Introduction: A Wealth of Lived Experience

Fig. 1.1
The flood plain of the River Severn on the Wales-England border does its job after heavy rain in December 2014 (G. Wilson, 2014)

1.3 The Rich Diversity of Lived Experience

The potential diversity of lived experience as personally felt is, by definition, vast. The interviews with the British flood victims demonstrate shared experience of the event and its aftermath, but in the detail they are all different in how they were affected by it and how they have, and still are, coping with it. This is obvious because no two people are the same, but we need to go beyond the obvious. If it is going to further our understanding of climate change, and perhaps also inform policy on it as later chapters of this book argue, we need to explore patterns of lived experience at a social as much as at an individual level. The four case studies that follow concern the fortunes of a poor person in the United States who was caught up in Hurricane Katrina, an affluent community in the United Kingdom protesting against a wind farm proposal, two vulnerable forest dwelling communities in East Africa and two African environmental activists.

1.3.1 Contrasting Lived Experiences of Rich and Poor

One common pattern to which the reader-blog comments associated with The Guardian newspaper interviews pointed was that the flood victims appeared to be affluent. Some might suffer long-lasting psychological scars from the event, but all appeared able to pull through materially. This raises the question of what the contrasting lived experiences of poor people might be in relation to an extreme weather event.

  • August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans in the southern United States

Over eight years prior to the United Kingdom 2014 floods, Hurricane Katrina swept over the Gulf of Mexico and the far south of the United States. Over 1,800 people died and the property damage alone was more than 100 billion dollars.

The city and port of New Orleans received a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina. The levee—the embankment protection against flooding from the River Mississippi—failed, resulting in substantial flooding. Many thousands were forced to evacuate, and, as services broke down in the immediate aftermath, reports emerged of looting by those who remained.

Prior to Katrina, New Orleans was characterised as a poor city on a variety of quantitative indicators. Its population was declining (Liu and Plyer 2008: 11), job opportunities were weak (Muro et al. 2005), the average weekly wage in the private sector was 11.6 % lower than the comparable national average wage (Dolfman et al. 2007: 5), public transport outside of the tourist areas was described as inadequate and education as ‘one of the nation’s worst’ (Plaisance 2006).

The above paragraph describes briefly the economic and social context in which Iversen and Armstrong (2009) examined the ‘lived experiences’ of three citizens prior to Katrina and during its aftermath. Joseph, a 23-year old High School graduate from an immigrant background and a married father with two young children, was one of the three. Here is a highly edited account of his story as told by Iversen and Armstrong (Ibid.):

After a bad experience on an official construction apprenticeship scheme, Joseph found a construction job through the church to which he belonged, which acted to facilitate both emotional and practical networks among its largely poor congregation. His new boss was a trusted church colleague and self-employed contractor, who also rented Joseph and his family a house that he owned

Come Katrina, the house was completely demolished by its force. Joseph and his family evacuated. Nine months later it appears that he had not returned to New Orleans (and Iversen and Armstrong seemed to have lost contact with him). In any case, as further reported by the authors, residential construction work in post-Katrina New Orleans was rare, and what existed was dominated by people who had recently moved to the city from elsewhere in the United States.

Comparison of Joseph’s story with those of the UK flood victims of 2014 illustrates graphically how much economic, social and cultural context influences the lived experiences of those who are caught up in these events. The UK stories do, indeed, seem to be of affluent people. The photographs accompanying the interviews show large houses and gardens, big cars and so forth. There can be no doubt that they were severely disrupted, but they have the resources to rebuild, at least materially, their lives. Even a business that was physically wrecked has been rebuilt. Some even report positive outcomes, for example a greater sense of community.

The Joseph-Hurricane Katrina narrative by contrast shows a vulnerable person for whom rebuilding is much more of a challenge. This is not to say that he and those who have similar circumstances are necessarily passive as Chap. 5 will show. It does illustrate in Joseph’s case that, even if you live in the richest country on the planet, insecure livelihoods, weak education and poor housing combine to make greater the negative impacts of extreme weather events.

While these examples tell us something about the drivers of lived experience, the reverse is also true—the lived experiences tell us something about extreme, climate-related, weather events. That is, an extreme weather event is not simply what Quarantelli (2005) describes as a ‘focused occasion in terms of time and space’, for its impacts are embedded in societal structures, where the already vulnerable are the most vulnerable to the event.

