Scotland-Vietnam collaboration on climate change and coastal communities – Hanoi Workshop Day 2

Today may best be titled ‘When Epistemologies Collide’. We came to a consensus in the end, but it was a full-on day.

Natascha started us off with a rich and theoretically-driven lecture on the social dimensions of science and the positionality and values of the researcher. Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Science and Technology Studies. Now when I was taught this kind of stuff at uni it tended to be done in a fairly abstract way, with a big pile of theory and some historical examples. Those that got it got it, and those that didn’t went on to have fruitful and meaningful research careers (just to be crystal clear, that is intended as a joke).


We, by contrast, decided to go from the super-theoretical to the hyper-empirical by then launching straight in preparing the interview schedules for tomorrow’s field trip to Nam Dinh Province (the location Dr Nguyen Song Tung and Dr Pham Thi Tram told us about yesterday). Our visit will have something of a dual purpose – one, to build the RGU team’s familiarity with the field site as preparation for comparative case study-based work in the future; and two, to give some of the younger researchers in IHGeo experience in interview techniques.


Team making good progress

Now it may be considered folly to attempt such a wide-ranging plan, but there was method(ology) in our madness. Namely, to work together and use the preparation of an interview schedule as an end goal to think through what kinds of social issues around climate change we want to understand, what sort of data we need to do so, and crucially what the questions are we need to ask of our participants and of ourselves to get this.


By lunchtime the two working groups had made good headway, and we enjoyed a filling lunch of meat, greens and rice in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences canteen, a notably healthier and more reasonably-priced eatery than its RGU counterpart. Then we returned to the meeting room and creative chaos ensued. How can we focus in from social impacts of climate change in coastal communities? How can we start to make questions when we don’t know exactly what social factors we want to look at? But can you think of a way to phrase that so that you get a deeper response? We were, in short, coming at the problem from very different methodological traditions – the three sociologists from RGU approaching from a tradition where one approaches the problem in an open-ended way and, guided by underpinning theory, draws themes out of the data; and our IHGeo colleagues thinking more in terms of interviewing to extract information towards the purpose of understanding problems and serving particular policy goals. The reason I write this is not to say that one of these approaches is ‘right’ and one is ‘wrong’, but again to raise the point that making space at the start of a collaboration to understand each other’s approach to ‘science’ is just as important as knowing the techniques we can use and the data we can generate.

This discussion lasted the whole afternoon, and whilst it had tired us all out we all agreed it was productive. Once everyone had got over the hurdle of realising that even within the confines of the term ‘interview’ there were wildly differing understandings, it was plain sailing towards coming up with a topic guide that balanced our different ways of thinking and will (hopefully) give us a line of enquiry that allows specific insight into climate change within Nam Dinh and the responses across levels, but at the same time doesn’t close down the line of questioning too much or make too many assumptions about what we think is going to be important to our respondents. Interdisciplinarity is never easy, but when you do have moments of understanding each other it is very rewarding.

Tomorrow we head to the field, with a 6am departure from Hanoi to reach Nam Dinh Province by 9am. Given the energy required for today’s work and the early start tomorrow, my Wednesday post just might be a little more photo-based…


Thanks again to the British Academy for their generous support!

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Scotland-Vietnam collaboration on climate change and coastal communities – Hanoi Workshop Day 1

This week Dr Natascha Mueller-Hirth, Dr Chris Yuill and myself are in Vietnam for the first workshop of our British Academy International Partnership and Mobility Scheme-funded project into climate change in coastal communities, for which we have partnered with Dr Nguyen Song Tung and her colleagues in the Institute of Human Geography in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

It has been nearly two years since I first visited the institute, when we sat and discussed how we might collaborate and agreed that climate change in coastal communities could act as a broad-based entry point. After much filling in of funding application forms, exchanging of emails and planning of logistics in the interim, it was very satisfying to be able to return to Hanoi with two of my colleagues this week to really begin the next step of our collaboration.


