Global warming is more about people than carbon emissions, argues 2013 World Social Science Report

The new edition of the World Social Science Report emphasizing the social sciences’ indispensable contribution to human survival in the face of climate change, will be launched on 15 November at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

Published by UNESCO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC), the Report, entitled Changing Global Environments, features articles by more than 150 leading experts from all over the world and represents the full gamut of social science subjects: anthropology, economics, development studies, geography, political science, psychology, and sociology. The argument that underpins the 600-page volume is that people, human behaviour and societies need to be at the heart of all attempts to tackle the challenges of environmental change and phenomena studied by the natural sciences.

The work takes stock of the unprecedented and staggering environmental challenges facing society and their potentially devastating consequences on the well-being of people all over the world. Global environmental change impacts everything for everyone on this planet: life support systems, livelihoods, ways of life, actions and interactions.

Problems encountered by individuals and communities struggling with social, economic and political crises, persistent poverty, increasing inequalities and social discontent, are already exacerbated by environmental change.

In an article on Migration as an adaptation strategy to environmental change, W. Neil Adger and Helen Adams observe that “empirical evidence shows that certain populations do not have the resources to migrate when their well-being is reduced by environmental change.” The authors also point out that the many people who migrated to coastal areas and cities in recent decades are also particularly vulnerable to climate change as “They cluster in high-density areas, often on steep hillsides or flood plains, where there is vacant and cheap land […].”

Elke U. Weber, in Individual and collective behaviour change, cautions that “negative consequences normally lead people to change their behaviour, but the time-lag between behavioural cause and environmental impacts makes it hard for people to see the connection.”

These issues bring to the fore the need to draw on the social sciences to bring about the economic and behavioural changes required to achieve sustainability. To this end, the Report issues an urgent call for action to the international scientific community. Social scientists need to collaborate more effectively with colleagues from the natural, human and engineering sciences to deliver knowledge that can help address the most pressing of today’s environmental problems and sustainability challenges. And they need to do so in close collaboration with decision-makers, practitioners and the other users of their research.

In his article Are increasing greenhouse gas emissions inevitable? John Urry explains the need for such collaboration: “The requirement is to reverse the apparently inexorable growth of high-carbon systems and related social practices. This reversal has to be both social and economic and requires ‘reversing’ most systems set in motion during the 20th century, finding the equivalent of a reverse gear while going forwards very fast.” Speaking about the effects of cutting carbon emissions, Urry predicts that “low-carbon systems will reduce the short-term levels of measured income and consumption, which will make it difficult to persuade people to embrace low-carbon social practices.” For this to become acceptable, he argues, consumers will have to learn to regard low-carbon actions and goods as desirable.

Clearly, a new—bolder, better, bigger and different—approach to social science is needed:

This report aims to engage social scientists in all disciplines in academia, research institutes, think tanks, NGOs, and government agencies all over the world, as well as intergovernmental organizations. The Report will serve the International Social Science Council (ISSC) in its work, as a basis for critical discussion with members and partners so as to sharpen the social science knowledge base on global environmental change and support social science leadership in research for sustainability. It will also inform UNESCO’s work to support inclusive and equitable sustainable development policies in programmes implemented nationally.

The 2013 World Social Science Report was prepared and edited by the ISSC with the support of leading specialists from all the over the world.


Media Contact: Roni Amelan, UNESCO Press Service, r.amelan(at) +33 (0)1 45 68 16 50

The report is available to the media upon request, under embargo until 15 November (9 a.m., Paris time)