Lived Experience and Scientific Knowledge of Climate Change

This winter the UK has been affected very severely by an exceptional run of winter storms, culminating in serious coastal damage and widespread, persistent flooding. This paper documents the record-breaking weather and flooding, considers the potential drivers and discusses whether climate change contributed to the severity of the weather and its impacts.

This series of winter storms has been exceptional in its duration, and has led to the wettest December to January period in the UK since records began. Heavy rains combined with strong winds and high waves led to widespread flooding and coastal damage, causing significant disruption to individuals, businesses and infrastructure.

The severe weather in the UK coincided with exceptionally cold weather in Canada and the USA. These extreme weather events on both sides of the Atlantic were linked to a persistent pattern of perturbations to the jet stream, over the Pacific Ocean and North America.

The major changes in the Pacific jet stream were driven by a persistent pattern of enhanced rainfall over Indonesia and the tropical West Pacific associated with higher than normal ocean temperatures in that region. The North Atlantic jet stream has also been unusually strong; this can be linked to exceptional wind patterns in the stratosphere with a very intense polar vortex.

As yet, there is no definitive answer on the possible contribution of climate change to the recent storminess, rainfall amounts and the consequent flooding. This is in part due to the highly variable nature of UK weather and climate.

Nevertheless, recent studies have suggested an increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms that take a more southerly track, typical of this winter’s extreme weather. There is also an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from the fundamental physics of a warming world.

More research is urgently needed to deliver robust detection of changes in storminess and daily/hourly rain rates and this is an area of active research in the Met Office. The attribution of these changes to anthropogenic global warming requires climate models of sufficient resolution to capture storms and their associated rainfall. Such models are now becoming available and should be deployed as soon as possible to provide a solid evidence base for future investments in flood and coastal defences (UK Meteorological Office 2014).

Box 3.1 is a summary of a 29-page report (Ibid.) that documents the frequency and intensity of the storms that brought the flooding, and the behaviour of the jet stream as the immediate physical cause of this extreme weather. Below is information from the full report which throws further light on the analysis.

  • It is more accurate to call the jet stream the North Pacific and North Atlantic jet stream as there are others in the southern hemisphere. The North Pacific and North Atlantic jet stream comprises strong westerly winds in the upper atmosphere which are a driver of weather. The weather we receive in the northern hemisphere is largely a function of our position in relation to it and its behaviour.

  • Briefly, and simplifying, persistent higher than average rainfall in the tropical regions of the western Pacific Ocean impacted on the jet stream. The higher than average rainfall was due to higher-than-average sea temperatures (causing higher evaporation) in these regions and low atmospheric pressure. These conditions were compensated on the eastern Pacific (what is confusingly called the western seaboard of North and Central America) by lower-than-average sea temperatures and high pressure. The high pressure pushed the jet stream towards the North Pole in a long wave that then drifted southwards across Canada and the United States bringing extremely cold air with it. Then, as it reached the Atlantic Ocean, it met warmer air and combined with a secondary jet-stream branch, causing the deep depressions of wet and windy conditions that the UK and much of Western Europe experienced.

  • Extensive flooding from the sea occurred along the south coast of England, the most dramatic picture being that of a railway line washed away. It could have been much worse, because the impact of strong wave surges was mitigated by improved defences after the major floods in 1953 that wreaked havoc and cost many lives. It was exacerbated, however, by sea level rises over the twentieth century, (for example, 12 cm for the English Channel), this being in turn primarily a function of global warming which has caused seas to expand in volume and receive flows from melting ice.

  • The report was reluctant to attribute the extreme weather pattern itself to anthropogenic (human) global warming through greenhouse gas emissions and hence climate change (see Chap. 1, Sect. 1.​2 for explanation of these terms and the links between them). This problem of attribution of cause and effect bedevils climate science. While the climate models predict more uncertain and extreme weather, from droughts to floods, from extreme cold to heat waves, it is still impossible to do the opposite using existing computing power; that is, to attribute conclusively specific events when they occur to anthropogenic global warming. The primary factor causing a specific event may simply have been natural variation. The Met report cited Peterson et al. (2013), editors of a special edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that sought to explain extreme weather events from a climate perspective. In the ‘Conclusions and Epilogue’ of this special edition they explained the difficulty through a driving analogy:

    • Adding just a little bit of speed to your highway commute each month can substantially raise the odds that you’ll get hurt some day. But if an accident does occur, the primary cause may not be your speed itself: it could be a wet road or a texting driver (quoting UCAR [University Corporation for Atmospheric Research] 2012)

Of course, in this driving analogy, a combination of all three factors—speeding, a wet road and a texting driver—may have been the overall cause of the accident, and separating out the primary cause would be an extremely difficult task. So too, it is very difficult to attribute cause and effect of particular weather events.

