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Climate change needs social science and humanities

Posted on behalf of Kate Larkin

Scientific evidence is no longer enough to tackle the global issue of climate change. That was the conclusion of a presentation and debate on climate change at the British Science Festival yesterday in Birmingham. Giving a review and perspective on his book “Why we disagree about Climate Change”, Mike Hulme, the climate change scientist at the University of East Anglia (UEA) leading the panel, argued that despite the mounting scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change detailed in the four Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports to date, little has been done to tackle the problem.

Hulme’s book, first published in May 2009, predates the ‘ClimateGate’ controversy that sprang for the release of emails from climate scientists at UEA’s Climate Research Unit. Amidst the increasing controversy, carbon dioxide levels have continued to rise by 3% per annum. And a lack of intergovernmental agreement on which policies to adopt has led to a “paradox” between the clear scientific evidence and the action being taken, he argued. "Science evidence is not enough. Scientists have made the mistake of assuming if we understand the climate science we just have to communicate this and contribute to a consensus on policy” says Hulme.

The reality, he explains, is far more complex and requires a social science and humanities approach. With Brigitte Nerlich, social scientist at the University of Nottingham, and Michael Blowfield at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, also on the panel, it was clear that our culture, beliefs and knowledge all play a big part in shaping our perception of climate change.

People view climate change, according to Hulme, from different angles or ‘frames’, each with different causes and solutions. Listing six main ‘frames’, ranging from human induced market failure and overconsumption to natural causes and planetary tipping points, Hulme argues that with each cause comes a different approach for a solution. Some people, he explains, see climate change as a result of market failure or a man-made technological hazard. Others see it as an opportunity and that the key is to redirect investments to a climate-friendly path. And yet no consensus has been reached.

While carbon dioxide has become a commodity in Europe, which has run a carbon trading scheme since 2005, other countries such as the US have yet to achieve this. So with the lack of consensus and no obvious solution, is the next climate summit, scheduled for Cancun, Mexico, in December, already doomed? Hulme doesn’t think so, and is optimistic that humans will find solutions to combat climate change. But in his message to the general public and scientists alike he was clear: “Science is still a benchmark for environmental policy. But it’s not scientific breakthroughs but social science and humanities that will change people’s behaviour.”


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    Schiller Thurkettle said:

    Climatology got into trouble precisely because it got involved in social science and humanities. We don’t need more of the same.

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