A social and political problem – exploring the role of social science research in tackling the climate crisis

  • Climate and sustainability

Jenny Pickerill FAcSS, Professor in Environmental Geography and Dr Matt Watson, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sheffield 

Here Jenny Pickerill and Matt Watson explain why the climate emergency is a social and political problem and how solutions must come from social science research alongside any technological advances we might make. For example the piece shows that simply changing our energy sources won’t be enough, we will also need to find ways to reduce our energy consumption. The piece also explores issues of social justice and the impact of grassroots environmentalism, again demonstrating the social and political nature of the problem and its potential solutions.

The climate crisis is a result of what people do. Whether a householder flicking a power switch or a corporate CEO opening a new oil field, the accumulation of excess climate changing emissions in the atmosphere results from innumerable human actions. It follows that both mitigation of climate change, and adaptation to it, depends on changes in our everyday practices. Hence social science research can show us positive ways forward, for example looking at the key challenge of reducing energy use.

The latest IPPC report demonstrates that climate change is accelerating and will have further catastrophic impacts upon the earth’s inhabitants if we don’t reduce our carbon emissions immediately. For the first time the IPCC not only articulated the need to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels, but also to tackle demand for energy. This reflects what social science has already shown- that technological innovation in energy production alone will not save us. We must also change how we live by reducing demand for energy (Labanca, et al., 2020; Bouzarovski, 2022).

For too long hopes of avoiding a climate emergency have prioritised and relied upon the invention of new energy technologies – those that either use fossil fuels more efficiently or harness renewable resources (solar, wind, biomass, water etc) – to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (the main, but not only, driver of climate change). Yet social science scholars have demonstrated that technological innovation will be inadequate unless we also reduce our use of energy, which is unlikely to ever be entirely provided by renewable resources.

Indeed, research has identified increased overall use of electricity in eco-homes because residents perceived the energy to come from less damaging ecological sources. This trend is also demonstrated in Sweden, a country which has enjoyed cheap and low carbon energy for decades, and where there has been a distinct lack of effort to ensure energy efficiency. These are just two examples of a paradox first identified in the 19th century by Jevon – that increasing the technological efficiency of producing services results in increased demand for those services.

Climate change itself will also increase energy demand. For example, if we don’t redesign or retrofit the many houses which are currently poorly insulated and ventilated, then as places experience more intense weather such as heat waves, demand for air-conditioning will increase.

Social scientists have explored how demand for energy can be reduced. It requires changing people’s everyday practices. Much of our energy demand results from the consumption of services which are embedded in complex social relations. We don’t directly seek to use energy, rather the things we want to do, or feel we need to do as part of everyday life – like commute to work, cook, travel, watch TV – require participating in systems which are reliant upon (and often locked-in to) energy use. A great deal of energy use is implicit and considered routine and habitual, yet collectively these repeated practices can have significant environmental impacts.

The social practice approach (eg Shove et al., 2012 and Strengers and Maller, 2014) identifies the different influences – including materials, social norms, knowledge, routines, technologies, governing structures and commercial strategies – that produce and reinforce these social relations, so that we can  see how we might reshape our everyday practices. For example, social scientists have identified how to facilitate more cycling, rather than driving, to work. It requires not just focusing on the decisions of commuters but understanding how travel fits into their day; it needs technological and infrastructural change; but most importantly it requires changes to social norms, meanings and discourses around both cycling and driving.

Social scientists have also argued that we need to reframe climate change as a social and political issue rather than just an environmental and scientific one. This enables us to move beyond the false binary between environment and people, which has prevented us acknowledging the interdependencies and inseparability of climate change from everyday life.

This recognition also makes visible the ongoing extractive capitalism and colonialism that caused and shapes climate change. Conceiving climate change as a social issue starts from the recognition that while human-caused there is great inequity in who has most responsibility for climate change, and similarly who has the agency to mitigate it. Social scientists have identified the power of the fossil fuel lobby in preventing and certainly slowing down attempts at mitigation and now adaptation.

This social approach also highlights the significant risks of exclusion  where climate-oriented infrastructures, technologies and approaches support the privileged and simultaneously harm the already marginalised and those most likely to be negatively impacted by climate change – ie climate apartheid. Social justice is central in responding to the climate emergency, otherwise social inequity will worsen, with unknown consequences for the lives of millions and the stability of societies.

Research on the societal transformations necessary to adapt to climate change have also sought to challenge the sole reliance on corporations and governments as sources of solutions, and value the contributions of grassroot and community environmentalists (Aiken, 2012; Schmid, 2020). Social scientists have explored the immediate, everyday collective changes that environmentalists are making (and which others could replicate). This centring of the micro-scale and practical actions is a deliberate shift to a scale that is more likely to enable public engagement in climate change solutions. It also raises important questions about the scale and pace of change required in a climate crisis, with these projects being critiqued for their small-scale impact. Yet small-scale collective action replicated across diverse places is proven to lead to significant change.

Understanding the possibilities of social transformations requires examining where the appropriate innovations are already happening – often at the edges, niches, and in-between spaces of mainstream society. In examining these spaces of change social scientists have identified grassroots experimentations in low-cost accessible technological innovations alongside innovations in social practices that reduce demand for energy. Places like eco-communities offer possibilities for people to engage in essential societal transformations and embrace their own agency, rather than rely upon the slow-moving international mechanisms of climate negotiations. A virtuous loop is also built as people experience the multifaceted benefits of low carbon lifestyles.

Yet cautionary tales also emerge from these spaces about the risk of not centring social justice in environmental action. Within environmentalism and in projects seeking ecological transformations, staunch silences around inequity, insecurity, injustice, and racism remain. The inclusion of race is too often tokenistic or through forms of racial-cultural appropriation. The outcomes of eco-communities’ attempts at transformation can look worryingly similar to other forms of gentrification—eco-enclaves, rising property prices and exclusionary bounded places—which entrenches rather than ameliorates existing inequalities in similar ways to other forms of climate urbanism. Social scientists have identified this exclusion as highly problematic, and some have worked with Black environmental groups (such as Black2Nature, Black Environmental Network, Black Girls Hike, and the specifically climate focused group, Climate Reframe) to challenge  racism and the lack of focus on social justice (Finney, 2014; Gomez, 2020).

As the climate emergency worsens the work of social scientists becomes even more vital. Working with colleagues in STEM we can understand and navigate the complex interplay between the necessary infrastructural and technological innovations, and social changes to ensure we can radically reduce carbon emissions. Social scientists are also able to interrogate the likely uneven impact of any solutions to climate change, learning from ongoing experiments, and work to ensure social justice is central to transformation attempts. Research from the social sciences continues to demonstrate that climate change cannot be tackled or adapted to without major and broad reaching changes in social life, in which technological innovations play only a part.

Photo Credit: Maria Thalassinou on Unsplash

About the authors

Jenny Pickerill is Professor in Environmental Geography at University of Sheffield. Jenny’s research adopts a social science approach to understanding our relationship with the environment. She focuses on the importance of social justice, inequality, colonialism, racism and neo-liberalism in how the environment is understood. Jenny also explores grassroots solutions to environmental problems and has conducted research in Britain, Australia, USA, Spain, Thailand and Argentina. Dr Matt Watson is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at University of Sheffield.  Matt’s work is concerned with understanding social change in relation to sustainability, through a focus on everyday life and the socio-technical systems that shape it. His research and writing engage with geographical and sociological theories of practice, materiality and everyday life and have covered issues relating to biodiversity, waste, food, mobility and energy.