2010-10-24 23:29:46Should 90% of climate change research be social science?
John Cook


Article in the Nature blog: Should 90% of climate change research be social science?

Schellnhuber - a physicist in a sea of human-dimensioners - urged social science to take the front seat on the problem. "Speaking as a natural scientist," he said, "I think 90% of research [on global change] will have to be done by the social scientists." Physicists, he told me at the coffee break, can describe climate threats increasingly vividly and can tell decision-makers that technological solutions are out there. But it's up to social science, he says, to figure out how we bring about massive economic and social transformation on a tight deadline.

Me, I'm a physical sciences guy. But I'm beginning to see that social science is the key to solving climate change (aka getting society to change). Problem is social science isn't rocket science - it's much harder.

2010-10-25 02:06:01


Decades ago, I considered switching my professional focus to the issue of alternative energy strategies. The main issue in those days was the expected shortage of petroleum, rather than avoidance of CO2 production. But the answers were the same.

The reason I ended up not doing that was that I saw that most of the avenues of progress had to do with regulatory & institutional issues (basically, politics and motivational issues); or else with aspects of technology that really didn't interest me (such as battery technology (chemistry?), mechanical engineering). Since I wanted to do something more technical, I backed out of that.

In retrospect, maybe this wasn't a great decision: Since then, my work has been somewhat technical but not really hardcore; and my political/PR instincts have sometimes been as important as anything else. So maybe I would have done OK staying with the Energy & Resources folks. But at the time, I couldn't maintain the enthusiasm.

To go back to Schellnhuber's suggestion - that 90% of the research needs to be on social science - I think he's still missing the point. We don't need to study this issue to death: We need a social movement. This problem is bigger than Vietnam, bigger than WWII - but it's happening in slow motion, so it's easy to ignore; unlike the situation with the Y2k problem, deep-pocketed parties do NOT find it in their (short-term) interest to deal with this, but rather to ignore it.

Decades ago, another physics professor speculated that some special study needed to be done to understand how to do nuclear disarmament. He ran around promoting this idea until he talked to a friend who was a political scientist, who told him: "Take a breath. This doesn't need a study, the problem is trivial: You don't disarm if you are behind. You don't disarm if you are ahead. You can only even think about disarming when you're essentially at parity with your enemy."

The situation with global warming is much more complicated, but the skimming I have done in this literature boils down to the same thing: This is a game where nobody wants to be the sucker, the guy holding the bag. So the rich countries won't move until they're sure that China & India will move, and China & India won't move until they're sure that the US will move: everything is tied into the question of the future economic structure of the world. Europe has expressed a willingness to move, but I don't think they've demonstrated real commitment; and Australia has blown hot & cold. 

I was very hopeful about the Copenhagen meeting last year, but it failed. At the time, I blamed Climategate, but that might be too easy an explanation. I think the prediction from these students of the political science was that it would fail, because of the extreme instability of the considerations mentioned above. 

I cannot think of another situation, in the history of the world, where there has been such a mismatch between the perceptible characteristics of the problem and what has to be done to resolve it. Humanity is facing a final exam (or at least a serious midterm) and we are looking like failing it. 

We need a social movement.

2010-10-25 11:55:43
Andy S


I think there is also the issue that when faced with uncertainty, it's psychologically easier to do nothing than do something. I'm not just talking about the physical science uncertainties,even if they range only from the merely bad, in the best case, to the downright catastrophic in the worst. The uncertainties in the social science aspects of climate change are even bigger when we look at the economics and all the social and political consequences of climate change and its mitigation.

The problem is compounded when every politician knows that they'll get the blame for the things that go wrong in the short term that can be attributed, rightly or wrongly, to climate policy, whereas any benefits probably won't be evident for a generation. I guess this is why policy advocates like Joe Romm focus on short-term benefits of cap-and-trade (green jobs) and short-term threats of inaction (we're losing the technology race to China). 

We're not really hard-wired to be sensible about decisions where we have to make sacrifices now for uncertain benefits later; whether that is saving for retirement, eating sensibly, exercising regularly or flossing our teeth. It's not impossible to do any of these things but it's certainly difficult. 

2010-11-03 16:51:44Maybe we don't need Social Science research. But the solution is probably 99% application of Social Science.
Glenn Tamblyn


Maybe we don't need Social Science research. But the solution is probably 99% application of Social Science.

I recall reading a poll some time ago - source lost unfortunately - asking Americans who the would most trust to advise them on the question of AGW. The largest single response was 'Their Pastor'. Now we need to take in to account the high religiosity of America compared to many other western nations, but even so! At first glance this rocks you back on your heels a bit.

But actually it is highlighting a fundamental reality of human psychology - most of us most of the time evaluate ideas and propositions put to us on the basis of who said it, rather than what was said. We judge the messenger, not the message. And particularly when it is a message that is confronting, challenging to our sense of identity or self worth. And very particularly when the message is outside our experience, knowledgebase etc. In this situation it is common behaviour for people to rely on their sense of trust of the messenger to evaluate the message.

So when a messenger from outside our 'trust network' says things that disturb our sense of 'the order of things', we will tend to reject the message - the messenger can't be trusted.

So how do you get people who don't include you in their trust network to heed your message? Co-opt other people from within their trust network who they will trust to carry the message for you.

Imagine the impact on the AGW debate inside America if every Pastor in the country could be convinced to speak in support of action from their pulpit? 

This highlights a general approach of trying to influence peoples views by finding pathways into peoples trust networks - Pastors, Pharmacists, Scout Leaders, whatever. Ultimately Friends & Family. And pathways that bypass the usual power structures in society - Government & Political Parties, Media, Business. Not to abuse those networks, but simply to negate peoples distrust of others so the message can get a more dispassionate consideration

2010-11-03 18:09:44Trust network
John Cook


On this note, we're working on a "Scientific Guide to Climate Skepticism" that is to be distributed to science teachers throughout the U.S. and possibly Australia. So will be interesting to see how that unfolds.

I know the Texan climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe does a lot of outreach to church groups - maybe I'll talk to her if the Guide works out in investigating the possibility of distributing a similar booklet to pastors. We're both Christians (her husband is a pastor, I think) so we might be ideally suited to such a role.

2010-11-03 23:35:09


As I mentioned some time before, I have heard that there are some US religiously oriented groups that view promotion of environmental messages as part and parcel of responsible guardianship of God's creation. Their attitude might be summarized as: "You didn't make it, and you can't fix it - so don't break it."

I think this can open up another gateway.

2010-11-04 06:24:29Romm approach
Dana Nuccitelli

I thhink Joe Romm has the right approach.  Right now Americans are entirely focused on the economy and jobs.  If you successfully make the case that the next technological revolution is in alternative energy and fuels (which it is), and China in particular is investing far more heavily in that sector than we are, people should come on board.  The other day I saw a rather appalling commercial (from some conservative political group) depicting some sinister-looking Chinese people in a conference at some point in the future, chortling about how they had taken over the USA economically.

Americans are concerned about Chinese growth and the possibility that they will surpass us economically.  And honestly, if we continue to fail to invest in green tech, they probably will.  That should be a successful narrative, but few have tried it.

I certainly agree that focus needs to be on convincing people that social change is necessary.  We can pile on the evidence for AGW forever, but people aren't unconvinced because of a lack of evidence, they're unconvinced for social/political reasons.  I don't know about 90%, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to increase social science research on climate change.

2010-11-04 08:10:22

More effective than tons of social-scientific research would be a clear visualization of how non-carbon power-production technology could be used to build a viable industry.