Climate science identifies the problem – it can’t tell us what to do in response

Writing in the latest Nature Geoscience, Reiner Grundmann of the University of Nottingham calls out a problem that I wish I’d understood years ago about our understanding of, and response to, climate change and the family of problems to which it is connected. (I hope that link works, let me know in the comments if it doesn’t.)

Some top notch scientists over a number of decades have characterized and clarified the physical science part of the problem, and it’s only natural to then turn to those scientists in our discussion of what to do about it. But as Grundmann argues (and as I came to learn only slowly and painfully), the “what to do about it” stuff lies in a domain different from the physical sciences:

Climate change is a challenge, as acknowledged by the various proposals. Nevertheless, climate science provides no help to meet this challenge, once it has been acknowledged. The essential expertise for making progress with climate change mitigation and adaptation lies in the social sciences, including economics but also including a variety of other disciplines such as cultural studies, history, sociology and policy research. We need to understand the different social contexts of climate policy before we can find pragmatic steps to manage the problem. It is high time the expertise of the social sciences is recognized and assembled.

This line of argument maps nicely to the issues I grappled with in writing my book on water scarcity in the western United States. It’s why I turn to the human disciplines – law, policy studies, political science, economics – in talking about what the solutions might look like.


  1. John– from my 2013 book, revisiting the 200-year-old argument that human social research is a different kind of science. “Social science” is not a monolithic category and most of what I’m seeing is the wrong kind. Here is a climate relevant quote:

    With The Lively Science I wanted to take dozens of those conversations and organize them into a book. Besides, inside the academic world the problem of how to think about HSR in general is of increasing interest as well. As I was revising the book for the eighth or ninth million time, I attended a public lecture by Robert May, partly because I’d never heard a genuine Baron speak before. I expected upper, upper dialect and witty but demeaning references to Americans, like the characters on the TV show MI5 make all the time. No such thing, he was a pretty nice guy, maybe a slumming Baron, I don’t know. I really went to hear him because for me he’s a nonlinear dynamic hero, one of the founders who created ecological models based on complexity science.
    Here’s what happened. In response to a question after the talk, he mused that really the problem with issues of climate change was a problem on human social science grounds. The physics and the chemistry were simple, he said. But, he added, we don’t know how to get the human social science part right. The audience was mostly natural science, so there was a brief and sympathetic flurry of “why can’t they get it right?” comments. Well, said May, there are some promising signs recently and, without elaboration, he moved on with relief to the next question.
    I went home and went back to work. May and his audience were the perfect example of how people, usually with the best of intentions, think the way to make human social science better is to make it more like natural science. They mean well, most of them, but natural science just doesn’t get intentionality and lived experience. They want to, but they also want the science to be just like them. Mainstream BSS human social science, the so-called “received view,” by and large agrees. They have to, because historically natural science was enshrined as the gold standard epistemology to aspire to if any claim of science was to be made at all. Not to mention if a project was to be funded and its results were to be believed.

  2. we already know exactly what needs to be done.
    stop burning too much fossil fuels, plant more trees
    than we harvest, farm in ways which sequester
    carbon instead of depleting it, conserve energy,
    reduce other greenhouse gases…

    none of these are beyond current technology and most
    don’t even cost that much in comparison to what it will
    be like to have to rebuild or protect coastal infrastructures
    or move many millions of people.

  3. What you propose does not work at scale and only increases the population of the planet, which makes things worse.

  4. Pingback: Focus: Climate change and the social sciences | Discover Society

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