stockholm Convention. At the time, the problem of POPs was largely understood as one of local contamination by direct application or short distance dispersal. It took the combination of the observation of these chemicals in an unexpected place, the development of an explanation for how this had transpired, and a set of moral judgments about acceptable and unacceptable human conduct to form the present characterization of the problem. That understanding in turn forms the basis for political action, the generation of international law, and the investigation of techniques and technologies for mitigating the problem as now understood. Even now, the specific chemicals chosen and the particular individuals whose interests are best represented are partly the product of political and bureaucratic factors.

If we accept former American Vice President Al Gore’s history of climate change, the form of problem identification is even more remarkable. He asserts that the discovery of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations by Roger Revelle in the 1960s, rather than of specific changes to the global climatic system directly, were what prompted the initial concern of some scientists and policy makers. This is akin to how the 1974 paper by Mario Molina and F.S. Rowland established the chemical basis for stratospheric ozone depletion by CFCs which, in turn, actually led to considerable action before their supposition was empirically confirmed. Gore’s characterization of the initial discovery of the climate change problem also offers glimpses into some of the heuristic mechanisms people use to evaluate key information, deciding which arguments, individuals, and organizations are trustworthy and then prioritizing ideas and actions.

Definition and initial implications

For the present moment, environmental ‘problems’ will be defined as being the consequences of unintentional (though not necessarily unanticipated) side effects of human activity in the world. While mining may release heavy metals into the natural environment, this didn’t crystallize in the minds of people as a problem until the harm they caused to human beings and other biological systems proved evident. While the empirical reality of heavy metal buildup may have preceded any human understanding of the issue, it could not really be understood as an environmental problem at that time. It only became so through the confluence of data about the world, a causal understanding between actions and outcomes, and moral judgments about what is right or desirable. Likewise, while lightning storms cause harm both to humans and other biological systems, their apparent status as an integral component of nature, rather than the product of human activities, makes them something other than an environmental problem as here described. Of course, if it were shown, for example, that climate change was increasing the frequency and severity of thunderstorms (a human behaviour causing an unwanted outcome, though a comprehensible causal link) then that additional damage could be understood as an environmental problem in the sense of the term here used.

Worth noting is the possibility of a dilemma between two sets of preferences and understandings: the alleviation of one environmental problem, for instance by regulating the usage of DDT, may reduce the scope to which another problem can be addressed, such as the possibility of increased prevalence of malaria in a warmer world. It is likewise entirely possible that different groups of people could ascribe different value judgments to the same empirical phenomena. For instance, ranchers and conservationists disagree about whether or not it is desirable to have wild wolves in the western United States.

Problem identification, investigation, and the formulation of understandings about the connections between human activity and the natural world do not comprise a linear progression. This is partially the product of how human psychological processes develop and maintain understandings about the world and partly the consequence of the nature of scientific investigation and political and moral deliberation. Existing understandings can be subjected to shocks caused by either new data or new ideas. Changed understandings in one area of inquiry can prompt the identification of possible problems in another. Finally, the processes and characteristics of problem investigation are conditioned by heuristic, political, and bureaucratic factors that will be discussed at greater length below.

Problematizing the origin of environmental problems as human understandings does not simply add complexity to the debate. It generates possibilities for a more rigorous understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature (including perceptions about why the two are so often seen as distinct). It also offers the possibility of dealing with dilemmas like the example above in a more informed and effective manner.