Despite its overall reluctance to make the link, the report did offer the possibility, however, acknowledging the evidence that climate change is likely to result in more extreme and variable weather: ‘This increase in the frequency/intensity of extreme daily rainfall events, as the planet warms and the atmosphere can hold more water, has been discussed in the literature for a number of years, and robust evidence for this is increasingly seen around the world (UK Meteorological Office 2014: 22, 23)’. It added that the British storms were consistent with both this evidence and the fundamental laws of physics that concern a warming world (i.e. there will be greater evaporation from the seas and therefore more water in the atmosphere). The report also cited evidence (Francis and Vavrus 2012; Petoukhov et al. 2013a) that suggests a link between raised temperature resulting from global warming and a ‘locked’ jet stream that would in turn produce prolonged weather patterns as happened in the UK December 2013–February 2014 storms.

3.2 Science and Lived Experience: Whose Reality?

The detailed scientific analysis of the Met Office and the reflections of the flood victims in the Guardian newspaper that we examined in Chap. 1 represent two obviously different perspectives on the same event. One narrates and attempts to make sense of the very human experience of the event. It is subjective to the core. The other is a dispassionate analysis that would surely claim to be objective to the core.

There is also no doubt that physical science is viewed as the key knowledge generator for climate change debates and rightly so. It was physical science that brought the issue of anthropogenic global warming to mainstream public attention in the late 1980s. The political figure who first raised the issue as a matter of international importance and concern was the then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in an address to the top British science institution, The Royal Society, in 1988. Margaret Thatcher had, herself, once been a research chemist. In the same year the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Office jointly set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to improve understanding about global warming. The IPCC has produced periodic reports since and gained a significant reputation. As Blackmore (2009) writes, ‘The IPCC is an extraordinary example of international and interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists and other academics across the world. Their efforts have advanced significantly our understanding of how the earth’s physical and biological systems, its atmosphere, oceans, land, ice and the living world including ourselves, interact and influence each other’.

Degree of influence and acknowledgements aside for the moment (but see later in this chapter), which of these perspectives—science or lived experience—represents reality? To help answer this question it is necessary to return to the origins of science, its epistemology and method. Although contested, these origins are often attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle over 2,300 years ago. Here we lean heavily on a book by the contemporary evolutionary biologist Leroi (2014) which traces meticulously how Aristotle understood and practised science. In comparing Aristotle’s methods and philosophy with that of present-day science, Leroi makes the following arguments (page reference numbers to Leroi’s book are in brackets):


A scientist is someone who seeks, by systematic investigation, to understand experienced reality (39), while ‘knowing in the sense of understanding is a requirement for wisdom’ (40). Thus, quoting the famed late nineteenth/early twentieth century mathematical biologist d’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Aristotle turned a ‘wealth of natural history’ that ‘belonged to the farmer, the huntsman and the fisherman’ into a science (74).



Popular lore is a good place to start, but investigation of the natural world requires expertise, including that of a specific subject (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) (46). Aristotle, for example, had axioms that derived from popular lore. These axioms about the natural world that he studied were often linked to economics and underpinned by the teleological (Box 3.2) assumption that nature always does something ‘because…’—for a reason. Thus, quoting Aristotle directly: ‘Like a good housekeeper, nature is not in the habit of throwing away anything from which anything useful can be made…Nature does nothing in vain…What nature takes from one place it adds to another… Nature does not act out of cheapness’. These axioms lead Leroi to conclude that Aristotle ‘writes as though nature is living next door and running a taverna’ (147, 148).



As in modern science, Aristotle looked for patterns in empirical data. Thus Leroi comments: ‘Aristotle’s appetite is insatiable and his zeal for ordering it tireless… [It is] the empirical rock upon which scientific reasoning stands’ (42).



Good science is the sense of which causal claims are sound and which are not (123).



As Aristotle attempted to practise, the basis of scientific method is demonstration of the truth or otherwise of a generalisation, for example, ‘human beings are mostly responsible for climate change’. As in this example, such a generalisation concerns universals rather than particulars. Further, Aristotle contends that demonstration is to be distinguished from dialectics which concerns debating opinions (124).



The aim of natural science is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work (355).



Experimentation is a key component of science. Experiments involve comparison of a deliberately manipulated situation to an un-manipulated control for the purposes of testing a causal hypothesis (362). They are also replicable, in that anybody who follows the original experiment exactly will obtain the same results.


