Focus: Climate change and the social sciences

Focus: Climate change and the social sciences

Reiner Grundmann

Climate change is an important topic for society but it seems that social scientists could do a better job in addressing it.

Let me explain. Saying that climate change is important for society means that it is a social problem. However, it tends to be treated as a problem for climate science, and a problem of communication of the ‘correct’ understanding of the problem. Saying that social scientists could do a better job in addressing it implies that there are some shortcomings. And it raises the question what addressing the problem could mean.

Recently I published a comment in Nature Geoscience, arguing that climate change is a wicked social problem. Developed in urban policy, the term ‘wicked problem’ denotes ‘[t]he kinds of problems that planners deal with–societal problems–are inherently different from the problems that scientists and perhaps some classes of engineers deal with. Planning problems are inherently wicked.’

Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved — over and over again. They can be managed better or worse.  Examples of ‘tame’ or ‘benign’ problems are: solving an equation; analyzing the structure of some unknown chemical substance; or attempting checkmate in five moves. In each case we know if we have succeeded or not. Examples of wicked problems are: crime, drug use, poverty, health provision, employment, education, and so on. Success criteria are inherently political, and subject to change. It is not realistic to imagine a zero rate of crime as a feasible policy goal. Policy makers know this, as does the public at large. There are no big scientific assessments, let alone a scientific consensus needed to advise policy. Steps are taken incrementally, and pragmatically. Evidence does play a role, but so do cultural values. What works in one place might be inspiration for others, but no guarantee that it works there as well.

In climate change assessments the main social science discipline is economics. Others are under-represented. This may have to do with the obvious expertise of economists in delivering cost benefit analyses for all kind of policy proposals and a preference for models and numeric indicators, much like climate scientists. But this under representation may also be the result of a self-imposed restraint from the other social sciences outside orthodox economics. Analyzing climate change as a social construct does not seem right when the political right in the USA and elsewhere has got its teeth into it. Besides, many left leaning social scientists hope for a decisive government intervention which they believe is more likely if based on a strong scientific consensus. No matter what qualms one might have with science elsewhere (GMOs, big pharma, badger culls…) in climate change science seems to help a progressive cause. But such quiescent politics is bad professionally, and it is counter-productive politically. The social sciences need to do a better job.

Can society solve the problem of climate change? Which indicators, metrics or observations would tell us that we have succeeded, or failed? Much depends on how we define climate change, and how we define climate policy. As has been noted long ago, but little noticed in the scholarly community, there are two radically different definitions of climate change, provided by two authoritative international organizations in charge of the problem. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as “a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, that alters the composition of the global atmosphere, and that is in addition to natural climate variability over comparable time periods.” By contrast, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines climate change broadly as “any change in climate over time whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity.”

If one were to adopt the UNFCCC definition, it would seem that only anthropogenic factors should be taken into account, with natural drivers of climate change being left out. There are three problems with this approach. First, it would limit our interventions (climate policies) to a narrowly defined set of variables, and prioritize mitigation over adaptation. Many commentators and participants in the climate change discourse essentially transform the problem of climate change into a problem of low carbon energy provision. Climate policy becomes energy policy. Second, it neglects the ultra-complex interconnections between variables in the climate system which means that one intervention at one point in time (or over a period of time) may have unintended and unforeseen consequences in another part of the system. The social world is part of this interconnected system and people’s needs and desires may run counter to some of the interventions. Third, separating the anthropogenic from the natural drivers of climate change leads into absurd policy consequences.  Nevertheless, it has been discussed, for example, how to allocate aid to developing countries on the basis of such a calculus.

If we take the IPCC definition of climate change, “any change in climate over time whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity”, we realize how difficult it is to ‘address’ the issue as such, and that it may well be impossible to go about ‘solving’ it.

This conclusion from the literature of wicked problems, as applied to climate change, has led to animated debates (see for example, here, here, and here). Commentators (mostly from the natural sciences) interpreted this as defeatism, as giving up on the problem, as antagonizing the science community, or as alienating the climate negotiators. In fact, nothing of the sort follows from my argument and many comments of my Nature piece were misunderstandings, some genuine, some based on motivated reasoning or arrogant dismissal.

