Social sciences must respond to environmental change

Monday, 18 November 2013 11:37 GMT

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The social and natural sciences must be more closely integrated to respond to the transformation in society due to global environmentalchange, according to a major report launched today in Paris, France.
Social sciences should more effectively research “human causes,vulnerabilities and impacts” of environmental change given that it affects people’s livelihoods, chances of survival, and ways of life, says the 'World Social Science Report 2013: Changing Global Environments' produced jointly by UNESCO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the International Social Science Council (ISSC) 

“North or South, human behaviour contributes significantly to climate change,” says ISSC president Olive Shisana, in the report's preface. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions “is inextricably linked with human behaviour and the model of development we choose to follow”.

“Rather than a laundry list of priorities such as water security, energy, land, and so on, the real issues the social sciences have to understand and respond to is change and social transformation”

Heide Hackmann, ISSC

In the North, people want to maintain their lifestyles; in the South, people want similar lifestyles, which “complicates the issue”, she notes.
Despite the role of human behaviour, “the social sciences have remained marginal to global environmental change research”, the report says, warning that “now is not the time to stay on the sidelines” as climate and environmental change create “staggering human-made crises, and as the world struggles to find a path toward a more secure and sustainable future”.
Global challenges
The report’s authors say the move towards interdisciplinary research is slow everywhere.
The resilience or collapse of systems cannot be understood by measuring temperature increases, predicting earthquakes or tracking tropical storms alone, they say. Regional differences in economic stagnation or development are not adequately explained by climate conditions, the number of species or the quantity of natural resources.
“Business-as-usual science is increasingly distrusted and questioned even by scientists themselves,” notes the report.
“The burden of today’s unrelenting pressure on science to be relevant falls particularly heavily on the social sciences,” says ISSC executive director Heide Hackmann.
Social scientists from the fields of anthropology, economics, development studies, geography, political science, psychology and sociology need to collaborate more effectively with colleagues from the natural, human and engineering sciences.
The report also calls for a new kind of social science called sustainabilityscience or the science of transformation.
“Rather than a laundry list of priorities such as water security, energy, land, and so on, the real issues the social sciences have to understand and respond to is change and social transformation,” Hackmann tellsSciDev.Net.
Environmental change is interconnected with a multitude of other crises, risks and vulnerabilities that confront every society today, and must be understood together in order to be addressed together, writes Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, in the report’s preface.

Uneven research capacity

The report finds the present capacity of the social sciences to investigate global environmental change and sustainability, and to influence research, science policy and funding, “highly uneven across the globe, and inadequate everywhere”.
“In most Southern and emergent countries, there is virtually no dedicated funding for social science research on global environmental change issues, and institutional support is limited,” writes Françoise Caillods, a senior ISSC advisor, in the report.
In Africa, research is still dominated by the natural sciences and, consequently, environmental challenges “are understood mostly in terms of their technical details”, writes  James Murombedzi, coordinator of the Responsive Forest Governance Initiative at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, in the report.
African social scientists, usually in collaboration with researchers from elsewhere, are beginning to focus on the implications of climate change for livelihoods and development.
John Beaton, executive director of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils, writes in the report that progress on improving this situation in Asia and the South Pacific is likely to be patchy and slow.
“Platforms are needed where social and natural scientists in a range of disciplines can discuss, plan and scope collaborative research opportunities before applying for funding,” he says.
In Latin America, governments prioritise research on extreme weather and climate events, but the priorities differ across the region, according the report. Amazonian countries are increasingly involved in global research programmes, due to the Amazon’s geopolitical importance.
But there are few interdisciplinary programmes in the region and “most policymaking is not related to sound, independent research”, the report notes.
Link to report World Social Science Report 2013: Changing Global Environments