What can social science tell us about how to curb warming at 1.5°C, and about what the impacts of such warming would be? Earlier this year, we held a webinar to discuss the opportunities for social science in the forthcoming Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways.

The great response to the webinar meant that we ran out of time, and not all the participants had a chance to have their questions answered. We’ve tried to rectify that by asking our webinar speakers to respond to participants’ questions here.

The webinar panellists were Ioan Fazey, Director of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), University of Dundee; Frank Geels, Professor of System Innovation and Sustainability at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester; Bronwyn Hayward, Head of Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Canterbury; and Petra Tschakert, Professor of Rural Development, University of Western Australia. The webinar was facilitated by Susi Moser, Special Adviser to the ISSC’s Transformations to Sustainability Programme. All of the speakers participated in the scoping meeting for the Special Report.

Q: Unfortunately, it has taken over 25 years since the launch of the IPCC assessments for social scientists to be part of the process. It is stunning that all the insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS), history of science, and so on, have not seeped into the natural-science-dominated discussion on climate change. What is underway to strongly communicate and rectify the disappointing representation of social scientists among writers of IPCC Reports? And how about in terms of a focused and formal social science-based critique of the (US) ‘State of the Environment’ Reports and the attendant reporting systems and authorities (which have their origins in the assumptions of the biophysical environmental sciences, including public health)?

Frank Geels: It often does take quite some time for insights from one community (e.g. STS) to enter another community (e.g. climate change). In this case, problems for knowledge diffusion may also relate to different philosophies of science (e.g. positivism in climate science and constructivism in STS) or social ontologies (e.g. rational choice in climate change and interpretivism, relationism, post-structuralism in social sciences) (see Geels et al., 2016[i]).

Petra Tschakert: It’s worth stating that some social scientists were relatively well-represented in the last assessment cycle, especially across WGII chapters (e.g. human geographers, economists). They have made important contributions regarding vulnerability, inequalities, human security, poverty, uneven development, adaptation barriers, and transformation, drawing upon relevant literature outside of the dominant climate change journals. However, other social scientists – such as political scientists, historians – as well as scholars from the humanities, continue to be underrepresented.

Bronwyn Hayward: I would caution against the idea that natural sciences alone have somehow acted to exclude social science insights – we in social science can build pretty thick disciplinary silo walls ourselves. These walls are thankfully being chipped away on all sides, but there is still a lot of work to be done to build capacity for interdisciplinary, collaborative research. As an example, Amanda Goodall’s analysis[ii] of 30 high-impact journals in political science revealed that between 1970 and 2006 only 11 out of 30,000 published articles discussed global warming or climate change, and none at all were published on the topic in the Journal of American Political Science. So we are making up for a lot of lost time. As Ismael Rafols and colleagues have argued[iii], our journal rankings can also mitigate against the publication and rapid circulation of high-quality interdisciplinary research.

That said, there is also much in social science research that is directly relevant to climate debate but perhaps not framed with traditional keywords. As the first Review of Indian Social Science[iv] has argued, much vital new research by scholars in ‘developing nations’ is being overlooked by English-language search algorithms and electronic databases, and this is a real problem for knowledge transfer in all kinds of contexts, particularly when we need to rapidly understand and learn from embedded experiences of adaptation and mitigation.

Q: Present vs. future concerns: 1.5°C is ‘fine-grained for people now’. Helpful, but does this suggest working to short timeframes might work against adaptive capacity of future humans?

Susi Moser: The scoping process made very clear that chapters must consider the full complexity of the simultaneous and integrated challenges of dealing with the impacts of 1.5°C of warming; the mitigation and adaptation actions required; and doing so in the context of meeting other sustainability goals (up to 2030 and beyond). The Report must therefore address potential trade-offs (and co-benefits).

Q: After publishing two academic papers and realizing only researchers noticed, I switched to writing climate fiction. The University of Arizona just ran a climate fiction contest, with the idea that people hear stories better than facts and figures. Comments?

Susi Moser: IPCC Reports and climate fiction are obviously very different genres, meeting very different societal needs. We would suggest both are useful and potentially impactful in their respective spheres.

Q: How can individual-level psychological considerations and processes relating to climate change risk perceptions, understandings, and issue and behavioural engagement be better taken into account?

Bronwyn Hayward: On behaviour change at an individual level see Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication[v].

Q: Is there a possibility to merge biodiversity loss from land use change into climate change? These are both massive somewhat overlapping environmental challenges, but biodiversity loss lacks an equivalent IPCC process.