Dr Nguyen Song Tung discusses biodiversity and climate change

Despite the common theme, I know from experience that bringing two different institutions and two different research cultures together can be challenging, so one of the key objectives of this first workshop is really to get to know what each other does and how we work, with a view to laying a solid foundation for future collaboration. And as useful as emails and conference calls are, sometimes there is still no substitute for getting everyone together in a room talking with each other.


Dr Pham Thi Tram tells us about impacts of climate change on coastal communities in Nam Dinh Province

With that in mind, after a welcome from the Director General, Dr Nguyen Song Tung opened with a presentation on her research into management for biodiversity conservation in Xuan Thuy National Park in the context of climate change. Dr Pham Thi Tram then told us more about the impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of coastal communities in the same area – a part of the country about which we are going to be learning a lot more over the course of this week. For the three Scotland-based academics, these talks were hugely useful not only in giving us an understanding of the contexts in which our IHGeo colleagues work, but also in sparking ideas about areas of possible commonality and collaboration. For instance, although the problems faced in north-east Vietnam differ greatly from those faced in north-east Scotland in terms of nature and magnitude, Song Tung’s concluding points that ‘it is necessary to develop a suitable mechanism for collaboration amongst the authorities’ and ‘there is an overlap in tasks and responsibilities in different organisations’ could equally summarise for some of the Aberdeenshire challenges I’ll speak about later in the week.


Group discussion

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. After an extensive and thoroughly enjoyable lunch we started the first workshop session, ambitiously titled ‘Climate Change and Social Research’ but rather more earnestly intended as a springboard to get us thinking about the different ways in which we can research the social dimensions of climate change and to what effect. This is something we will develop in more depth tomorrow, so for this afternoon I set the scene by talking through the different techniques I’ve used for some mixed-method research I’ve been doing into heat and greenspace in Taipei, using this as a lead-in to discussing the links between theory and methods. We then broke out into groups, and followed the time-honoured academic tradition of having a good long chat over some flipchart paper and pens.


Methods, techniques and justifications

Seriously, though, experience has told me that when one is starting out in interdisciplinary collaboration like this (in the room we had human geographers, economists, environmental scientists, soil scientists and sociologists) it is really crucial to spend time properly understanding not only what we do, but also why we do it in the way we do. The fact both groups’ charts filled not only with techniques – GIS, interviews, remote sensing, statistical analysis, desk research – but also different drivers and motivations – influencing policy, data availability, personal skills – hopefully reflected the value of mapping out this bumpy terrain right at the start of collaboration. What we do once we’ve started to map this out will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.


Certainly a different view to the one we have from RGU

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On Fukushima Dai’ichi, radiation, and trust in data

Yesterday a friend on Facebook tagged me into a post linking to an article claiming that the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant continues unabated. My friend tagged me in because he knew I did research around Fukushima, and though I might be able to comment accordingly. The article in question is quite clear that the recent observations of high radiation, the ones which have garnered media attention, are due to extension of observation to previously un-accessed areas rather than a sudden spike in on-site radiation. In other words, the reason we are getting these readings now is because no readings have previously been taken at those locations.

As a social scientist, I believe it is important to show respect for – and take seriously – different conceptions of what constitutes an acceptable level of risk or uncertainty. The author of the linked article offers one such interpretation, which they are well within their rights to do. However, in response to some of the points in the article about ‘contaminated’ land, ‘radioactive’ produce and effects on the sea, in the interests of balance I offered links to some scientific actions being undertaken in Fukushima and beyond to assess radioactivity levels. What is crucial, I think, are actions coming from inside Fukushima Prefecture by people who themselves bear the ‘risks’ of radiation and do not stand to make significant financial or political gain from decisions taken on the basis of the monitoring data they collect. I spent the best part of an hour typing my response, so in the interests of sharing more widely have pasted below.

The first thing to be absolutely clear about is that the situation at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant is going to be of concern for some time. There is still a lot of work to do to decommission the site completely and a number of issues which need to be resolved long-term around storage and disposal of waste. It would be disingenuous to say there is no radiation or that it is not a concern.