1.3.2 The Lived Experience of Public Attempts at Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation in an Affluent Country

It is common to think, as in the previous examples, that humans experience climate change through its direct impacts. While this may be true for many, for others the most tangible, directly felt experience is not of a flood, a drought or a huge sea wave, but of attempts to mitigate1 through coordinated action the perceived primary source—anthropogenic (i.e. caused by human beings) global warming—of such events.

Since the early 1990s, governments have met regularly under the auspices of the United Nations to try and reach international agreements for action on climate change. Sometimes they get somewhere, at other times they seem to go backwards. Usually, the issue concerns a target for limiting the emissions of the main global warming gas, carbon dioxide, so that the earth’s temperature does not increase beyond a certain magnitude. For some years, this target has been set in international forums at 2 °C. This is considered to be the allowable temperature rise that would avoid so-called ‘dangerous global warming’, where anything more would lead to massive societal disruption. Needless to say, it is a contested target, but given its prominence in international policy making on climate change, let us for our purposes here accept it and examine its ramifications in relation to mitigation action.

Various mechanisms are proposed for meeting the 2 °C target. For example:

  • Establish an agreed cost of carbon (shorthand for carbon dioxide emissions) that is applied internationally and which would act as an incentive for innovation to reduce emissions. As British economist, Nicholas Stern put it, if public policy gives the right signals and rewards for cutting greenhouse gases, ‘markets and entrepreneurship will drive the response’ (Stern 2010: 99).

  • Tax carbon-emitting fuels.

  • Provide incentives for change in consumer habits towards ‘carbon-neutral’ goods and services.

  • Invest in ‘green’ renewable energy infrastructure that has low or no carbon emissions.

It is not the purpose of this book to enter the specific debates about these mitigation options which are well documented elsewhere. For a good economic analysis, see Stern (2010). For a full scientific analysis, see the reports that are published periodically by the IPCC, the latest being in 2013/2014.

Instead we illustrate how various measures that are designed to reduce carbon emissions interact with people’s lived experiences of them. As we write, there is still no internationally agreed and binding protocol for putting a price on carbon. Although, if eventually agreed, it will filter into citizen lived experiences, we do not dwell on it here. Similarly, a debate rages over so-called green taxes on energy. In that they raise the cost of energy, they do of course act as an incentive for consumers to conserve at home and drive fuel-efficient cars. They are also intended to help pay for the necessary infrastructure change. They are, however, politically unpopular in those countries that have adopted some form of ‘green’ energy taxation.

The most direct and obvious interaction with lived experiences comes when new energy infrastructure and other public measures to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions appear in our back yards, or near-back yards. These experiences frequently appear as negative and generate significant opposition to the proposed measures. They have spawned a field of academic study on social acceptance of renewable energy, particularly in relation to clusters of wind turbines (wind farms) where opposition seems to have been most entrenched in the United Kingdom. For a review of the complexities involved in social acceptance, see Fast (2013). While accepting his point that people play other roles in relation to renewable energy projects—for example as investors, producers and users—this does not alter the fact that a significant and vociferous role is oppositional, and that these voices will continue to be heard.

Here is one example from the Tove Valley in the Midlands of England, where a ‘Tove Action Group’ of local residents in 2014 declared a ‘victory’ on their website (Tove Action Group 2014) after the developer decided after three years not to proceed with a planning application for the development of a wind energy farm. The Action Group campaigned with 12 ‘reasons to say no’:


A negative impact on the local landscape, which the Action Group describes as having ‘historical and cultural importance as well as including woodland, natural features and farming’



Intrusive visual dominance of eight large turbines that were proposed



Distance impact, as the turbines might be as close as 500 m from the nearest residential houses



Devaluation of property, especially residential houses that would lie close to the development



Invasive noise that would be generated by the turbines



Disruption during construction



Birds and bats being caught in, and killed by, the turbine blades



Potential negative impact on local quality of life and well-being



The possibility of intrusive ‘shadow flicker’ caused by sunshine being reflected off turbine blades. This effect could be further associated with health problems



The perceived unfairness of providing government subsidies to wind farm developers



Perceived misinformation regarding positive efficiency claims for wind power



Wind speeds in the area have been below the national average, making this an unsuitable site.