Susi Moser: There is an equivalent process for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Please check out IPBES. Future Earth actively contributes to IPBES. That said, one of the chapters in the 1.5°C Report will focus on the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, species, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.

Q: I have been involved in IPCC for a long time. I am not as confident as some of you that the IPCC process will be able to adapt to a solutions orientation. In particular, IPCC views its strength as providing policy-relevant rather than policy ‘prescriptive’ information. This leads to a question about activities outside the Report. Are any of you aware of other efforts to pull together the basic social science and humanities (especially history) to understand fundamental transformation in techno-social systems?

Frank Geels: The last 10 years have seen the rise of new scientific communities such as the ‘Sustainability Transitions Research Network’, (originating in innovation studies, but broadening to the wider social sciences) and the ‘transformations’ community (originating in socio-ecological research). These communities have generated a relevant body of knowledge (see the special issues listed below), but many publications have appeared outside the existing climate change journals. There are now dedicated efforts to bring this knowledge into climate science and IPCC, but more can be done.

Susi Moser: There are several special issues of journals currently under development, including at COSUST, Elementa, Climate Policy, and Regional Environmental Change. These are not exclusively focused on social science and humanities, but give opportunities for inclusion of scholarship in those domains. The ISSC and the National Academies of Sciences (US) are also considering options for non-IPCC contributions to the 1.5°C/rapid societal transformation debate.

Bronwyn Hayward: There is a lot of interesting work in this area, for differing perspectives, see for example the references below to articles by John Barry, Robert Butler and colleagues, Nigel Clark, and Nora Rathzel and David Uzzell[vi].

Q: What policy measures can scale up the existing positive examples of rapid paths to zero emissions, and also the sustainable development benefits of such rapid reductions? In terms of equality, it will be crucial to start from the risks for (and capacities of) the poorest and most vulnerable countries and communities. Will the Report address this adequately? What research is still needed to make this case?

Susi Moser: At the scoping meeting, a number of individuals fought hard to ensure that there would be methodological plurality and transparency in the chapters and Report overall. That does not guarantee that it will be carried through to the end, as it will be up to the authors to shape the actual contents of the Report. There will also be several rounds of expert and government review, which are critical to bringing these concerns – if not adequately treated in the report drafts – to the attention of report authors. The best way to ensure that this happens is to a) make yourself available as a nominee (to your country focal point); b) contribute as an author, if selected; or c) contribute as a reviewer. IPCC authors are required to respond to each review comment in writing, explaining why a comment has been taken on or rejected.

Petra Tschakert: This Special Report will have a chapter on sustainable development, poverty eradication and reducing inequalities (Chp 5) which is well positioned to review and summarize all relevant literature (peer-reviewed and grey) that assesses 1.5°C warming through the lens of poor and vulnerable communities and countries. Multiple types of knowledge and experiences will be captured, for instance through available case studies that depict context- and place-specific observations and patterns. It is the responsibility of chapter authors to assess the quality of findings from the grey literature and translate (at least a summary) into English if they are written in a different language.

Q: Given the dearth of available published literature specifically relevant to the 1.5⁰C challenge, to what extent do you see opportunities to draw upon case studies and lessons from other assessments of “transitions to sustainability” – both successful and less so?

There is also a plea for case studies from different parts of the world. Can grassroots organizations consolidate their learnings from interventions to contribute to this Special Report? Bear in mind that the reports and publications from such organizations are mostly grey literature and might not meet the rigour of social science. However, they do capture the needs and indigenous knowledge of communities that MUST be factored into pathways to a 1.5⁰C.

Susi Moser: The IPCC can cite relevant “grey” literature. IPCC authors will judge its adequacy in terms of credibility and reliability of insights reported. The principal challenge however is to ensure that such reports come to the attention of the 1.5°C report authors. So, please either contribute as an author (i.e. make yourself available for nomination) or as a reviewer, and send relevant documents to the report authors. They will be inundated with many such documents, so make sure that the documents are easy to read and have clear executive summaries.

