Climate Forensics: “Little Ice Age” in Dutch Landscape Painting

Earlier this week I decided that I could no longer postpone re-visiting one of my most cherished art museums in Berlin – the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Galerie), which houses one of the most comprehensive and discreetly curated collections of Dutch genre and landscape painting of the 17th century (the Google Arts&Culture Project actually allows you to get as close to the canvases of Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt as no museum guardian would ever let you).

To drown out the ear-piercing squealing of the underground on my way to Potsdamer Platz, I listened to my favourite climate science podcast “Warm Regards” – the irony of it in a crowded, sticky wagon with what felt like 95°F didn’t escape me. In this specific episode on climate forensics co-host Jacquelyn Gill provided a glimpse into the toolbox that paleoecologoists like herself, and other climate scientists, use to reconstruct changes to the ecosystem and the prevailing climatic conditions over large stretches of time.

At the entrance to the collection, I switched from my iPhone to the museum’s audioguide and was not expecting to be reminded of climatological archives, sediment cores, and pollen samples again. As I roamed through the rooms I soon rediscovered Aert van der Neert’s “Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters at Sunset” (ca. 1655-1660), which made a lasting impression on me the last time I saw it a couple of years ago. The painting shows jolly Dutch townsfolk skating (and wobbling) over a frozen canal set against the backdrop of a softly illuminated sky, with its yellow sun faintly receding against the mounting evening clouds.


Art van der Neer’s “Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters at Sunset”


But then the audioguide explained that for people living in 17th century Holland the sight of frozen canals, people playing kolf (variant of golf, but on ice), and children racing underneath the bridges, like in Amsterdam in 2012, wasn’t such a once -in-a-decade spectacle as it was during most of the last century and nowadays. Paintings, like the winter landscape by van der Neer, could thus be treated as windows into the past for researchers. One prime question that arises in such investigations is whether information about climatic conditions at the time can be deduced from the depictions of nature and if yes, whether these can complement more traditional proxy data from ice cores or observations of sunspots.

In 1970, American meteorologist Hans Neuberger published a study of more than 12,000 paintings he had surveyed covering continental European and later US-American paintings originating from 1400 to mid-20th century. Neuberger categorized these paintings along various dimensions with cloudiness and blueness of the sky among them. Today, there are quite strong concerns among scientists about the validity of some of the conclusions he reached. There appears to be a consensus that the period in which near to natural depictions of harsher climatic conditions appeared more frequently coincided with an era called the “Little Ice Age” (LIA) by meteorologists. They generally tend to date the LIA from 1500-1800, peaking in the mid-17th century, a period of cooling in large swathes of the Northern Hemisphere that followed the Medieval Climatic Optimum.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 20.55.47

Course of Greenland ice core measured temperatures; from: Muller and McDonald (2000): Ice Ages and astronomical causes


Currently, most scientists agree that the causes of the cooling lay in a combination of volcanic eruptions, reduced solar radiation, changes to ocean circulation, as well as long-term changes to the Earth’s orbit. As a consequence of the cooling, it has been shown that the Haarlem-Leiden canal in Holland was frozen for an average of 28 days (SD: 25 days) in the 17th century. The researchers from the GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam elaborated on the freezing canals and changing skies in their study of the LIA and Dutch landscape painting. They also pointed to the prominence of windswept trees in paintings, such as Solomon van Ruysdael’s landscape piece below, as indication that higher wind speeds likely accompanied the cooling period and ultimately shaped the paintings we see today.

Salomon van Ruysdael’s “Dutch Landscape with Raid”

The geography of climate change inequality

First results of explorative study on

“Iconography and visual construction of climate change in Die ZEIT, a leading German weekly newspaper”

With the media coverage on climate change ebbing noticeably after the COP21 summit at the end of last year and the honeymoon period likely to stretch on for some time, it might be a suitable moment to pause and reflect on some longer-term, structural trends that shape the illustration of climate change in the media.

The scientific climate change discourse is mystifying to the average person not steeped into IPCC jargon and the political spinning of the topic. It is marred with technical and statistical complications and entrenched, ideological battles. Particularly readers from places largely unscathed by the effects of climate change today may struggle to conceive how a phenomenon so remote (both in space and time) may impact on their very lives and might ponder which importance to attach to climate change more generally. One purpose of my research was to explore the mechanisms that the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit employs in its climate change reporting in face of these complexities. In particular, I set out to analyse the role images assume in framing and visualizing these articles.