Box 3.2 Teleological reasoning

This refers to the explanation of something—in the above ‘nature’—by the ultimate purpose that it serves rather than by what you think has caused it (a creator or a big bang, etc.).

While Leroi does not address the question directly, he does give an overall sense that science delivers a greater understanding and wisdom than lived experience alone. He makes the point that such understanding invariably starts with the latter (although he does not use the term ‘lived experience’ explicitly) and associated common sense axioms, but subsequently requires systematic investigation, subject expertise, demonstration and establishing sound causal claims.

We have given some of Aristotle’s own axioms above. A basic, probably unspoken, axiom that forms the beginning of climate science investigations might be: ‘The temperature of the air that we breathe has no inherent thermostat’. That is, although there is some kind of balance between the energy that the earth receives from the sun and that which it emits into outer space, this balance may be altered by mechanisms that trap more of the energy received, thus reducing the amount that is emitted. One such trapping mechanism involves increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere through human activity (see Chap. 1, Sect. 1.​2).

In contrast, an underlying axiom of we, the authors, for this book might be to adapt the statement of Karl Marx, to which we referred in Chap. 2 and whose contribution to social science we will describe in Chap. 4, to read:

Human beings make their lived experiences of climate change, but not in circumstances of their choosing.

We should not, however, take axioms that are derived from popular lore or any other source as static. They might represent a linguistic expression of lived experience, but they will evolve and change along with that experience. As such, questions for scientific investigations will also change. Sometimes an axiom might even be replaced. To take an environmental example, discussed by Hajer (1995: 62–64): in the early industry of nineteenth century Britain, factories were notorious for belching from their chimneys noxious gases and tiny soot particulates into the atmosphere. Was the over-riding concern that of air pollution and associated effect on health? While undoubtedly such a concern existed, it was upstaged by a positive, economics-related axiom (which Hajer calls a ‘story-line’) in the north of England: ‘Where there’s muck there’s brass’ (‘muck’ being colloquial English for what was belched into the air, ‘brass’ being colloquial for wealth and ensuing employment). Fast forward now to the late twentieth century and the axiom changed completely to convey a more negative connotation: ‘What goes up must come down’. This axiom was the starting point for investigations regarding anthropogenic air pollution, including respiratory environmental health and ‘acid rain’ that was attacking Europe’s forests.

For Aristotle, at least in Leroi’s rendition of him, systematic investigation that ensues from axioms involves the empirical work of collecting data, making patterns and generating classifications of what is there. Yes, Aristotle was what we would call today, an empiricist (see Chap. 4). As Leroi (2014: 8) notes: ‘Ask Aristotle what fundamentally exists … He’d point to a cuttlefish and say—that’. [Emphases in original]. He was also, in part a reductionist, for his systematic investigation [of living things] would involve taking them apart and reducing them to their individual bits and pieces to ascertain their functions and mechanisms. Yet, he also indicated that we must then put them together again for it is only when we have done that may we really understand how they work (Ibid: 177). As Leroi notes at the start of his book, ‘Aristotle was, if nothing else, a systems man’ (Ibid: 6).

Climate science too involves establishing patterns, especially patterns of change. At what rate are carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse’ gases increasing their concentration in the atmosphere? What is the association between increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global warming? To what extent, and where, is sea level rising? How fast and where are glaciers melting? In what ways are atmospheric and ocean circulations changing? In what ways are weather patterns changing in different parts of the world? And so on. This science also, by necessity, refers to the interconnections between these constituent questions and the ‘climate system’. Aristotle would undoubtedly have approved.

In a generalised sense, the processes parallel the ways in which we put our lived experiences to use. Pattern-making seems to be inherent in human sense-making of our lives. We make a pattern of what has and what is happening to us. We establish patterns with lived experiences of others, either through direct engagement or through communication media such as reading, sound and visuals. We may even be inclined to reduce our lives to simple, or even single, causal mechanisms, including those associated with climate change. For example, before the UK floods 2013–2014, many of those who were affected loved their homes, but now, in the words of one victim, cannot ‘feel so sentimentally attached to it’ solely because of that event.

One should not, however, make too much of these parallels because it is not part of our argument that lived experience and scientific investigation are at root the same. Rather, both represent fundamentally different attributes of our ability to make sense through reflection and engagement. Let us, therefore, note the parallels and then move on to Aristotle’s claim that subject expertise is necessary for greater understanding. This is where science and lived experience certainly diverge. Science thrives on subject expertise for deepening understanding of a particular component part of a system. Thus physicists investigate fundamental mechanisms underlying climate change, including the energy balance and the energy-absorbent capacities of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric greenhouse gases. Meteorologists explain changing weather patterns in terms of atmospheric and ocean circulations, and their interconnections across the world. Economists explain probable impacts on regional economies in different parts of the world and the implications of their interconnections for the global economy. Sociologists explain the probable differentiated human impacts on societies and social psychologists explain why it is so difficult to get through to people about climate change, despite the science being laden with doom warnings.