Frank Geels: In the socio-technical transition literature there are interesting debates about grassroots innovation (by social movements and activists) and city initiatives (see further reading below). A common finding is that successes are often location specific and not easy to scale up. Grassroots innovators may face the dilemma that upscaling requires mainstreaming of their innovations and the loss of some of the radical dimensions that inspired them. Additionally, local innovations may face structural obstacles in the form of institutional constraints or limited access to policy networks. On the positive side, there appears to be a groundswell of local initiatives with low-carbon solutions. Further diffusion of these initiatives may be stimulated by: 1) financial incentives that enable replication of solutions in more locations, 2) network management that facilitates the circulation of lessons and experiences between locations (to stimulate collective learning and preventing re-invention of the wheel), 3) aggregation and codification of ‘best practice’ lessons, 4) the creation of communities and associations that can lobby on behalf of local initiatives, 5) institutional flexibility (to allow temporary local deviations from existing rules), 6) institutional openness for different kinds of actors and knowledge.

Q : How robust does our knowledge need to be before we act? High levels of uncertainty suggest that “robust” is elusive under short/urgent time periods… Does the pursuit of “robust” limit experimentation?

Given the challenges of this Special Report, how can we in the expert community manage expectations about it – to recognize that it will inherently be “version 1.0” (or, version 1.5) of an essential, ongoing informed assessment process?

Petra Tschakert: The IPCC confidence guidelines have been quite useful as they help authors critically assess the available literature for a given chapter and then present it in most meaningful ways, including with illustrations. Confidence is defined as a matter of how much evidence and how much agreement there is regarding certain findings. Confidence describes uncertainty from a qualitative angle (so no probabilities), which often suits social scientists and the types of data and methods used in the reviewed literature. Agreement ranges from low to high (to which extent do the various findings from across a variety of literatures agree? Do they paint a similar picture or suggest divergence?). Evidence ranges from limited to robust (how much evidence is there that supports a certain finding?). Chapter authors should make use of these guidelines, particularly when assessing numerous case studies across very different contexts and different levels of details. Policy-makers typically prefer high confidence (high agreement and robust evidence). Yet there are cases that show high agreement but limited evidence, meaning we know something is happening but we don’t quite yet have all the pieces of evidence in place; hence there’s a gap in scholarship. This can be just as powerful!

Frank Geels: A high degree of certainty may enable policy action, but is often insufficient. Political science scholars have shown that other factors are also important, such as pressure from public discourse and media, demands from NGOs, weakening power of vested interests, positive examples from other countries or local policy-makers, demands from new firms and change agents. Political scientists also distinguish different policy styles based on different kinds of knowledge (see discussion in Geels et al., 2016[i]):

  1. Goal-rational (managerial) style: policy is made on the basis of instrumental expert-knowledge (e.g. cost-benefit calculation) aimed at reaching goals in the cheapest ways.
  2. Deliberate, coalition-building style: Policy-making is seen as the ‘art of the possible’; the challenge is to build coalitions, based on compromises between various interests
  3. Emergent policy style, based on learning-by-doing, muddling through, local experimentation and gradual upscaling of successful examples.

The IPCC was set up to facilitate the first policy style. As the debate is now moving towards real-world implementation, one important challenge is to also acknowledge the potential value of other policy styles, which require more political and experiential knowledge.

Susi Moser: One of the roles of the IPCC has been to assess the confidence in the available scientific knowledge, but leaving it up to politicians and other societal actors to decide when knowledge is ‘certain’ or ‘robust’ enough for them to act. Scientific studies have shown repeatedly that there is no inherent degree of certainty beyond which decision-makers are compelled to act. Rather, it is the interests and value commitments of a decision-maker that determine when knowledge is ‘politically certain’ enough to act. There are countless cases where decision-makers don’t act in the face of near unanimity and extremely high-confidence knowledge, and other cases where decision-makers act even in the face of significant scientific uncertainty. A decision environment which is rapidly changing – whether due to environmental, climatic or social shifts – poses an important challenge to society, however, in which we may need to develop the mechanisms, political will and confidence to act in the face of constantly and rapidly changing conditions. Experimentation with ongoing monitoring, rapid evaluation and learning may be one such mechanism to enable decision-making in a rapidly changing context.

Q: What is the involvement of early career researchers in the process? How can they be more involved?

Susi Moser and Petra Tschakert: The IPCC makes efforts to include experts who were not previously involved in IPCC processes so as to bring in fresh perspectives. In some instances, that has involved relatively early career scientists, and indeed there were a few involved in the scoping process. But the challenge of selecting a range of authors that can meet multiple criteria (such as geographic balance, gender balance, developed/developing country origin, disciplinary depth and breadth, ability to integrate wide knowledge domains, etc.) makes it difficult to guarantee early career involvement. Theoretically, the IPCC could make such a commitment, but we are not aware that it has done so; there is no official quota of early-career scientist involvement as far as we know. That said, qualified early career candidates (especially those who have scientific expertise in and/or a good understanding of the available literature relevant to one of the five approved chapters) should definitely make their country focal points aware that they are interested in contributing to the Report!

