Social science can help us deal with climate change, but there are also large gaps in our knowledge.
A new article in the Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change provides a fresh look at the best social science for climate change, making for a unique chance to explore less discussed dimensions of challenges that are central to making the Paris goals a reality.
Income levels and consumption are major drivers of carbon emissions globally, yet they are not the only factors. Political regimes, social stratification and inequality also shape trajectories at national and sub-national levels, while everyday choices are influenced by the immediate contexts of people’s lives.
For example, in a recent paper Marina Povitkina, a researcher at Gothenburg University in Sweden, showed that democracy helps to achieve climate goals only when institutions are strong and corruption levers are low. Meanwhile, “If corruption is high, democracies do not seem to do better than authoritarian regimes,” says Povitkinia. Insights like those can prove valuable in identifying strategies for particular societal conditions and peculiarities.
While there are multiple ways social science can help us deal with climate change, there are also large knowledge gaps on many issues which require further investigation. Household and community level adaptations remain largely unexplored, while helping consumers to chose more sustainable products remains a tough challenge for many occasions. This links us to history as decarbonization and other sustainability strategies are often brought into contexts where they have never been an issue.
Correcting baseline assumptions is another must as we need to recognize problems that arise when new generations of decision makers and researchers take their immediate realities for granted. Long‐term trends, previous simplifications and mistakes, environmental degradation and delays in action occurring over preceding decades and even centuries are often left out of focus. It is also important to interlink social and natural sciences for enhancing the forecasting of thresholds and tipping points, which is important for better societal responses to extreme events, as well as securing timely and effective mitigation strategies and adaptation plans.
Finally, it’s time to start accounting for centuries-old unequal ecological exchanges, moving away from traditional production‐based carbon emissions accounting, which does not measure how environmental bads are outsourced abroad. Consumption‐based accounting is required to track greenhouse gas emissions through the global supply chains, recognizing the role of final consumers, which would support equality within decarbonization burdens and responsibilities.
In this regard it’s also time to seriously question relationships between decarbonization and economic growth. The “more growth is better” strategy is no longer a one-fit-all answer, considering how it leads to the rise of inequality and thus increased vulnerability of many people to weather extremes and resource scarcity.
Another recent article has argued for the climate benefits of decreasing global inequalities, emphasizing the long-term potential for social mobilization and balancing of consumption over the short-term gains of decreasing carbon emissions. It is important to consider how decarbonization will impact multiple other factors, including food prices, individual well‐being and social equity.
Connections between economic development, demographic changes, social stratification, technology and many other factors shape our pathways and choices across time and space, yet they often remain far less considered than immediate vulnerabilities and long-term natural science projections. Global treaties and economic forces, national policies and politics, along with many other factors, form complex realities that policymakers need to understand and unravel.
Social scientists might just be the ones who help them tackle this complexity responsibly, utilizing the best available knowledge for effective social change.