If we take a step back and consider other social problems, we should be able to see the important feature that they have in common with climate change. Consider unemployment. Governments are concerned if the rate of unemployment is rising, or stays high. All kinds of social problems seem to follow, from rising crime, drug use, suicides to the boost for right wing parties. Economic growth and government policies are seen as the appropriate tools to keep unemployment at bay. Much debate occurs about the appropriate tools and the attribution of responsibility. History tells us that only under exceptional circumstances will unemployment be reduced to (near-)zero. What counts as success in addressing the problem is always contested. And, not to forget, impression management is important. We have ample experience with the definition of unemployment in several advanced economies.

Climate change has many similarities to this example. Yet, it was never defined in these terms but as a problem with a unique solution, which was provided by science. This could happen because climate change entered the stage of world politics after successful policies to protect the ozone layer were being implemented. Hence, historical path dependency has led many to believe climate change is like ozone protection, that the Kyoto Protocol should imitate the Montreal Protocol, and the lessons learnt from ozone should be taken on board for climate. What were these lessons?

The role of science was seen as the driving force behind the success in Montreal. An important reason was thought to be the unified assessments under the umbrella of WMO and UNEP. The reports were meant to ‘speak truth to power’. More importantly, it was widely believed that a scientific consensus would translate into political consensus. Getting the science right was seen a precondition for good policy. Not only that: warning of the consequences of inaction was part of the scientific message and believed to be essential for motivating decision makers to take appropriate action. However, the Montreal Protocol was not based on a science consensus, and not driven by atmospheric science. It was driven by a change in interest constellations across major actors in the policy domain (the European Community, the USA, and CFC manufacturers).

Influential narratives about the genesis of the Montreal Protocol maintain that not only was the process science driven, but that there was a scientific consensus that led to the political agreement. Unified scientific assessments conducted under the auspices of WMO-UNEP were allegedly instrumental in this regard. However, a somewhat closer look reveals that ozone depletion as a scientific issue is still an active field of research, and, more importantly, that before the Montreal Protocol no such consensus existed. The process was driven by changing political constellations (mainly a U-turn of big chemical companies and the European Community), accompanied by a hot crisis signal (the phenomenon called the ‘ozone hole’, for details, see here.)

Following the example of unified assessments, the IPCC started producing state of the art assessments every five years or so, beginning in 1988. Again, the hope was that a scientific consensus could be achieved which would translate into a political consensus. The science relied in both cases on models, observations, and other data, especially using information that could be used as alarm signals that would galvanize the policy world. This was based on the experience of the ozone layer where factual crisis signals entered the policy domain at a critical juncture (just before decisive negotiations in Montreal).

Some commentators and activists suggest that the scientific consensus is instrumental for good climate policy. Lack of political progress is thus attributed to misinformation about  ‘the science’, or unawareness of the scientific consensus. Skeptical voices are blamed for this state of affairs, and the allegedly ‘balanced reporting’ by the mass media which gives too much room to skeptical voices–but more recent research suggests their visibility pales in comparison to the mainstream. However, a focus on winning a media war is risky business. If climate policy is justified with science, opponents of the policy will attack the science. Instead of discussions about climate policy we tend to get discussions about the veracity of anthropogenic global warming.

Another important principle that was developed in relation to ozone was the idea that the science could identify global targets and timetables. These principles were introduced into a policy framework that has been described as a ‘global managerial approach’. Abatement strategies were formulated, trying to get binding agreements on targets and timetables. In ozone, industry resisted this approach for a long time, arguing that these goals were not feasible. Over time, this claim proved wrong. Industry was able to over fulfil the seemingly ambitious plans. Hopes were raised to repeat the same feature in climate policy.

Hopes were similar with regard to the modest reduction targets established in 1997 in Kyoto (5% on average). But in climate policy, the global approach based on targets and timetables ran into deep problems. Greenhouse gases are tightly linked to economic activity and infrastructures of cities, industries, and agriculture. Aggressive reduction policies have negative economic impacts which explain the reluctance of all governments in this regard. When they come together at climate negotiations they all prefer others to do something so they can continue their business as usual.  Despite all the grandstanding by politicians to ‘redouble our efforts at saving the planet’, all governments in the global negotiations want a free ride, and sell it at home as the best deal available to tackle climate change.

Many countries have adopted various measures to claim GHG emission reductions leading to a very complex picture of relative competitive advantage. Using appropriate metrics, most countries can make the case that they have contributed to emission reductions. They have either reduced emissions (often by exporting them), avoided emissions (as through China’s one child policy), or emitted much less CO2 per capita than the global average (as is the case in many developing countries). This pattern has led countries into a deadlock at the international negotiations.

