Why are the social sciences so important in tackling climate change?

James O’Toole is coordinator of the End Use Energy Demand Centres. Here he looks at why researchers across all academic disciplines have a key part to play in addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Scientist stereotypes?

In the public consciousness, climate change science tends to focus on natural scientists (chemists, physicists, biologists etc). Whether they are developing more energy efficient technologies, mapping weather patterns or testing the air for emissions, the perception is of lab coats, goggles and technical equipment.

As Professor Benjamin K Sovacool of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand explains, “there is still a knee-jerk reaction among many in the scientific community that the easiest, best solution to climate change or sustainability concerns is to build new technology. Options focused on changing the behaviour of humans are seen as unreliable and unpredictable or, worse, impossible to implement given the potential for social backlash.”

But as we are increasingly realising, to really make a dent in the targets agreed to at COP21, entire societies across the globe will need to take action. So while the natural sciences can tell us what is happening and develop technology to address the problems, social scientists such as economists, political scientists, psychologists and sociologists (to name but a few) are crucial to influencing major changes.

Interdisciplinary work

This is an oversimplification of course, and there are many branches of both the natural and social sciences that are already working together to offer comprehensive solutions to climate change problems. The Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand is one of six End Use Energy Demand Centres funded by the Research Councils UK Energy Programme which take precisely this interdisciplinary approach to the problem.

The Centres crucially make the distinction between energy efficiency and energy demand. While energy efficiency focuses on making more energy efficient machines, energy demand is more about how and why the demand is being created. So, for example, if a new car model has improved fuel efficiency but this leads to the owner driving more as filling the tank is cheaper, there may be no net reduction in CO2 emissions, or they may even increase.

Implementing change

This is where social science research on why and how people use their cars, how manufacturers market cars and how governments develop policies on car use and taxation would come into play. For real progress to be made on reducing climate change in line with globally agreed targets, governments, industry and individuals need to implement and integrate the steps identified by science. As Sovacool adds, “the term-of-art that describes these complex dynamics is a ‘sociotechnical system’, a phrase that emphasises how social priorities and technological options become bundled together in a ‘seamless web’.”29467tpnrgb1

Another example, if the transport infrastructure of a large city was to become low – or no-carbon, there would obviously need to be significant changes to the way people get around. How far are people prepared to walk, what are the barriers to bus passengers taking up cycling, what offer would it take to convince motorists to take a train? These are areas that require more understanding of the relationships between sociotechnical systems, organisations and human behaviour than technical natural sciences know-how.

Shaping attitudes

Politicians’ work in reducing climate change is not all about making big decisions on nuclear power stations and airport runways. Policies encouraging cycling, electric cars or home improvements that reduce energy demand are just as important. And when these policies are applied across a population of millions of people they can have a huge impact. Social scientists can also address the political process by which change happens to suggest more effective methods.


What inspires industrialists to change their manufacturing or distribution processes? Economists are well placed to answer and can help model scenarios and spread the word about how fighting climate change does not have to happen at the expense of profitability.

Social scientists may be able to shed light on individuals’ not always entirely ‘logical’ behaviour and assumptions around energy use. For example, how people understand and use their domestic central heating controls is far from straightforward and better understanding of this could lead to huge energy savings via tiny adjustments multiplied across millions of people. Social scientists can also help understand and emphasise the additional benefits to people in terms of saving money, improving health and enriching lifestyles to be gained from energy demand reduction measures.

Social science approaches

These few examples are just the tip of an iceberg of ways in which the full range of social science disciplines have important contributions to make in addressing climate change alongside their colleagues in the natural sciences.

A special collection of the Nature Energy journal has looked into these issues in much more depth with a collection of articles on how social science approaches are being used in the array of tools trying to fix this global issue.

You can follow the End Use Energy Demand Centres on Twitter @eueduk.

The Energy Demand blog has posts from academic experts across the six End Use Energy Demand research centres covering the social, technical and economic aspects of energy demand research.

2 thoughts on “Why are the social sciences so important in tackling climate change?

  1. Would be interested to discover what levels of reduction are being aimed at. Surely the change needed necessitates more than just ‘encouragement’ to achieve any sort of meaningful reductions….

    I’ve always felt that there is not enough consensus on what should be done. If there was a set plan, with clear goals and paths to reach those goals, then there might be more political will/public demand to instigate those plans. At the moment it seems that there are so many areas that need improvement, that the focus is lost and little or nothing gets done. WIth special interests (industry) wanting compromises in each area, then the initial efforts in each area do not yield visible results (thus perpetuating the inertia to change).

    I can only see 3 tools than can be used:
    1. Education: (across the board raising of awareness. From school children to pensioners. Has anyone thought to instigate a forced advertising campaign on the internet? Similar to ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’…. But everywhere. Am sure google and Facebook would like the free advertising of being the ‘companies that saved the earth’!)
    2. Innovation: New technologies that will massively reduce our energy demands. But even if a miracle cure were to be discovered (and the simple ways of doing things are already discovered), would take a long time to be prevalent on a global scale (best case, such as with mobile phones 20-30 years. And they made everyone’s life more convenient. What new technology is going to do that?)
    3. Legislation: (legislation, taxation, investment/subsidisation). These are really the tools that the governement can use. There is technology available that will reduce the CO2 emisissions and power consumption in general. But the cheaper alternative is less energy efficient and more resource hungry. So either new legislation (such as minimises emissions, just as the government has set legislation to ensure watercourses don’t get polluted by companies), or even outright banning of worst practices (they fixed the ozone layer when they banned CFCs, so international bans can be workable); new/increased taxation (with the increased revenues re-invested in emission reduction, so an increase in motor vehicle taxation would lead to more investment in public transport and cycle infrastructure), or investment/subsidisation (subsidies focussed on renewables/efficiency/reduction/re-wilding rather than on fossil fuel industry/farming etc).

    Needless to say I wouldn’t be hopeful that there’s any sort of political will to tackle the invisible pollutants and leaving it up to industry (where the main focus is on making money) will only work if you increase their brand value by being green (educate), make the cheap and polluting ways of doing business expensive/illegal (legislate), or provide a cheaper alternatives (innovate).

    Would love to read more about your work at the institute and if there are more inventive ways to achieve a greener future.


  2. Pingback: Top 10 ESRC blogs from 2017 | ESRC blog

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