Should climate change research be 90 percent social science?

Nature’s Climate Feedback reports that Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in his talk at the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP) urged social scientists to become more involved in climate change research:

“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.

Case in point: feeding solar power from the Sahara where it’s plentiful to Europe where it’s highly in demand, one of Schellnhuber’s favorite ideas. “All the technical problems have been solved,” he says, “but it cannot be done.” We don’t have the legal framework, the transboundary agreements, the international will for this mode of energy delivery.

This is where policy experts, economists, and even anthropologists come in. But, he says, “I don’t think the social science community has grasped the scope of the challenge.” Operating on the basic principle that all groups are different, 95% of social science papers are local case studies, not global-scale work, he says. And indeed, there are an awful lot of case studies among this week’s 800 talks. It remains to be seen whether the picture emerging from the conference will be piecemeal or planet-wide.

4 thoughts on “Should climate change research be 90 percent social science?”

  1. While I agree with Mr. Schellnhuber’s call for more social science involvement in climate change research, but his claim that “the social science community [hasn't] grasped the scope of the challenge” because studies often focus on local communities I think shows an ignorance of social science research in general.

    Speaking as an anthropologist, I would say that while the ultimate goal is to take on global-scale work, there is a need–often technical, but also theoretical–to take into account the local. The project to pipe solar power from the Sahara region to Europe, for example, is surely fraught with issues of power, access, and management that demand attention not only to the global, but also local, regional, and national scales.

    Yes, sometimes it’s tedious work, and I respect the call for an investigation of frameworks that can be applied effectively at the global-scale. However, asserting that social scientists don’t grasp the scope of the climate change challenge is way off the mark.

  2. The misunderstanding shows the needs of transdisciplinary cooperation. I think both social scientists and natural scientists (and others) need to work together to explore a ingenious path to address climate change.

  3. I agree with with the descriptions made by all of you (Garry Peterson, Eric, Tony).
    In my opinion, openness to transdisciplinary cooperation is more a matter of state of mind (at all executive levels), i.e. a will from the inside of the person, rather than a planned and organized scheme that should be done this particular way (and bore people).
    I am not working with researchers right now so my informations are limited. May I ask to people more aware than me and who may come here and be interested to answer :
    From your point of view, what is the missing part that would permit or facilitate more cooperation (between several expertises and between several levels of analysis) ?
    Do you feel like there is “something psychological” behind ?

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