Selected images and articles from Die ZEIT

Selected images and articles from Die ZEIT, Copyright: Die ZEIT


Literature review and methodology:

In this blog post I would like to shed light on the data`s contribution to a gap in the existing literature, which the scholar Elke Grittmann identified in her comprehensive book chapter on the visual construction of climate and climate change in the media. In her concluding remarks Grittmann urges researchers to better understand possible geographical selection patterns underlying the visual representations of causes and effects of climate change.

Previous work done by Lester and Cottle (2009) on the UK television coverage of climate change highlights the tendency to portray climate change through a national lens at the expense, as the authors reason, of animating a sense of global empathy (Lester and Cottle, p.932 in Grittmann, p.184). A recent large-scale empirical study conducted by Rebich-Hespanha et al. (2015) corroborates this finding in the context of US print news coverage of climate change. The authors use the catchy-metaphor of a “fish-eye view” (p.531) to describe how geographically and ideologically closer places are highly overrepresented in the prevailing climate discourse, which has a blind spot for far-flung places. Neverla and Schäfer (2010) synthesize a large body of literature and conclude that “nationally ‘domesticated’ images of climate development” (p.11) are another expression of reporting through the national lens as they largely follow the dominant country-specific cultural views about climate change.

This research aims to explore in how far the German newspaper Die ZEIT conforms to the bespoken tendency to be “short-sighted” in its climate change coverage. Further, I am interested how images from certain countries/regions primarily depict specific CO2-emitting sectors or portray selected systems vulnerable to climate change.

I analysed all 53 issues of Die Zeit from 2014, categorizing every image, graphic, illustration and chart that accompanied articles, which treated climate change as its (or one of its) central topic(s). The decision rule was to only categorize article illustrations (ads and letters to the editor excluded) that contained at least one of the following key words: climate, climate change, renewable energies, CO2 emissions, greenhouse effect, global warming or sea-level rises. In order to be included in the categorization the texts also needed to mention the keywords in a non-ancillary manner. If, for instance, the term climate change was dropped just once as part of an enumeration of policy challenges, the text and accompanying illustration was not considered.


First results:

On aggregate, more than 250 images, graphics, illustrations and charts (subsumed under the term “images” in subsequent text) fit the criteria outlined above and thus were categorized for this research.

The diagrams below show the regional focus of the images:

Regional Focus of Images

Following from the geographic focus of the pictures alone it appears as though the “fish-eye view” of climate change reporting indeed finds confirmation in the data. In more than 60% of the cases that could be clearly identified as featuring a certain region the images are from Europe; three out of four images are from Europe or Northern America. Germany alone makes up three quarters of all images showing a European setting.

If, however, one distinguishes between sectors of the economy deemed responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and systems affected by climate change (I follow classifications of IPCC here, cf. p.28 and p.7) the picture becomes murkier. I grouped an image in the category “sea levels” for instance if either the association was apparent from the image itself or the subtitle and/or the accompanying text established the link between the image and the category.

First of all, it is noteworthy that only less than 9% of all the categorized images show greenhouse gas emitters – politicians seem to be a much more demanded subject to get in front of your camera lens if you want to make it into Die ZEIT (more on this in another blog post). Together “physical systems” (e.g. droughts, sea levels, coastal erosion), “biological systems” (e.g. marine ecosystems, wildfire) and “human and managed systems” (e.g. livelihoods, economics, food production) are depicted slightly more often, but still only make up around 11% of the images.

The table below shows the share of images with German subjects grouped under each of these categories:


Even with such a small sample size in each of the individual categories it is striking that German emitters undoubtedly dominate the images, which depict the economic sectors causing climate change. On the other hand, the affected systems are almost all from places far away. Effects on local livelihoods, health or economics within Germany (also applies for rest of Europe) are not visually communicated to the newspaper reader. Judging from the images Germany pollutes while Latin America and Asia primarily fell the repercussions of the climate change.

More results will follow as soon as time allows. Please post any suggestions below.

Museum Selfie, you too #Redcrossmuseum?

It is not a recent development that artworks exhibited in museums are “photobombed”, that selfie sticks poke fun and fellow visitors and that the staccato of default snapshot sounds drowns the once all too well known humming of the air conditioner. After being undermined long-enough, the restrictions on taking pictures in museums and galleries were gradually lifted in many places. As guards saw themselves outnumbered by the ardent champions of the right to take a selfie and as museums were referred to as being archaic and losing out on the new generation, the #MuseumSelfie day signaled a new dawn.

