Misplaced Social Science

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I came across this intriguing item today. Climate Feedback reported on the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), a research arm of the UN.

One of today's opening keynotes was from Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research. After a daunting rundown of climate change threats, Schellnhuber - a physicist in a sea of human-dimensioners - urged social science to take the front seat on the problem. "Speaking as a natural scientist," he said, "I think 90% of research [on global change] will have to be done by the social scientists."

Physicists, he told me at the coffee break, can describe climate threats increasingly vividly and can tell decision-makers that technological solutions are out there. But it's up to social science, he says, to figure out how we bring about massive economic and social transformation on a tight deadline.

Case in point: feeding solar power from the Sahara where it's plentiful to Europe where it's highly in demand, one of Schellnhuber's favorite ideas. "All the technical problems have been solved," he says, "but it cannot be done." We don't have the legal framework, the transboundary agreements, the international will for this mode of energy delivery.

I agree that the role of social science needs to be enhanced relative to the natural sciences, but Schellnhuber has the priorities mixed up. It is certainly not the anointed role of social scientists to facilitate the introduction of technological fixes to global warming and climate change. The roots of the climate change dilemma lie in the human/social domain in the first place. Social science needs first to lead to an understanding of the cultural roots of the issue and then, working with technologists and technocrats, address these root causes. Technical solutions are important, and understanding of the context in which they are to be implemented is critical in moving forward. But I suspect that we already know what stands in the way of many of these projects. It is not more science that is needed, but skillful communicators and social actors. The issues are largely political and economic. The outcomes of natural scientific research and its applications are more likely to become implemented if the natural scientists listened closely to their social science colleagues before they announce that they have the solutions at hand.

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