This essay intends to answer the question whether El Niño phenomena is an actor upon human society or a product of it. It does so first by discussing characteristics of a more general concept, the climate, which is the primary domain under which El Niño concept falls. Then, the El Niño phenomenon is briefly explained, and finally its characteristics are discussed. At the last part of the essay, the significance of the central question in the context of adaptation to climate change is elaborated.

Those were the days, sir. We used to have very harsh winters here. Half a meter of snow cover, staying on the ground at least for 3 months was normal. Nowadays, we have very strange winters! (A taxi driver, complaining about “abnormal” climatic conditions in Ankara, Turkey, 2013)

What does climate mean to us? What does typical climate mean to us? What was the benchmark point of a taxi driver who tells that winter was abnormal? When people are asked these questions, answers vary. But, then again, why do we get different answers, if scientific meaning of climate has been defined decades ago? Studies argue that climate and climatic events are socially constructed phenomena as well as physical ones. One of the dictionary definitions of the term climate is “the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity, and precipitation (Merriam Webster, 2014). This definition is underlining the physical characteristics of the term. However, humans have social, cultural and psychological filters when it comes to understanding the physical world and attach meanings to it. This means sense of climate can be very different even for the people who live in similar geographies, similar socio-cultural contexts. To support of this view with literature, we can have a close look at a recent study of Hulme et al. (2009), where they discuss the meaning of a typical climate. They argue that the normality of climatic conditions is co-constructed in the frameworks of cultural and psychological processes. They build on Hulme’s (2008) previous study where he focuses on the physical and cultural connotations of the climate term and underlines different significances this term carries. According to Hulme et al. (2009), climate is constructed in various ways, which can be external and internal to the human imagination.

The climate, in fact, was perceived as a concept that is highly chaotic in its essence but as Rayner (2003) puts forward, the concept has been “domesticated”, transformed into a measurable and (temporally & spatially) comparable statistical concept throughout the history. Most significant outcome of this domestication process would be the World Meteorological Organisation’s understanding of climate concept, which is based on statistical averages of 30 years of metrological data collection (World Metrological Organization, 2014). While scientists have been using this reduced form of climate term, what other humans, the ordinary people, think about the climate they perceive? Hulme et al. (2009) says, it depends on the individuals’ past experiences, cultural context they live in, identity and their cognitive abilities. What normal climate means to a person may not be the same for another one. Perceptions of “normal climate” of an illiterate farmer who totally depends on the rainfall to feed his family would be very different than an investment banker who oversights billion dollars of customer investments in the highly disaster prone areas of Southeast Asia. What is normal for a farmer might be the rainfall pattern he/she experienced in the last year, which is very desirable for the specific crops he works with, whereas the investment banker’s normal definition might refer to the weather patterns in line with the computerized statistical forecasts. The farmer would use his memory to recall weather patterns while our investment banker would rely on the national weather forecast services. There is a full academic literature illustrating our biases regarding the climate concept. Harley (2003), McIntosh et al. (2000), and Meze-Hausken (2004) discuss different aspects of these biases. To point out the variety of the existing climate and climate event perceptions, some scholars focused on mapping the range of words that humans use to define these perceptions. Even the people live in a similar geographic area, Stewart (2007) strikingly finds out 143 English adjectives are being used to describe weather & climate-related events.

Another important question is that how the farmer and the investment banker decide what is normal to them in the climate context? What are their benchmark points? Maybe the farmer relies on his memory (his own experiences, stories he heard from his father/ancestors, dialogues with his community etc.) and the investment banker may rely on the forecasts produced by a statistical software. In fact, their priorities and timescapes are totally different than each other’s, and this may be a factor affecting their operational decisions. As Adam (2000) argues, “phenomena, processes and events may be conceptualized as timescapes” and this is very critical particularly from the behavioural change perspective. In the climate context, her argument can be enlightening for us to think about how different timescapes are affecting our adaptation decisions.

Which climate concept and timescape would be more useful to us then? Culturally constructed ones? Or statistically framed ones? Does choosing one of them provide us significant advantages over choosing the other one? Do we have to make this choice? Living in times where the climate is changing faster than it used to be in the last century, choosing 30 years period as a scale would provide us less predictive power when compared with the scenario where we choose 10 years long scale (Landsberg, 1947; Court, 1968; Lamb, 1981 in Hulme et. al, 2009). So why do computerized forecasts use 30 years long assessments when spotting climate anomalies? One can argue this is because practical reasons such as choosing a certain period and statistical procedures makes it easy to measure the change in climatic conditions, and compare data temporally or spatially. But this does not necessarily mean statistical construction of the climate is the best choice for humans. Hulme et al. (2009) argue that defining the climate concept with a purely physical science perspective would cause an erosion in the meaning of the concept, making it universalized but simultaneously making it almost nonsense to ordinary people who actually face impacts of climatic change.