In the case of climate change another level of complexity is added through the existence of sinks for GHGs. In ozone such sinks had been hypothesized but ultimately the only significant sink proved to be photolysis of CFCs in the upper stratosphere, where ozone is destroyed as a result. In climate two much discussed sinks are reforestation and ocean fertilization. Reforestation has been part of the UNFCCC process since 2003, leading to controversies. Some argue the incentive to reforestation has perverse effects, leading to deforestation in the first instance. An FAO report claims that ‘[s]ome 40 to 50 percent of plantations in the Asia-Pacific have been established by clearing natural forests, rather than by using degraded or abandoned lands.’ Ocean fertilization is a technology forming part of a geoengineering solution, another hotly contested prospect.

As the above makes clear, all eyes are on mitigation strategies, with some attention to remediation (geo-engineering). Adaptation had been an afterthought in ozone, and has remained so in the case of climate. Again the path dependent nature of climate policy might be able to explain this. In the run-up to the Montreal negotiations US interior secretary Hodel argued against signing an international agreement on CFCs. Instead he proposed a ‘personal protection plan’. The Washington Post carried the headline: ‘Administration Ozone Policy may Favor Sunglasses, Hats’. The Wall Street Journal titled: ‘Advice on Ozone May Be: Wear Hats and Stand in the Shade’. Hodel was quoted in the following words: ‘People who don’t stand out in the sun–it doesn’t affect them’ (see Grundmann 2001). This was proposed as an alternative to regulating CFCs. Apparently the proposal was leaked in order to ridicule Hodel, and the proposal never was taken seriously.

Critics of Hodel pointed out that we need to act before it is too late. The strategy which has a main focus on mitigation prevailed and was enshrined in the Montreal treaty. However, it was not a real prospect to avoid ozone depletion. This was already occurring as a result of previously accumulated emissions, given their long lifetime (a feature ODS share with many GHGs, especially CO2). Being prudent in the sunshine has become good public health advice across the globe. We see this juxtaposition of mitigation versus adaptation in the climate case as well. It has led to the near absence of adaptation in the public discourse on climate, and in priorities of climate policy. Scientists and decision makers often frame the problem in terms as if climate change could be prevented. Based on past and current emissions we are committed to climate change; it is in the pipeline so to speak. Neglecting adaptation is bad public policy.

Nevertheless, adaptation is still seen by some as giving in to the climate change skeptics. On the contrary, it is a consequence of the UNFCCC definition of climate change. A good climate policy will protect communities from the consequences of climate change, no matter if caused by nature or humans. We don’t need to know if a hurricane or flooding was man-made in order to protect ourselves.

Treating ozone and climate with the same principles when it comes to policy making raises even more important questions. These have to do with the dominance of climate science and climate scientists in the policy debate, disregarding professional expertise in the social and policy sciences. After all, the assumption that climate change could be solved applying the same principles seems to rest on the assumption that both cases belong to the same class of problems. However, this assumption was never examined or questioned (exceptions can be found in the work of Prins and Rayner and Rayner and Caine).

Tame problems, such as the ozone case, do have stopping rules. We know at which point we have succeeded, there is a list of agreed-upon solutions. Going back to pre-industrial levels of chlorine loading of the atmosphere was the obvious target in ozone policy, and the success can be measured against this baseline. Ceasing production of ozone depleting substances is the only tool needed in this effort. There is a technical solution that could be identified scientifically, and implemented via a global treaty and ensuing national implementation. Still, the problem was not easy, and a political controversy engulfed the scientific debate, with several countries aligned in different camps. Business refused CFC controls for a long time as a matter of principle, as it did not want to accept regulations based on ‘scientific hypotheses’.

Climate change does not have such a stopping rule. We do not know if, and when we have succeeded solving the problem. Various metrics have been suggested to measure and monitor progress, or to establish success criteria: CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, remaining carbon budgets, global average warming of surface temperatures, or heat content in the oceans. The timeframes for these targets vary by decades. What a safe limit is depends on who you ask, as Fred Pearce put it.