This is quite a mixture of ‘reasons to oppose’. The first seven concern probable direct impacts on lived experience, the eighth might result from a combination of these. The ninth concerns reports from wind turbines elsewhere, and 10–12 make claims about wind farms in general.

Again, we must stress, that it is not our intention to provide an analysis of each of these 12 ‘reasons to oppose’ but to note that they appear to link significantly to a lived experience view. As with all infrastructure projects, which include airport expansion, new fast roads and high-speed train lines among others, ‘green’ energy courts controversy where opposition usually starts with those whose lived experience will be directly impacted by the development.

The Tove Valley of England is an area of relative affluence in a relatively rich country. Mitigation measures may also appear in some of the poorest countries of the world, incentivised by international development initiatives. Yet again, these schemes are often controversial, and impact on lived experiences. The following case study from Kenya and Uganda is taken from the doctoral dissertation of Nyukuri (2013).

1.3.3 Connecting Climate Change and Climate Change Mitigation to Lived Experience of Vulnerability of Tropical Forest Communities in East Africa

This case study concerns how international climate change mitigation schemes that involve combating the loss of tropical rainforests impact on two poor communities, the Ogiek in Kenya and the Batwa in Uganda. The two communities have strong historical ties to the forests as sources of livelihoods.

  • International and national climate change contexts

Both Kenya and Uganda are described as poor, although by no means the poorest, in terms of world development data. Thus, the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme, a composite of income, health and education, ranks Kenya at 147 and Uganda at 164 out of a total of 187 countries (UNDP 2014).

Undoubtedly as a result of relatively low levels of economic activity and relatively low population densities, Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions are small compared to those of affluent Northern Europe, North America, Australasia, Japan and, in recent years, China (Toulmin 2009: 7–8; IPCC 2007). Greenhouse gas emissions know no borders, however, and the continent is already suffering impacts of climate variability, mainly because of its high dependence on agriculture and other natural resources that are sensitive to climate—land, water, forest, wildlife, biodiversity and energy (Boko et al. 2007). Kenya and Uganda are part of East Africa which in recent years has recorded an increase in droughts, floods, windstorms and mudslides (IPCC 2007).

Small though the greenhouse gas emissions of each of these countries are, they are still significant. In Uganda and Kenya, as elsewhere on the African continent, deforestation (Box 1.1) is one identified source. Tropical forests act as a carbon store, or ‘sink’, through their absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the process of photosynthesis that drives plant growth. This ‘carbon sink’ is obviously lost when forests are cleared during human activities. Worse the clearing process often involves burning or leaving the trees to rot, which results in releasing their stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

This is a real problem. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO 2011) estimates that between 1990 and 2005 Africa lost over 9 % of its forest cover. The IPCC report of 2007 estimated that nearly 20 % of global anthropogenic carbon emissions result from the forestry sector which includes deforestation (IPCC 2007).

It is no surprise, therefore, that schemes to prevent further deforestation and to reverse the process through financial incentives to plant trees have come to the fore in many areas of the world, including Kenya and Uganda. The stated aim is rightly to contribute to both reducing and offsetting carbon emissions. Gregersen et al. (2010) also suggest that it is popular because it is a relatively low-cost option.

One such internationally supported scheme is the United Nations ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries’ (REDD) which was first promoted in 2005, and its enhanced version REDD+2 since 2007. The way in which REDD works varies from context to context but, in Uganda, Mwayafu and Peskett (2009) report that, through an intermediary non-governmental organisation (NGO), individual land owners enter a contract with companies from affluent countries to sell them ‘carbon credits’ through an afforestation and reforestation (Box 1.1) programme. In this way, the landowners are recompensed for afforestation and reforestation, while the companies concerned are able to use the credits that they buy to offset the carbon emissions from their regular activities, thus contributing to meeting targets in their home countries.

Box 1.1 Deforestation reforestation and afforestation

Deforestation is simply loss of forest cover, usually connected to human activities, for example commercial logging. Reforestation is replenishing forest that has been lost. Afforestation is converting land not previously known to have been forested or, if it has been it was a long time ago, into forest.

  • Nyukuri’s ( 2013 ) case study of forest communities in East Africa
Historically, the Batwa of Uganda inhabited the forests of the south-west of the country. The majority of the Ogiek in Kenya live around the Mau forest to the North-west of the capital Nairobi. Both groups were originally hunter-gatherers (Blackburn 1976).