Irrespective of whether you believe in selfies as promoting a more participatory experience that opens up museum doors to underrepresented constituencies and invites for more in-depth reflection about the object in focus or whether you see the devil’s work at play that distracts from “quite, pensive, private” contemplation of artifacts, there should be limits to museums encouraging visitors to face their smartphones at arm’s length.

Picture by Flickr user Kevin Gessner (click image to see his profile)

“The Petrified” by Carl Bucher (1979); Picture by Flickr user Kevin Gessner (click image to see his profile)

On my first visit to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, I stopped at a large poster hanging by its main entrance. It animated visitors to take a picture of them and Carl Bucher’s 1979 sculpture “The Petrified”, an anonymous group of blindfolded and handcuffed stone figures, before uploading it on Instagram together with the museum hashtag. You are invited to look up the pictures on Instagram (here), which carry the hashtag.

A great number of the pictures is deeply disturbing to me. You see people self-staging, pulling faces, doltishly hiding behind the figures and showing the victory sign. When you see people “duckfacing” into the camera amid this stone monument you realize that you hit rock bottom. These pictures are not only evidence of willful ignorance about the artwork’s content and a remarkable lapse of judgement on a moral terrain, they also give testimony to the fact that any pedagogical intent of the museum has in most cases been painfully subverted. Instead of paying tribute to human rights defenders and honoring those held captive, who deprived of all their freedom still express “their dignity” through their bodies as the artist once said, these people cruelly impose their perceived own freedom on the work and everyone it represents. Thereby they perpetuate the very contempt and deprivation the artwork is conceived to rebel against.

Dear curators, why is this poster still up? You’re museum is fantastic and doesn’t merit such an entry sign.

At a Glance: Recent Publications

In the last two months my writings have appeared in two online outlets: (1) The Changer and (2) Good Impact. The Changer is a Berlin-based social business, which has grown in just a couple of months into a remarkable, one-stop outfitter for everybody who aspires to ‘do good’ through their work. It equips the social entrepreneurs/NGO-workers/socially conscious consumers with the full armament: how-to guides, job listings, event calenders, interviews and founder profiles. The resources on their website are in English and German. Good Impact is a German collaborative content platform that curates ideas and solutions to the societal challenges of our time.



The Changer Article: “Taking a Deep Dive into your Customer’s Lives – How to Conduct Market Research

With the experiences from Malawi still unclouded on my mind I flesh out how the lessons from ethnographic, immersive market research can help businesses of all sorts to understand ‘how their customers tick’.



The Changer Article: “Holding up the Mirror: Behavioral Biases of Development Workers

“While lately a lot of buzz has been around research on how to best help people escape poverty traps by ‘nudging’ them towards more sound economic decisions, a similar critical examination of the decision-making biases and shortcuts of development professionals has lagged behind. The widely anticipated World Development Report 2015 (WDR 2015) published by the World Bank Group holds up the mirror in a surprisingly self-critical way to those, who as policy makers, consultants or develop-ment officials develop programs with the objective of alleviating the strains of poverty.”



Good Impact Artikel: “Auf den Spuren der BCorp Philosophie

In diesem kurzen Essay gehe ich der Frage nach inwiefern heutige BCorp Gründer auf Ideen zurückgreifen, die bereits in der Antike oder im viktorianischen Großbritannien entwickelt wurden. Welche Parallelen gibt es zwischen der Philosophie der Benefit Corporations, Xenophon, Robert Owen und den Model Dwelling Companies? Haben wir es also tatsächlich, mit einer so revolutionären Idee zu tun, wenn das Phänomen BCorp heraufbeschworen wird?



More than one story – Street vending in Malawi

Clouded in the smoke that rises up from the debris of dismantled vending barracks the evening traffic lines up into Malawi’s capital city Lilongwe. That evening the normally bustling sideway stretches are deserted. Onions, cassava leaves and maize lie scattered on the sandy ground. Once more a Malawian Police ‘clean-up’ operation aimed at removing illegal street vendors clamped down on violent resistance. Vendors report how police officials fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd before setting their market stalls on fire to prevent the vendors from returning. Two days later two police men seemingly unperturbed are busily bargaining with street vendors over two suit trousers at the other end of Malawi’s capital. Standing next to them the pavement-shopping bank clerk Benson explains that many would prefer the convenience and good prices in the streets over the markets.