However, I think it is too much of an overstatement to say there has been a ‘cover up’ in Japan. There is a lot of citizen science monitoring being undertaken by people living in and around Fukushima Prefecture to assess radiation levels. For instance, UmiLabo catch fish from the sea and screen for radiation, publishing their results online ( – in Japanese), and Safecast are helping the proliferation of DIY Geiger counters ( Plus there is a peer-reviewed paper that Prof Ryugo Hayano (Tokyo Uni and CERN) wrote with a group of high school students to assess external exposure in Fukushima Prefecture – If you’re interested to know more about what daily living is like in Fukushima Prefecture (which is half the size of Belgium), look at the #life_in_fukushima hashtag on Twitter which is being run and populated by citizens.

The linked article also talks about contamination of the sea outside of Japan. This is precisely what University of Victoria ( and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ( have been measuring in the Pacific – again with support of citizen scientists as well as academics and public health officials. They are quite open about the fact that Fukushima radionuclides have been detected on the Western seaboard, but at levels they believe are *far* too low to pose health risks.

For a slightly less taxing take on the situation at Fukushima Dai’ichi itself, there is a manga which was written by a former worker at the plant which has just been translated into English (full version out soon). The writer, who goes by the pseudonym Kazuto Tatsuta, is very balanced in his assessment of the situation at the plant – see

So in sum, whilst it is true that Fukushima Dai’ichi itself has a long way to go, there is a broad range of monitoring, screening and observation that is assessing living, health and produce in Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. The key thing, in my view, is to keep in mind what the values, objectives and motivations of the people making the different claims are (which is where social scientists like me come in!), and to look at the evidence base they use to make these claims.

As a footnote, I’d like to point out that although I am not an environmental scientist, I have published peer-reviewed work on the social dimensions of risk communication in Fukushima. Please do get in touch via email – – if you would like access to any of my papers. 

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Society and green space in Fukushima’s cities post-disaster

Originally posted on, a new collaborative venture I have with Dr Wanyu Shih of Ming-Chuan University.

For the past few years I have been undertaking research in Fukushima. This does not mean I have been doing work at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Rather, my ‘field sites’ have been two cities in Fukushima Prefecture – Iwaki and Fukushima – each with a population of around 300,000 people. The purpose of my research has not been to form a judgement on nuclear power, but rather to understand what environmental change might mean for daily living. In this post I’m going to focus on one aspect of this work, the effect of the triple disaster on green spaces in Fukushima and Iwaki, and draw out some implications for the role of green spaces under conditions of major environmental change.


First, though, let’s take in a bit of context. On March 11 2011 a very large earthquake and tsunami hit the north-east coast of Japan. This claimed the lives of over 15,000 people. It also set in motion a chain of events that lead to a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant, and triggered hydrogen explosions which carried radioactive material over Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. The levels of radiation that reached Fukushima City and Iwaki City were not high enough to necessitate any evacuations, but there was a need to undertake decontamination to remove some of the radioactive matter from the environment. This was especially true for Fukushima City, which because of the wind direction at the time of the accident received more radioactive contamination than areas to the south. From what my interviewees and subsequent collaboration with scientists has told me, the green spaces within cities – parks, forests at the urban fringe, roadside greenery – have been some of the more challenging areas to decontaminate. These findings can tell us much about the social dimensions of urban green space under environmental change.

The first thing my Fukushima fieldwork has told me is that access to green space matters. Or, more precisely, what matters is having green space that people feel is safe enough for them to want to access. Back in 2014 when I was doing my first round of fieldwork, municipal officials I interviewed told me they were getting a lot of questions about the radiation levels in the parks and forests around Fukushima City. In particular, there were very legitimate concerns from mothers with young children about the heterogeneity and indeterminacy of contamination over short distances, and from citizens who enjoyed getting out into the hills at weekends to exercise about whether radiation would be higher than in the city centre. I remember seeing some workers nailing a small sign onto a piece of grass to say there was a patch of higher-than-average radiation, which gave me quite a fright.


