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IHDP: should 90% of climate change research be social science?

I’m in the hall that once housed the West German Parliament, a glass-covered fish tank of a building on the Rhine, which nowadays has become the Bonn World Conference Centre. For the next four days, the politicians’ microphone-studded desks will be lined by experts in the field of ‘human dimensions of global change’ – given the impressively broad nickname ‘human dimensions’ among this crowd. About 1,200 participants are here to give 800 talks that make up 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.

This is where policy experts, economists, and even anthropologists come in. But, he says, “I don’t think the social science community has grasped the scope of the challenge.” Operating on the basic principle that all groups are different, 95% of social science papers are local case studies, not global-scale work, he says. And indeed, there are an awful lot of case studies among this week’s 800 talks. It remains to be seen whether the picture emerging from the conference will be piecemeal or planet-wide.

Anna Barnett

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