• Monash CDES Blog

Climate Change Research - Where Can Social Scientists Add Value?



There is a growing international movement led by scientists advocating for stronger climate action and calling for world leaders to end the burning of fossil fuels.


In a December 2021 published article entitled “The tragedy of climate change science,” three scientists argue that the science-society contract is broken and that the time has come for scientists to agree to a moratorium on climate change research as a means to first expose, then renegotiate, this broken science-society contract. In other words, they are suggesting that scientists should refuse to conduct any more climate research — at least in areas where they are “simply documenting” the impacts of global warming on the planet — until governments agree to stronger climate action. In their view, the tragedy is continuing research when the problem is political, diverting attention away from where the problem truly lies, and being gaslighted into crafting new scientific institutions, strategies, collaborations and methodologies.


There are now increasing funding and research opportunities for social scientists to work on climate change issues. However, doing more empirical research that focuses on documenting the impacts of climate change on health, labor and socio-economic outcomes is something I do wonder about. There is already quite a voluminous literature in this space. Are there other ways to add value to the climate change research agenda?


Delving deeper into the psychology behind climate change, George Marshall writes that information about climate change doesn’t seem to move people to action. Despite progress in the science behind climate change and the unfolding of more frequent extreme weather events around the world, climate change is a topic people typically do not even want to engage in during normal conversations. Why is this so? Even though Marshall’s book was published in 2014, I find the points made in the book still very relevant today.


In particular, I found the insights revealed in the book from conversations with best-selling author and psychologist Daniel Gilbert and Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman to be very helpful. These insights can be useful when coming up with new research ideas on climate change issues.


Gilbert highlights that a problem with climate change is that it does not trigger any abrupt changes, which people are good at reacting to. People are generally more sensitive to quick sudden changes and tend to ignore slow-moving threats. Unfortunately, in the context of climate change, our perception of risk is more dominated by emotions than rationality (sometimes also referred to Type 1 and 2 thinking, following Kahneman's concepts of fast and slow thinking) and the emotional side of our brains are poorly suited to dealing with uncertain long-term threats that constitute climate change.


Furthermore, there is no external enemy which can be easily identified. Climate change is partly caused by everyday actions we engage in like driving to work, eating food, and taking vacations. The challenge is to find a way to effectively engage our emotional brains in the fight against climate change.


Like Gilbert, Kahneman is pessimistic regarding the ability of humans to deal with climate change in a meaningful way. He provides three reasons why climate change doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing people to do something about it. First, the threat of climate change is abstract, distant, and invisible. Second, dealing with climate change requires that people accept certain short-term costs and reductions in their living standards in order to mitigate against higher but uncertain losses that are far in the future. This can be very hard to do as people are more sensitive to short-term costs than long-term costs. The problem is even more difficult if people in richer countries are being asked to make sacrifices for strangers in developing countries which are currently experiencing economic growth. Third, information about climate change can be mixed and appears to be contested. Although various iterations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have increasingly provided more solid evidence regarding the science behind climate change, disinformation about climate change continues to proliferate on the web.


So how can economists and other social scientists add value to the climate change research agenda? I think recognizing that climate change is about social facts and not just scientific facts is a useful perspective. Tackling the cognitive biases highlighted by Gilbert and Kahneman are good places to start. A challenge for the social sciences will be to find ways to incentivize people to adopt behaviors that are climate friendly regardless of their political inclinations and vested interests, and to have existing institutions and power structures facilitate a sustainable transformation to a post-fossil fuel world.


Wang-Sheng Lee

30 August 2022