This situation – of not facing formal restrictions on activity yet not being able to live daily life fully – was described by Japanese environmental sociologist Akihiko Sato as being ‘evacuated in daily life.’ The psychological implications of not feeling able to access meaningful green spaces within the city are clear. When we talk about ‘accessible’ green space in the context of urban environmental change, then, perhaps we need to think not only about physical access in terms of distance, entrance points, ease of mobility, but also about accessibility in a social and cultural sense. Does the park, forest, garden or whatever feel accessible? Could changes in the climate somehow make a green space feel more or less accessible over time? And how might one go about assessing this? If the more vulnerable members of society are to be able to derive the psychological and health benefits that being within urban green space provides (and that might help to build resilience to environmental changes), then they have to feel welcome and safe in that space.

How one goes about creating those conditions is my second point. The small ‘hotspot’ sign I saw was just one of a number of ways in which the prefectural and municipal governments in Fukushima and Iwaki are working to raise citizen awareness of radiation levels and decontamination efforts. There are the ubiquitous radiation monitors, online real-time data, and daily measurements broadcast on television and in newspapers. Perhaps because of the concerns I mentioned above, open spaces have come to be a key site for the radiation monitors. My colleagues Prof David Sanderson and Dr Alan Cresswell at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, who do very fine-scale measurement of radiation levels in Fukushima, like to regale me with anecdotal tales of how they’ve been able to use their results to show citizens that radiation levels are declining over tens of metres as a result of decontamination work. And then there are the excellent citizen science efforts for people to monitor radiation in the environment for themselves.


But how does all of that relate to climate adaptation? Well, the work going on to monitor radioactivity in Fukushima and Iwaki’s open spaces is a good example of risk communication for urban green space, providing reliable and timely evidence in a manner understandable to citizens. What lessons might we learn about communicating the environmental conditions within green spaces, so that people can modify their behaviour accordingly? If information about the heterogeneity of hazard across a green space can be communicated, then it may be possible for people to alter their behaviours to reduce exposure, and/or to make an informed decision about what they do in that space. For example, we might be able to visually represent differences in temperature across a park through maps (Wanyu, I’m looking at you here…), provide temperature readings, or draw attention to areas less susceptible to flooding. Finding channels of communication, and voices who are respected and trusted enough to deliver the message, is of course a massive challenge going right to the heart of my own research.

The last thing I want to touch on is the value that protecting or restoring green space has in sustaining resilience before and after a disaster. Fukushima has long been famous for its delicious peaches, which have come to symbolise recovery after 2011. Right outside the NHK Fukushima headquarters, there was a big line of trees, each of them bearing scores of round pink-orange peaches. The message seemed to be that if the trees are once again producing delicious and edible fruit, then the environment and the people within it are on the road to recovery too. Indeed, many of the physical scientists I’ve interviewed and collaborated with openly admit that it is worth spending money to decontaminate green spaces where radioactivity is relatively low, because of the symbolism of moving towards recovery it represents. With a critical eye one could dismiss this as being a bit tokenistic, but I still think it tells us something important about the role that conservation or restoration of urban green space can have in motivating wider resilience and recovery. And then, of course, there are all the opportunities for interaction and ‘social capital’ building that urban green spaces bring – Misaki Park in Iwaki contains a Shinto shrine, for example.


Iwaki and Fukushima’s recovery after the 2011 nuclear accident tells us a lot about what green space means to a city. Environmental radiation is a very different phenomenon to climate change, but from a social science perspective it tells much about what major environmental change might mean to our green and open spaces. The challenges of decontaminating urban greenery through taking off topsoil, scraping away leaf litter, and removing vegetation show us just how complex the urban ecosystems on which we rely are. Likewise, the risk communication work that is ongoing post-disaster reminds us just how complex people’s relationships to green spaces are, and how far-reaching the consequences can be if these relations are changed. As such, limiting the harm and damage we cause to urban ecosystems in the first place seems a vital part of climate adaptation.

