As one of the most pressing of today’s global environmental problems, climate change presents a complex and controversial challenge to industrialised and emerging economies. Climate change is a recent concern, but has become one of the most critical issues for the current generation. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it has evoked a strong response at community and governmental levels. Evidence of climate change is abundant, yet a degree of denial persists at the community and government levels, and in many countries, about its causes and consequences. Sceptics question whether climate change results primarily from human activity, believing instead that it results only from natural events independent of a human-caused carbon footprint.

Despite these doubts, a new and independent assessment of the evidence by Berkeley Earth led to a series of papers in the period 2010 to 2013 that systematically addressed each of the five foremost concerns expressed by climate change sceptics, and concluded that they did not unduly bias the record (Berkeley Earth, 2013). Berkeley Earth confirmed what previous studies had claimed: planet Earth is warming. The global mean land temperature had increased by 0.911 ºC since the 1950s, which is consistent with the findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and with other studies. The scientific community has now achieved broad consensus regarding the reality and threats of climate change (Frumkin et al., 2008). The major cause of climate change is understood as the emission of greenhouse gases, which trap the sun’s heat within the Earth’s atmosphere and lead to increases in global land and ocean surface temperatures. Though greenhouse gas emissions have many sources, the major area of concern is the burning of fossil fuels. This happens predominantly in the North, though China and India’s recent industrial development has contributed significantly.

Climate change presents many complex problems, ranging from increased morbidity caused by excess heat to the spread of infectious diseases and to ethical concerns, because climate-change-related policy could limit economic development in both emerging economies and resource-poor nations. Perhaps of greatest concern is the reality that while high-income nations in the North are the leading contributors to climate change, its effects disproportionately impact middle- and low-income nations in the South. This creates the challenge of finding a sustainable path towards development. High-income nations, having already developed, have the infrastructure to withstand and the means to respond to the many issues related to climate change: higher temperatures, extreme weather events, floods and droughts, sea level rise, infectious diseases, and a variety of other pertinent issues.

Increases in average and extreme temperatures, higher sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels, and the growing frequency and intensity of extreme weather, all present nations with complex logistical, social and political problems. Still, it was not until the 1980s that the broader scientific community began to address the issue of climate change.

One of the major challenges to addressing global climate change is that its primary cause, for better or for worse, remains linked to current approaches to and patterns of economic development. Fossil fuels, specifically coal, natural gas and oil, are used for cooking, for cooling and heating households and workplaces, for transportation, and for industrial development (EPA, 2013). This means that essential activities necessary in the development of any nation remain highly dependent on the increased burning of fossil fuels. These activities comprise an unsustainable model of economic development that originates in the North and has set a trend for the wider world.

However, the recent global financial and economic crises seem to have shifted the North–South balance in carbon emissions, albeit slightly. For example, carbon emissions grew in the EU countries by only 2.2% after the financial crisis, and by 4.1% in the United States and 5.5% in the Russian Federation. These rates of growth are now lower than those of China, which increased by 10.4%, and India, which grew by 9.4% (Peters et al, 2012).

Public perceptions of climate change seem to be connected to levels of economic development. Evidence generated by a study of 46 countries suggests that there is a negative association between public concern for global warming and gross domestic product. In addition, there is a negative association between per capita carbon dioxide emissions and public concern for global warming (Sandvik, 2008). This suggests that poor people are more concerned about the effects of climate change than people in affluent societies. Their concerns are warranted, as a study published in Eco Health demonstrated that morbidity and mortality associated with climate change disproportionately impact resource-poor nations, those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions (Patz, Gibbs and Foley, 2007).

Popular discourse in the South tends to view a call for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as placing limitations on development at a time when the South is rising out of poverty and beginning to enjoy similar socio-economic benefits to those that the North continues to experience. Arguments for allowing the South to pollute until it achieves the same level of economic development as the North are common, yet they are also oblivious to the obvious consequences of this race to the bottom. While it is true that emerging economies in the South are least responsible for climate change, the negative impact of a changing climate on these nations and ultimately on their economic development is undeniable.

Communities and governments of the South recognise the impact of climate change on their ability to earn a living, yet few are willing to address the deleterious effects of increased population growth on carbon emissions. Perhaps the most obvious preventive measure to a growing carbon footprint is to slow population growth. Still, few nations have effective family planning policies and programmes aimed at slowing population growth, which would reduce the need to extract resources to feed, clothe, transport, house, and warm or cool growing populations without accelerating climate and environmental change. Slowing population growth is the elephant in the room of climate change and global sustainability more generally.