There is no lack of suggested practical solutions either. They include rolling out nuclear power plants across the globe; switching all energy supply to solar, wind or biofuels; transforming our lifestyles; taxing carbon with low or high rates; implementing emission trading systems; developing geo-engineering projects; adopting vegetarian or vegan diets and lifestyles; or abolishing capitalism. Advocates of these proposals quote the scientific consensus about the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the need for decarbonization of the economy. But climate science does not help us choosing between these options. These solutions, if implemented, would lead to radically different social realities. Some of these solutions might lead to more catastrophic changes than global warming itself; the remedy could be worse than the disease.

After years of unsuccessful climate negotiations trying to mimic the top down, target and timetable approach, the COP 21 in Paris 2015 took a different approach. For the first time in decades the proposition became acceptable to follow a bottom up approach, and to listen to what nation states put on the table as realistic goals (so-called ‘pledges’). This approach, which dates back to a UN meeting in Bali in 2007 where Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) were proposed, was long seen as inadequate and shying away from the real tasks. It is therefore a positive sign when the international community takes a fresh approach, taking stock of the unsuccessful previous top down attempts. However, the problem still remains how these pledges can be implemented in each country, and how effective they are in staying within the goal of limiting global average temperature increase to below 2 degrees.

The fact that COP21 was able to turn a fresh page (despite some justified skepticism about the feasibility of the pledges to achieve warming limits) indicates that path dependent processes can be unlocked under certain conditions. This process needs to continue. The issue of adaptation needs a massive boost on the political agenda; and the demand for social science expertise needs to match the science and modelling expertise in the IPCC and other forms of policy advice. After all, the work of climate science has been done to a large degree. We now need to realize that climate change is also, and perhaps first of all, a social, economic, and political issue. It is high time the expertise of relevant communities is recognized and assembled.

Ozone depletion is a tame problem that can be tackled through an engineering logic. The problem could be described and decomposed into smaller parts, targets could be identified and solutions could be suggested. The success criteria were given by the clear distinction between a world before and after CFC emissions.

Climate change has been forced into the same logic but escapes it. Climate Change is a wicked problem, like other social problems. It is not amenable to a global managerial solution with an engineering logic applied to it. Such a logic diverts our attention away from what matters with regard to climate change in society. Not everyone agrees that climate policy can or should be reduced to energy policy. As Sheila Jasanoff has argued, ‘there is a need for “technologies of humility” to complement the predictive approaches: to make apparent the possibility of unforeseen consequences; to make explicit the normative that lurks within the technical; and to acknowledge from the start the need for plural viewpoints and collective learning.’

By adopting questionable lessons from the ozone case and applying them to climate, we have for a long time reinforced a process that was counterproductive. One could say that, ironically, the success of ozone protection has led to problems in climate change policy. In order to overcome these problems, new approaches are needed. The breakaway from top down, global managerial approaches is a first step. This needs to be followed by other steps, by recognizing adaptation as a policy priority, by listening to social science expertise, and by taking pragmatic steps in dealing with the climate problem. This requires the attention of social scientists who should study climate change as a social problem.


Reiner Grundmann is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham. His main research interest is the relation between knowledge and decision making. In recent years he has been studying the public discourse on climate change where the role of scientific experts, lay audiences, decision makers and the mass media are crucially important.

3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    April 10, 2017

    I looked up your piece in Nature Geoscience. You say this: “The essential expertise
    for making progress with climate change mitigation and adaptation lies in the social
    sciences, including economics but also including a variety of other disciplines such
    as cultural studies, history, sociology and policy research.”

    Two points.
    1) where is prevention? Your main discussion is on mitigation, or I have missed something? As someone brough up in Queensland, Australia, I am deeply upset with what is happening to the Barrier Reef. Please explain how you can mitigate that?

    2) Rather than assert the role of social science, can you please demonstrate it? I don’t think I have read anything in this area by social scientists which has left me feeling impressed. Most social scientists are infected by dualism and I note that you make a persistent distinction between natural science and social science. I view natural science as social (to take up the viewpoint from Pragmatism) and social science as extending through to nature – our nature – as the long tradition from Dewey to Merleau-Ponty attests (ie we are biological creatures and part of nature, not outside it).

    I don’t see any attempt to bind the sciences together here, but rather a division of positivisms and claims for expertise which I simply don’t recognise.

    That said, I think social scientists could do a useful job trying to find out what people think about these issues, what matters to them, the perceptual world people are in when they assess climate science (or the denialist stuff in the press) and more. If social scientists could only do this job well I would be very pleased.
    But I don’t see this either.


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