Read more about the empirical research on which this post is based here: Mabon, L and Kawabe, M (2016) ‘Engagement on risk and uncertainty – lessons from coastal regions of Fukushima Prefecture, Japan after the 2011 nuclear disaster?’ Journal of Risk Research DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2016.1200658


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Yubari, Aberdeen and industrial decline

This is a piece I wrote for The Scotsman a couple of months back, on what Aberdeen and north-east Scotland can learn from the decline of coal and steel manufacturing in the south of Hokkaido. Given recent political events and the perceived role of post-industrial areas in swelling political trends, I thought this was worth re-airing. The US election result ought to be a real shot in the arm for NE Scotland as to the kind of trends we want to avoid as oil and gas (and associated jobs) decline.


City Hall, Yubari

“Start planning now. That’s the most important advice I can give.” So a senior official from Yubari City in Japan told me. Many desks in his office sat empty, yellowed computers and piles of faded documents stacked where people used to work. The fluorescent tubes had been pulled out of half the overhead lights to save electricity.

What had I asked to provoke such a response? If I start the story, you’ll soon twig. Yubari is an administrative district in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Until about 1990, it was the de facto coal mining capital of the country. People came from all over to work in the mines, attracted by high wages and stable work. Then the coal ran out. Desperate to fill the economic void, city officials instigated a film festival (successful), skiing and tourism (moderately successful) and a theme park (utterly disastrous). These interventions were not able to stop the rot, and in 2008 Yubari became the first Japanese municipality to file for bankruptcy. Its population is now one tenth of what it was at the coal mining peak, and the legacy of flashy town halls, schools and hospitals left behind by the coal industry – for which the city authority has had to assume liability – continues to drain town resources.

Substitute coal for oil, and Hokkaido for Scotland, and the reason for my interest in Yubari becomes clear. I wanted to find out what one town which has already experienced the end of fossil fuel industries could teach my current home – Aberdeen. For the past five years I’ve been researching what the future of North Sea energy might look like as our oil and gas fields mature. My goal hasn’t been to establish how many billion barrels of oil are left or how many millions of pounds of revenue we might drag out, but rather how the pathway the North Sea follows from now on in affects daily living for the citizens of Aberdeen and its surroundings. And what I learned from Yubari was that if north-east Scotland wants to avoid storing up trouble, it needs to start acting now.



At the risk of being labeled reactionary, the recent oil price downturn has focused my mind. There have been previous lows from which the industry has recovered, and I know prices are better than they were six months ago. But this short-term view misses the point. It might not be this year or even this decade, but at some point North Sea oil and gas operations will cease to be viable. And when that time comes, north-east Scotland will need something to replace it. The current downturn is as good a point of departure as any for a discussion on what this future might look like.

I am not advocating shutting down all the rigs overnight, nor do I seek to trivialise the jobs that have been lost. Our society will need oil and gas for a while yet. Until renewable technologies can meet our energy needs it would be sensible to make the most efficient use of fields already in operation – like those in the North Sea – rather than looking elsewhere. Let’s not forget the UK has strict climate change targets too, which the North Sea and all the offshore engineering knowledge Aberdeen has accumulated over the last fifty years can help to meet. Offshore wind, wave energy and carbon dioxide capture and storage could all play a part in a managed transition for the North Sea, squaring our climate obligations with building a more sustainable economic base for the north-east and beyond. But to achieve this we need coherent and stable policy across all levels, and forward planning to ensure Aberdeen is able to grasp the opportunities that come its way,

I will resist the obvious comparison between Aberdeen and Detroit. The cultures, industries and politics are different. Even Yubari is a bit of a stretch. But with so many examples globally of what can happen when an industry on which a city depends has run its course, I find it concerning and frustrating that all the talk is about prolonging North Sea production seemingly into infinity. This is understandable with so many jobs on the line, but surely there has to be room to talk about what happens when Scotland has taken oil and gas as far as it can? As we academics say, it’s a conversation that needs to be had.



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