Petra Tschakert: It is possible that the Sixth Assessment Report (AR) cycle (including the Special Reports) may follow the model of the AR5, where early career researchers were selected as ‘volunteer chapter scientists’ to assist chapter authors in various tasks related to the review and synthesis of the literature. They were often PhD students. Another option is to become part of a chapter as a contributing author, providing input on a specific area that nobody else on the team covers. One cannot sign up to become a contributing author but rather needs to be approached by the chapter team, so it’s important for ECRs to make themselves known to chapter authors once decisions are made in late January and the teams announced.

Q: Are scientists from the most vulnerable countries contributing to achieving the 1.5°C goal?

Susi Moser and Petra Tschakert: Authors from developing countries do contribute to the 1.5°C Report, and again we encourage you to make your availability and interest known to your respective country focal points. There is always a shortage of committed developing country experts, so your nomination would be most welcome.

If the question is whether developing countries will be required to make mitigation and adaptation efforts to reach the 1.5°C ambition, the answer is: it depends on the level of current emissions, trends in emissions, and pathways toward 1.5°C. A wide variety of emissions pathways will be discussed in the Report.

Petra Tschakert: Keep in mind that the IPCC needs to be policy-relevant and not policy-prescriptive, so the Report cannot state what individual countries ought to do in terms of mitigation and adaptation.

Q: How can individual experts - i.e. those without an institutional affiliation - be involved? How will you expand the circle of participants beyond those invited to Bangkok? What are the next steps?

Susi Moser and Petra Tschakert: Possibilities to contribute to the process include nomination and (if selected) contribution as an author; contribution of relevant (peer-reviewed) literature, as a review author, and as an expert reviewer of draft chapters. Timeline and deadlines are available on the IPCC 1.5°C report website. (See also Susi’s slide on ‘Opportunities to contribute’).

The call for authors is currently ongoing.

Individual experts must make their interest, expertise, and availability known to the country focal points. The relevant contacts can be found on the IPCC’s 1.5°C report website.

Nominations must be received by the country focal points before Sunday, 11 December 2020 (midnight CET) using the online application. Keep in mind that some IPCC country focal points have earlier deadlines!

Relevant Special Issues

  • ‘Sustainability transitions through system innovation’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 2005, Vol. 72, No. 6
  • ‘Sustainability transitions in developing Asia’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 2009, Vol. 76, No. 2
  • ‘Designing long-term policy: Rethinking transition management’, Policy Sciences, 2009, Vol. 42, No. 4
  • ‘Innovation and sustainability transitions: The allure of the multi-level perspective and its challenges’, Research Policy, 2010, Vol. 39, No. 4
  • ‘Socio-technical experiments in Asia: A driver for sustainability transition?, Environmental Science & Policy, 2010, Vol. 13, No. 4.
  • ‘Socio-technological transitions towards sustainable energy and climate stabilization’, Sustainability Science, 2012, Vol. 7, No. 2
  • ‘Governing system transitions towards sustainability: Theoretical and empirical explorations’, International Journal of Sustainable Development, 2012, Vol. 15, No. 1-2
  • ‘Sustainability transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects’, Research Policy, 2012, Vol. 41, No. 6
  • ‘Sustainability transitions in the making: A closer look at actors, strategies and resources’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 2012, Vol. 79, No. 6
  • ‘Places and spaces of sustainability transitions: Geographical contributions to an emerging research and policy field’, European Planning Studies, 2012, Vol. 20, No. 3
  • ‘Energy transitions’, Science as Culture, 2013, Vol. 22, No. 2
  • ‘Transition pathways to a low carbon economy’, Energy Policy, 2013, Vol. 52
  • ‘Urban energy transitions: Places, processes and politics of socio-technical change’, Urban Studies, 2014, Vol. 51, No. 7
  • ‘The politics of sustainability transitions’, Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 2016, Vol. 18, No. 5

Further reading on grassroots innovation and city-level initiatives

Boyer R. H. W. 2015. Grassroots innovation for urban sustainability: comparing the diffusion pathways of three ecovillage projects, Environment and Planning A, 47(2), pp. 320-337.