While city by-laws in Malawi prohibit the unauthorized sale of goods such as staples or consumer goods outside of demarcated ‘flea markets’, oversimplified narratives about the causes for informal vending pervade and obscure the public discourse. As the two anecdotes suggest the debate about street vending is multi-facetted, it is dominated by vested interests and waged on various levels from complicit customers, profiting wholesalers, dutiful and corrupt police officials up to politicians. The result is a protracted situation in which a cycle of relocation orders, often excessively brutal evictions and the subsequent returns of the vendors becomes perpetuated that leaves the lives of thousands in turmoil.

Lilongwe Market before Expansion Credits: CC Geoff Gallice (Flickr: dejeuxx)

Lilongwe Market before Expansion
Credits: CC Geoff Gallice (Flickr: dejeuxx)

The issue of sufficient space in the designated market areas appears to be the lynchpin of the debate waged in the streets and in the newspapers. “The challenge that we have had ever since the issue of relocation surfaced has been space and essential amenities like toilets,” explains Blantyre Vendors Association chairperson Innocent Mussa. Vendors have put it on their banners to leave the streets if more space in the markets were created for them. Officials hear their complaints, but widespread action is not taken. Rather, they bemoan that street vendors shirk taxes and market fees, thereby draining the public coffers that among others are supposed to fund market expansions. Mandasi-vending Owen retorts that amenities such as robust market infrastructure, security and proper sanitation facilities, which are supposed to be funded with tax money, would be woefully lacking.

This logic creates the impression of a situation that has become deadlocked.

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Pay after the job is done

Sticking to my routine of reading the newspaper in the mornings, I was excited to see the other day that ‘The Nation’ also featured very interesting small ads some pages behind their obligatory Cashgate coverage – a discovery which made me wake up over breakfast from then on with a smile rather than disbelief that the sum of the embezzled money has been found once again to be higher than expected.

Just to quote a couple of highlights from listings under the section ‘Medicine’: a doctor promises with ‘100% guarantee same day results, Love matters, enlargement of male organ […] court cases, job promotions’, while another lady extends her services to ‘get lover of your choice (same day) […],man power in bed, bring back lost lover (same day) […], asthma, BP, […]cancer, sugar’.

Unfortunately, the listings don’t quote any prices. When I talked about my discoveries my local colleague shared my amusement about these particular advertisings, because both of us suspected that these people were just after one’s money. But the joyful mood quickly faded and turned into contemplative silence when I imprudently stepped over one invisible line. I hinted at the fact that some of the above listed problems probably won’t find a cure with any traditional healer. With this comment I exposed my glaring ignorance of the rumors that circulated around the powers of genuine traditional healers, which had over time become rooted in large parts of the Malawian society. He told me three short stories and I try my best to accurately reproduce them here.

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Friend – Boss

Every day on the way to my favorite snack bar here in Lilongwe (capital city of Malawi) I pass by the market. On my first day I must have looked like the stereotypical tourist peering cluelessly into all directions and clasping manically every other minute the oh-so-well hidden belt poach that was strapped around my belly, camouflaged under the almost transparent linen shirt. He spotted me with the eyes of a tiger. “Brother, come here! Look I have something to show to you.” In the end I bought one piece of his wood-carvings (his?) paying three times as much as my friend would the next day. I felt I had bargained like a pro, he probably felt the same. “I am innocent”, he told me the next day when I saw him and he saw me. “No, my name is Innocent”. How fitting, the introduction reveals more about me than about him. From this day of my first awful negotiation stunt I was initiated into the community of market vendors. Every time I now would stroll past their place I hear some of them call after me. ‘Hey brother, busy busy today?!’ ‘Friend, hey friend!’ ‘How are you my friend?’ Amid this outpouring of salutations it’s the torrent of pretended amiability that drowns my spirits. By the words’ original meanings ‘friend’ or ‘brother’ imply for me that I at least cultivate some deeper personal connection with the other person (or am born into it) than just having being outsmarted once when haggling over the price.

Am I taking this too literally perhaps? It may be that it’s just a set phrase born out of necessity, which these guys use because they simply don’t know my name. Or are they calculating that by calling me friend they will gradually tear down my resistance until eventually I will be so exhausted and call them my friends as well? A friend surely can’t deny buying some things here and there, can he? Once having accepted to be called someone’s friend (if he is your friend, then you must be his friend, it’s reciprocal after all) there might be this subterranean urge in all of us to prevent falling out of this person’s favor. You don’t want to lose a friend after all.