Drawing on Nyukuri’s dissertation, the lived experience of the Batwa has been influenced by the following elements (numbers in brackets represent page number references to the dissertation):

  • Historical invasion and displacement by neighbouring groups from the forests that they inhabited. This goes back to pre-colonial times. During the colonial period, Belgium had a presence before Uganda became a British Protectorate in 1894 and there are examples where Belgium supported encroachment of Batwa lands. During their rule, the British authorities established protected areas in the forest, ignoring any rights of the Batwa to the land.

  • Uganda gained independence in 1962, but by this time the Batwa were largely ‘landless, homeless, economically weak and dependent on their former enemies [that is, stronger, neighbouring groups] for survival’ (130).

  • In 1991, the Ugandan Government created three national parks in the area for conservation purposes. The Batwa were forcefully evicted by law. They had no formal property rights to the land and were not compensated. Citing a study by Kabananukye and Wily (1996), Nyukuri reports that ‘amongst all the Batwa who were displaced from the three parks, 82 % were entirely landless. The majority of these (80 %) lived on the land of other farmers, 9.4 % lived on government land and 10 % on church land (133). This meant that the majority were essentially squatting, where they ‘had to rely upon the patronage of their farming neighbours to provide land for them to live on’ (133). Thus, she quotes:

Government did nothing but only evicted us from what belonged to us (Batwa middle aged male A).

There is no land for us to get for ourselves (Batwa middle aged male B).

The government said the forest belongs to the animals and we had to leave (Batwa elderly male).

  • Later (2001–present) management plans for the National Parks have attempted to integrate the Batwa, including access for certain products (herbs and honey—their traditional livelihood sources), but also to exploit their local knowledge ‘in the form of employment to provide services such as tracking and guiding’ (135). At the time of publishing the dissertation, however, there were, no Batwa employed in the park—a result of low levels of education, particularly illiteracy, and no spoken English. Some Batwa were entertaining tourists as dancing and singing groups.

  • Current climate change mitigation policies in the forests that involve the United Nations REDD+ scheme have further entrenched the legitimacy of displacement or restricted access, while rewarding those with formal ownership of the land. It is no surprise, therefore, that campaigns by the Batwa, who have no land titles, to be allowed to return to the forests and access their products have remained largely un-met. Nyukuri concludes, ‘Under these circumstances, the Batwa are expected to adapt to the livelihoods practised since eviction such as farming and to exert their agency in new environments’ (137).

  • With farming, however, there is the further climate change dimension of increased weather variability, including floods and prolonged droughts. Thus, Nyukuri notes, ‘In addition, the Batwa are expected to diversify the types of crops they rely on and plant drought-resistant crops, observe seasonal changes and plant crops according to the changing seasons’ (137). Lack of land titles, however, again puts them at a disadvantage. If they are mainly squatting on land owned by other farmers, they may be evicted at any time and there are no incentives to invest in the know-how that is required. This extends to the houses that are erected which are unable to withstand the mudslides that are common during prolonged extreme rains:

It sometimes causes bad floods, which then destroy our crops just like last year (Batwa middle aged male A).

In the past there was enough rain. When it rained the fields would yield all kinds of fruits. But now things are different. Cows are dying. The rains have disappeared (Batwa middle aged male B).

  • The situation is bound with, and compounded, by other factors. Discrimination and segregation from neighbouring communities is rife, with a strong sense that the Batwa are primitive and non-human. The Batwa have to collect water from different sources (Turyatunga 2010), while eating, drinking and inter-marrying with non-Batwa is out of the question (Kenrick and Lewis 2001). In education, the 2002 census reported that 40.4 % of Batwa in Uganda had never been to school. Of those who do attend, a large proportion abandon schools as a result of discrimination and bullying (Tumushabe and Musiime 2006; Kabananukye 2011; both cited in Nyukuri: 147–138). In health, Nyukuri cites a 2006 report from the British medical journal, The Lancet, which found that up to one in four Batwa children dies at birth in Uganda, nearly four times as frequently as the rate for Uganda as a whole (Ohenjo et al. 2006). Overall the health of the Batwa is among the poorest in Uganda.
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