Bulkeley, H., Broto, V.C., Maassen, A. 2013. Low-carbon transitions and the reconfiguration of urban infrastructure, Urban Studies, 51(7), pp. 1471-1486

Bulkeley H. and Broto, V.C. 2013. Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate change, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38(3), pp. 361–375

Coenen, L., Raven, R.P.J.M., Verbong, G.P.J. 2010. Local niche experimentation in the energy transition: a theoretical and empirical exploration of proximity advantages and disadvantages, Technology in Society 32(4), pp. 295-302.

Coenen, L. and Truffer, B. 2012, Places and spaces of sustainability transitions: Geographical contributions to an emerging research and policy field, European Planning Studies, 20(3), pp. 367-374.

Gray, D., Laing, R. and Docherty, I. 2016. Delivering lower carbon urban transport choices: European ambition meets the reality of institutional (mis)alignment, Environment and Planning A, in press

Hargreaves, T., Hielscher, S., Seyfang, G., and Smith, A. 2013. Grassroots innovations in community energy: The role of intermediaries in niche development, Global Environmental Change, 23(5), pp. 868-880.

Hermans, F., Roep, D., Klerkx, L. 2016. Scale dynamics of grassroots innovations through parallel pathways of transformative change. Ecological Economics, 130, pp. 285-295.

Hodson, M. and Marvin, S. 2009, Cities mediating technological transitions: Understanding visions, intermediation and consequences, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 21(4), pp. 515-534.

Hodson, M. and Marvin, S. 2010, Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were?, Research Policy, 39(4), pp. 477-485.

Hodson, M. and Marvin, S. 2012. Mediating low-carbon urban transitions? Forms of organisation, knowledge and action, European Planning Studies, 20(3), pp. 421-439.

Hossain, M. 2016. Grassroots Innovation: A systematic review of two decades of research, Journal of Cleaner Production, in press

Martin, C.J. and Upham, P. 2016. Grassroots social innovation and the mobilisation of values in collaborative consumption: A conceptual model. Journal of Cleaner Production, 134, part A, pp. 204–213

Nevens, F., Frantzeskaki, N., Gorissen, L., and Loorbach, D.2013. Urban Transition Labs: Co-creating transformative action for sustainable cities, Journal of Cleaner Production, 50, pp.111–122.

Seyfang, G. and Smith, A. 2007. Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: towards a new research and policy agenda, Environmental Politics 16(4), pp. 583-603.

Seyfang, G., 2010, Grassroots innovations in sustainable housing: Building a low-carbon future, Energy Policy

Seyfang, G. and Haxeltine, A., 2012, Growing grassroots innovations: Exploring the role of community-based initiatives in governing sustainable energy transitions, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 30(3), pp. 381-400.

Seyfang, G., Park, J.J., Smith, A. 2013. A thousand flowers blooming? An examination of community energy in the UK, Energy Policy, 63, pp. 977-989.

Seyfang, G. and Longhurst, N., 2016, What influences the diffusion of grassroots innovations for sustainability? Investigating community currency niches, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 28(1), pp. 1-23.

Smith, A. and Seyfang, G. 2013. Constructing grassroots innovations for sustainability, Global Environmental Change, 23(5), pp. 827-829.

[i] Geels, F.W., Berkhout, F. and Van Vuuren, D., 2016, Bridging analytical approaches for low-carbon transitions, Nature Climate Change, 6(6), 576-583.

[ii] Goodall, Amanda. 2008. Why Have the Leading Journals in Management (and Other Social Sciences) Failed to Respond to Climate Change?, Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 4. pp. 408-420.

[iii] Rafols, I., Leydesdorff, L., O’Hare, A., Nightingale P., and Stirling, A. 2012. How Journal Rankings Can Suppress Interdisciplinary Research: A Comparison between Innovation Studies and Business & Management, Research Policy, Vol. 41, No. 7 (2012), pp.1262–1282.

[iv] S. Thorat, and S. Verma, (eds), 2016. Social Science Research in India: Status, Issues, and Policies. New Delhi, Oxford University Press.

[v] L. Whitmarsh, L., S. O’Neil, S. and I. Lorenzoni, (eds), 2011. Engaging the Public with Climate Change: Behaviour Change and Communication.London, Earthscan, pp. 289.

[vi] Barry, J. 2012. The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Constrained World. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 328.

Butler, R., Margolies, E., Smith, J., and Tyszczuk, R.. 2011. Culture and Climate Change: Recordings . Cambridge, The Shed and The Open University, pp. 112.

Clark, N. 2011. Inhuman Nature: Social Life on a Dynamic Planet. London, SAGE, pp. 245.

Rathzel, N. and Uzzell, D. 2013 Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment. London, Routledge, pp. 267.

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