There is no parallel to any of this in lived experience, although we might be influenced from time to time by popular renditions of different scientific assessments. Undoubtedly, subject expertise provides different angles and perspectives, different understandings if you like, of climate change. We prefer ‘different’ or ‘diverse’ understandings as more neutral terms than ‘deepen understanding’ which has value-laden undertones, and where we must ask the question, ‘deepen for whom’.

While we acknowledge the contribution of diverse subject understandings, we also recognise two issues. First, subject investigations are constrained by the questions they seek to answer which in turn derive from the conceptual frameworks and theories that define the particular subject matter. It is no wonder that different subject areas are called disciplines (Chap. 4), because that is what they do to our thinking. For example, reference points for physicists on climate are the laws of thermodynamics and modes of energy transfer. For classical economists, they are markets, innovation and cost–benefit analysis. For sociologists they are social power and inequality among social groups differentiated by race, gender and class (Chap. 2). Application of these frameworks certainly provides important understandings, but they also constrain knowledge in that they put boundaries around what questions may be addressed and the means of discussing them.

The second issue is the danger that subject specialisation may easily take on a life of its own. Partly this relates to the first issue, because the epistemological boundaries of each subject risk becoming impermeable to other subjects. It also raises the danger, however, that the subject becomes completely divorced from the original axioms that gave rise to investigation, axioms that are rooted in lived experience. In other words, there is a disconnect between the starting and end points of the investigation. The subject is divorced both from other subjects and from lived experience. This disconnect, we argue, degrades our systemic knowledge of climate change. (See Chap. 2, Box 2.3 for a further explanation of systems and systemic explanations.)

Experimentation is a further key aspect of modern science where there are no direct parallels with lived experience. It is true that this book has, in part, conceptualised lived experience as a string of action-research experiments, where we try something different to gain an improvement, continue with it, adapt it or discard it depending on the results. This common sense use, however, bears little resemblance to the carefully controlled, targeted experiments that Leroi defines above. For Leroi (2014: 368): ‘Data trawls and pattern analysis give you models; targeted experiments tell you whether or not they are true, Many [modern] scientists use both’. Figure 3.1 shows a modern experiment, whose aim is to investigate the possibility of increasing tomato yield in Morocco using less water (and less pesticide and fertiliser).


Fig. 3.1
The ‘fertigation’ experiment to maintain or improve tomato yield using less water, pesticide and fertiliser in Morocco. Tomatoes are an important export crop in Morocco and are bought by large European supermarkets. This experiment uses ‘smart’ computer-controlled irrigation to water the plants at optimum times during the day (instead of constantly). ‘Leaky’ pipes in the tomato troughs are connected to a ‘fertigation system’ that mixes liquid fertilisers with water, the mix being varied at different stages of plant development to give optimum growth. Pesticide use is lowered by improved physical conditions for growing the crop. The early results are promising, reducing the water wastage of conventional irrigation and the import of fertiliser from Spain. The project is funded by the European Union under the heading, ‘Sustainable Use of Irrigation Water in the Mediterranean Region’ (Photograph Oliver Tomlinson 2014. Location Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II, Rabat, Morocco)

We should note in passing that Aristotle did not do experiments in the modern sense; also in French that the same word—expérience—is used to mean both ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’. Of direct relevance to this chapter, however, is the challenge of experimentation for climate science that can be traced back to 1859. As recounted by Hulme (2009: 42–47), in that year and for several thereafter, the Irish scientist John Tyndall provided the experimental verification for the proposition over 30 years earlier of the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier that the constituent gases of the atmosphere trap some of the incoming solar energy, what later became known as the greenhouse effect. Tyndall established experimentally that molecules of water vapour, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and ozone each had particular absorptive properties for radiant heat. Then, in 1895, the Swedish Physicist, Svante August Arrhenius established the link between carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and variations in the mean surface air temperature of the world. He performed this feat through calculations (done by hand) based on the earlier discoveries of Fourier and Tyndall, and in that sense the link was still theoretical, rather than demonstrated empirically.

Since these nineteenth century discoveries, climate science has been driven forward less by experimentation, and more by measurement and correlation between greenhouse gas compositions in the atmosphere and temperature. In other words, patterns have been established from data, just as Aristotle established patterns. From them, models of the changing climate have been (and are still in the process of being) created.
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