Studies illustrate that there are different interpretations of climate and climatic normal. These concepts are co-produced under different contexts (Rayner, 2003; Wilhite and Glantz, 1987; Meyer, 2000). Culture, social and economic practices, norms, values are not permanent, and they are continually changing. Therefore social and cultural reproduction of the climate concept is not a static process as the contexts are changing over time (Hulme et al., 2009). An interesting example on how different cultures living next to each other constructs their own climate perceptions is illustrated at the study of Pennesi et al. (Pennesi et al 2007 in Hulme et al., 2009). When the residents of two neighbouring towns located at the US & Mexico border are asked whether they feel the drought conditions or not, one side responded positively whereas other hand gave a contrasting answer. Another supporting example can be given from the study of Douglas (2011), in which he compares climate perceptions of two different communities living on different sides of the Kasai River in the Republic of Congo. When the communities are asked about what they think on the recent summer seasons, they gave antipole answers (hot and unpleasant versus frigid). These examples suggest us to rethink about the definition of climate concept and reflect about its dynamic characteristic.

The definition of climate should be pluralistic and vibrant if we are to make better use of it. It can be said that, the desire of human to conquer the nature has started when human-nature dichotomy first emerged during the Neolithic age. With the ascendancy of empirically based science, humans have tried to quantify every physical phenomenon, in order to understand the nature of them as well as to use them for their own benefit. Climate and weather events have been some of these. These quantified data provided very useful insights to humans, made us better equipped in the face of uncertainties. As technology advanced, humans became able to build sophisticated software models to make more accurate predictions about future climate and weather events. But, humans have been struggling and coping with different degrees of climatic variability and climatic impacts since the beginning of human history (Stocker et. al, 2013). Wide range of literature can be found on how humans have had their own perceptions of climate and how these were instrumental when making adaptation related decisions. These decisions had driven the line between survival and collapse of the specific communities (Haug et. al, 2003; McLeman, 2010). This reminds us the fact that sophisticated tools of today would be very handy and timesaving for decision makers, but in reality, abovementioned farmer’s knowledge and perception of climate and climate normal would be equally helpful and resource friendly. Therefore, taking socio-cultural reproductions of the climate phenomena into account would be beneficial particularly in the adaptation context. In line with this view, Hulme et al. (2009) empirical study suggest us to “recognize that cultural and psychological processes can shape our expectations of future climates as much as may do scientific predictions of changes to the physical climate”. Having said these, we can conclude by saying that the concept of climate is not just a physical phenomena but also socio-culturally constructed one.

Here, I would like to focus on particular climatic phenomena, known as El Niño. From the physical science perspective, El Niño is a climate-related phenomenon. It is argued to be one of the moderating forces behind anthropogenic climate change as well. As emphasized by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) this is a significant driver of regional climate patterns (WMO, 2014). El Niño is known as the warm period of the ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) cycle. The ENSO is a name given by scientists to a natural ocean temperature and air pressure fluctuation, which refers to the complex balancing process of the equatorial Pacific Ocean temperature and air pressure dynamics. Despite lack of full scientific understanding of its root causes, key elements of the ENSO (sea surface temperature and atmospheric pressure to name them) are found to be highly correlated (L’Heureux et al., 2014).  ENSO is composed of two states that fluctuate in an order1. These opposite patterns are named as El Niño and La Niña (figure 1). The first one refers to accumulation of unusually warm waters around the equatorial pacific whereas the latter refers to the accumulation of unusually cold waters (NOAA, 2014).

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Figure 1. Temperature anomalies during the El Niño phase in December 1997 and the La Niña phase in December 1998 (NOAA, 2014)