Still others in the South argue that because the North has contributed disproportionately to greenhouse gas emissions, the South should not be prevented from reaching the same levels of emissions as the North. They argue that they need more time to develop and lift their populations out of poverty before they can be held to the same emission standards as the North. While it is understandable that they too need to develop, the model of development that they adopt need not necessarily mimic that of the North; instead a new development path is needed that emphasises human well-being in its broadest sense rather than focusing primarily on physical infrastructure development.

The disadvantages of the current dominant model of development should serve as an impetus for the South to seek alternative growth and development models that include harnessing renewable energies, slowing population growth, finding alternative ways of transporting, cooking, and heating, ultimately leading to better lives.

What is more, having recognised the negative impact of relying too heavily on fossil fuels, and understanding the exponential growth in demand for them, economic powers such as the United States and China have begun to invest heavily in green alternatives to development. These efforts are viewed as a means to avert future economic crises for economies that are too dependent upon fossil fuels. If nations in the South ignore this shift in development, they may relegate themselves to an unsustainable and unsuccessful development path.

In either case, nations should question any economic model that defines prosperity as simply an accumulation of material resources. A challenge to social scientists is to help redefine prosperity, focusing more on the qualitative aspects of human development, such as the provision of better education, learning how to promote health, and learning regenerative approaches to the use of resources.

North or South, human behaviour contributes significantly to climate change. And demands to maintain the lifestyles of the North and achieve similar lifestyles in the South only complicate the issue. This suggests that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is inextricably linked with human behaviour and the model of development we choose to follow. The question before social scientists is how we direct human behaviour and social practice away from a well-established development model and lifestyle that continues to add to global greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming emissions from industry is one thing, and by no means simple, but changing an entire nation’s lifestyle is another. Perhaps before this question can be answered, social scientists must first ask why human behaviours, which add to greenhouse gas emissions, are so resistant to change. A Swiss study attempted to do just that, and found that although people were anxious about the consequences of climate change, they erected a series of psychological barriers against taking individual or collective action to mitigate it, arguing that they wanted to maintain their comfortable and energy-intensive lifestyles (Stoll-Kleemann, O’Riordan and Jaeger, 2001).

The fundamentals of this model of development, which depends on generating carbon emissions as a means to prosperity, continue to be emulated by emerging economies. In a rush to get populations out of poverty in the 21st century, there is a move in some of the emerging economies to promote policies that increase carbon emissions. Examples include the Medupi project in South Africa, which will burn coal to generate energy, reductions in the tax for buying cars in Brazil, which increase the car to population ratio, and the introduction of fracking in South Africa to generate natural gas for heating and cooling.

Recent evidence suggests that governments in the North are taking steps to reduce emissions, including Germany’s Energie-Wende, which aims to transform the national energy system to low-carbon sources, and the United States introducing energy-saving measures. But the past several years have seen an increase in carbon emissions in the emerging economies of China and India, offsetting any greenhouse gas reductions in Europe and the United States.

A simple question put to all nations is whether more concrete, more buildings, more cars, more roads and more industry is really the best model we have for development. If there is a better model, then the challenge before social scientists is to help define and understand it, and to contribute knowledge about effecting a shift in human behaviour and social practice towards a model of development and a lifestyle that leaves a much lighter carbon footprint and, it is to be hoped, a much greener world.

The social sciences are best placed to study the reasons why people who experience the deleterious effects of climate change continue to participate in activities that accelerate it. The context in which such decisions are taken needs to be studied and understood if social and economic behaviours are to change. This will require a systematic effort with global leadership. Such an initiative is currently being championed by the ISSC, a global organisation representing the social, economic and behavioural sciences at an international level. Through its efforts it has begun to bring the pressing challenges of global environmental change and sustainability to the heart of the social sciences, as reflected in the World Social Science Report 2013.

Underscoring the importance of these ISSC efforts, social scientists can be certain of three things. First, the current model of economic development is simply unsustainable. Second, human behaviour is paramount in achieving any significant progress and in averting a continuing, growing global crisis. And third, social scientists are uniquely positioned to help shift the current development paradigm to a more sustainable path by understanding and influencing human behaviour and the institutions and cultural systems within which it emerges and finds expression.

Originally published as the preface to the World Social Science Report 2013 which includes full references.