A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science

Gioia Barnbrook is a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen.

Gioia Barnbrook

Her piece ‘A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science’ finished as a runner-up in the ESRC’s writing competition, The World in 2065 – in collaboration with academic publishers, SAGE.  You can read it below:

A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science

It is one of the most iconic visual representations of climate change: a lone polar bear stands on a thin ice floe, surrounded by a sea so grey it reaches the horizon and simply merges with the sky. In some versions the polar bear instead perches on rocks, its fur scraggly and muddy, standing protectively over cubs. Either way, the intended impact is the same; the picture tells us that these are the victims of the melting Arctic. It is rarer, at the moment at least, to see images of the human cost of climate change. We see its impacts primarily in terms of the natural world, and rarely think in terms of social costs.

Communities in the Arctic, and the researchers who work alongside them, are already noticing drastic changes in their environment – rising temperatures are affecting sea ice and making traditional subsistence hunting activities far more precarious and dangerous; people have died travelling by snowmobile across previously solid ice that rising temperatures have made fragile. At the other extreme, record high temperatures across parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East have led to fatalities. At present we in the UK are protected by our location, but we know from past experience that the intricacies of global markets, resource trading and politics mean that difficulties in other parts of the world have global impact. What happens in any one part of the world can have global ramifications.

If, for the moment, we still think primarily in terms of the natural consequences of climate change, in 2065 it will be impossible to ignore its social and humanitarian impacts: food and water shortages, mass migration and resource wars seem likely, coupled with large-scale political and economic unrest. Perhaps it is fitting that some of the most popular books and films of the last decade have been set in dystopian futures. Dreams of tomorrow, once populated by hoverboards, flying cars and holidays to Mars, now seem far less hopeful: they no longer come to us in the technicolour joy of the sixties and seventies, but in a muted, washed-out sepia.
From this vantage point, the future looks decidedly bleak, and we may well wonder what use we will have for the social sciences in a world of catastrophic environmental decline and change.

This would be a mistake. The social sciences are unique in the way they enable us to understand the complexity of the conditions, networks and interconnections that influence human behaviour, on both the large and small scale. This information will be essential in aiding governments, non-governmental organisatons and policymakers to develop appropriate responses to the humanitarian and social crises brought by climate change. Social sciences that emphasise long-term qualitative research, such as my own discipline of anthropology, will be of particular value in developing regional and group-specific responses. Anthropologists working in the Canadian Arctic and sub-arctic region have already begun to collaborate with indigenous communities and natural scientists in documenting the impacts of climate change and developing possible resilience and adaptation strategies. These studies also show the importance of interdisciplinary approaches that involve local, scientific and social scientific perspectives: in the future we will be struggling with issues that have both natural and social causes and impacts, and we will need research that can gather these perspectives. Sustained ethnographic research, surveys and statistical modelling will help us to develop inter-disciplinary approaches that can do justice to the complexity of these challenges. In 2065 we will need the social sciences more than ever before.

Meeting the environmental and social challenges of the next 50 years will not be easy or simple. It will require innovative interdisciplinary approaches that can bring different stakeholders together. It may be necessary to challenge current disciplinary divisions and rethink how we structure funding in order to make interdisciplinary collaboration easier. It will be necessary for us reflect on the true wider purpose of the social sciences, and of academic research. As researchers we can play an integral role in attending to the many complex challenges of the future. In the last 50 years social scientists have done exactly that, helping to shape our national and international policies. The world of 2065 will be drastically different to the world today, and to the world of 50 years ago, but the benefits social scientists can bring remain the same. Far from being obsolete, I think that 2065 will bring a robust and re-invigorated social science that can play a vital role in tackling these complex environmental and social challenges, for the benefit of people and the environment.

One thought on “A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science

  1. Pingback: Back to the Future | sexuality and the city

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