Briefly, El Niño phenomenon in the physical science context can be explained as follows: Our planet’s climate is driven by the solar energy received by the ocean and land surfaces. Equatorial latitudes receive most of this energy flux, which is redistributed towards the poles mainly by the ocean currents, surface winds and precipitation patterns. At the equatorial region, heat is not accumulated evenly. Surface waters of the Pacific Ocean are driven towards the Indonesia coasts by the Pacific Trade Winds. As a result of this large warm water deposit (in fact, recognized as the largest one), sea water level near Indonesia becomes approximately 45 cm higher than it is near Ecuador (NASA Science Casts, 2014). Every 3 to 7 years, the balance of the atmospheric and ocean dynamics breaks down, and the Pacific Trade Winds are weakened. As a result, the warm water deposit starts to move backwards very rapidly. This rapid surface motion of unusually warm waters is called as the Kelvin Waves (Kessler et al., 1995). The coastal waters near Peru and Ecuador become unusually warm and this accumulation has extremely negative impacts on fishing crops and weather patterns over these countries. The impacts are not limited with these and felt globally. The teleconnections include enhanced winter storms over the Southern United States, prolonged droughts particularly over Australia, Indonesia, and Southern Asia, more powerful cyclones and typhoons in the Pacific region (NASA, 2014). In addition, the path of monsoons over the Indian Ocean may be affected as well. Monsoon fails due to El Niño events may have devastating impacts on crop yields in China, India and Africa. These unusual warming and cooling periods associated with ENSO are not newly discovered phenomena. Their dynamics and impacts on socio-economical systems have been recorded and researched since late 19th century. In fact, the interconnected components of ENSO cycle have been under researcher’s focus since early 19th century. Since then, these components and connections between them have been identified (Carranza, 1892 cited in Penland et al., 2013; Carrillo, 1893 cited in Diaz & Markgraf, 2000; Walker and Bliss, 1933; Berlage, 1966; Bjerknes, 1969 cited in Penland et al., 2013; Rasmusson & Wallace, 1983; Philander et al., 1989; Glantz, 1996).

Is El Niño a physical reality or a social construction of human society? The name “El Niño” was first given by the Peruvian fisherman who noticed the warming period in the seawater that takes place around the Christmas time. The “Christ Child” has been bringing them tropical fishes they don’t often catch. This is an example how a climatic event is codified in the context of a specific culture and religion. Also, the term ENSO had not been in use until J. Bjerknes discovered the connections between the ocean and atmospheric dynamics. Scientists then found out that Southern Oscillation (SO – see-saw type relationship between the sea level pressure across Indonesia and the Pacific equatorial region) and the El Niño dynamics. Despite there are correlations between different physical parameters encapsulated by the term ENSO; this term could be codified very differently, though. For instance, if another correlation had been discovered much earlier than the SO, the term ENSO would be codified and named in a totally different way. The order of scientific discoveries in the history and personal choices constructed another layer on the ENSO concept. La Niña name then introduced in the 80’s by S. G. Philander, a term which stands for outlining opposite conditions of the El Niño. The terminology has been gendered (El Niño = masculine, hot, dry, devastating, La Niña = feminine, cool, wet). What might be the implication of this gendering process? A study on gendering hurricane names strikingly underlines the fact that feminine-named hurricanes cause significantly more deaths than do masculine-named hurricanes because people overestimated feminine-named disasters as a result of their gender bias (Jung et al., 2014). Miller’s (2014) study underlines that the western domination in science was the force at play in the gendering of El Niño as well as reinforcing universality of this construction. The term ENSO did not include La Niña, which is indeed, very striking point from the gender perspective. Although earlier civilizations and communities witnessed more devastating ENSO events like the ones in 1396, between 1685–88, 1789–93 and 1877–79 (Groove, 1998). It was not until late 90’s the name El Niño became very popular at the global stage. In 1997, series of very devastating ENSO-related events took place in Peru. While the media cultured the essence of the 1997 El Niño; highly technocratic approach of the political elite and decision makers “purified” this climatic event and “allowed it to be appropriated in support of one-eyed agendas” (such as popularization of the president), as Hulme (2008) puts forward. Broad & Orlove (2007) focused on this particular El Niño, and dissected how particular actors “channelled” a physical climate phenomenon into their specific socio-cultural contexts, almost by co-creating that El Niño from scratch. This is in line with what Ong & Collier (2008) says in the global discourses (such as El Niño or climate change), which “can be re-contextualized in new settings”. A comprehensive study has been made by historian Mike Davis (both 2001 and 2002), in the framework of which he discusses the relationship between the El Niño phenomenon, imperialism, and global famines during the nineteenth century. He illustrates various case studies and argues that El Niño–induced droughts and floods had been used to maximize imperial interests. This study reveals socio-political dimensions have been constructed as well, in the framework of El Niño and extreme events.

Miller (2006), concludes the Australia case study with a call for greater appreciation of historical knowledge which is in line with Adamson’s (2014) call for “greater focus on social responses to extreme climatic events in the past” to better address today’s challenges. Why does this matter? It matters, because as Adger et. al (2009) argues, “more often, adaptation to climate change is limited by the values, perceptions, processes and power structures within society”. We can stretch these limits only by trying to understand constructed layers of climate and significant climatic phenomenon such as El Niño. We can, and we must discover these plural forms of reality before it becomes too late for many of us.

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