But after a couple of weeks greeting formulas began to change and I noticed how I was being called ‘Boss’ all the time now when I saw any of the guys. I was baffled about how to interpret this change of our relationships. In theory a friend could at the same time be your boss, but I suspect it’s not the way things were moving here. Semantically I was to be put in control (again) all the while our interaction was shifted onto a professional terrain with us now filling out formal, not private roles any longer. How the to explain the vendor’s sudden self-degradation, this change in tone? I was blending in their eyes into this group of mostly foreigners, mostly white people, who didn’t bother to engage with the market vendors. I lost the privilege of being on good terms with them and hence lost my status of ‘being a friend’. AT one point in time then I learned that I was considered selfish because I hadn’t bought at their place for so long. Apparently, keeping my money to me was interpreted as a sign of selfishness.

The slip in tone that signaled I was deemed superior to them in fact strongly demarcated the differences between them and me: me being part of the internationals, part of the group of Whites. This association reactivated a colonial mindset with its respective linguistic repertoire. I was the boss now. And this was not in the sense of ‘the customer is the king’.

I find it deeply troubling how these remnants of colonial rule seemingly become perpetuated through the self-degradation of the local market vendors in this case. I might have never been considered as an equal human being when called their ‘friend’ in the first place, but hearing people fall back into categories of ‘boss’ and subordinates is even more painful to face. Why is it still so ingrained in the speech of many people to salute others and me that simply happen to have a white skin color?

Start of Mini-Series: Randomized Controlled Trials as Tools to Understand Public Policy Decisions

(I) “Encouraging the Adoption of Agroforestry: A Case Study in Eastern Province, Zambia” (Kelsey Jack, Tufts; Paulina Oliva, UCSB; Elizabeth Walker, Harvard; Samuel Bell, Cornell)

In a quest to understand whether cashflow constraints or the absence of short-term financial benefits impede the uptake of agroforestry practices of farmers in Zambia, the research team surrounding Kelsey Jack from Tufts University in collaboration with Trees on Farms Programme conducted a randomized controlled trial in which they analyzed the effect of different subsidy and incentive schemes on farmer adoption. The subsidies took the form of different input-price reductions (from free hand-out of tree seedlings to having farmers pay their full market price) while the incentive payments were outcome-based and rewarded farmers, whose tree survival rate surpassed 70% after one season (Nov ’11-Dec ’12).

All farmers underwent training on planting and tree care before they could decide to opt into the programme for one year and receive the seedlings or not.Randomisation was implemented through a lottery (scratch cards that listed the individual rewards – randomization on the individual level) and a computer-orchestrated algorithm, that allocated input-prices at the farmer group-level (in total, 1,300 farmers are trained in 125 farm groups). Performance-incentives were revealed alternatingly either before or after people opted into the program. Data were collected at baseline, at periodic intervals at which every fifth participant was visited to observe planting progress, for a ‘planting survey’ to register the number of trees planted and at end-line to track the tree survival rate.

According to the researchers their data reveal that:

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Getting your business degree from playing a video game – What I learned from playing RollerCoaster Tycoon

Theme Park small Post

Mocked as a pursuit fit for kindergarten, a game ostensibly comparable to slightly more sophisticated sandbox playing with an endlessly-repeating juke box game sound in the background – the reactions I earned for playing the theme park simulation-game RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 (& later RCT3) during my high school years were hardly the ones you wish for. In my eyes being the architect, the engineer, the manager and the visitor of your own theme park was the greatest. You pulled the strings of a big business by building water rollercoasters, ferry wheels and hot-dog stands, decorating your park’s landscape and conjuring up all the hidden treasures of a perfect holiday resort.

Since the release of its first version in 1999 the RollerCoaster Tycoon series by Atari has won the hearts of a steadily increasing fan base of theme park enthusiasts of all ages and climbed up the Olympus of the most successful video games of all times.

Having put the video game aside for the duration of my undergraduate business studies over the last three years I now rediscovered the game and approached it with very similar tactics as years before. I still put some easy-going, low-excitement rides near the park exit, placed a lot of benches and a cotton candy stand in their direct proximity, hoping that I might squeeze some virtual currency out of the pockets of families, who originally planned to leave the park. Or am I deluding myself and I in fact learned these small ploys from digging through sheer endless books and articles on Marketing, Finance, Strategy or Human Resource Management?

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