As greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere reach yet another record high and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes ever more firmly in its fifth assessment report that climate change is well underway, human-caused, and causing serious impacts, which will worsen in the decades ahead, society stands at a pivotal crossroads.

We – the world collectively, and particularly the countries historically and currently contributing most to the global carbon-pollution burden – must find ways to radically reduce emissions. At the same time, we must plan and prepare for those impacts of climate change that are now unavoidable, or bear the dangerous consequences of inaction. This conclusion has been reached by virtually every scientific academy and professional society around the world, and many policymakers agree with this dual imperative.

The opinions rapidly diverge, however, over the “how.” All the physical science in the world, however essential in establishing the basic facts of climate change, are not suffice to answer it.

Enter the World Social Science Report 2013, which makes the case for how the social sciences must rise to the challenge of helping the world find feasible solutions.

For too long, the social sciences have either been ignored or have themselves refused to engage fully and effectively on the biggest and maybe most profound global environmental issue humanity has ever faced. But that “luxury” is coming – and must come – to an end.

Feasible, durable and equitable solutions to climate change, intimately linked to global poverty, inequality and other forms of social discontent, require human action. And that is their forté. No solution will be sustainable unless it also addresses hunger and poverty, economic development and injustice, governance and the quirks and complexities of human behaviour. In a word, the social sciences have much to offer to facilitate understanding of these interconnected issues and how to tackle them.

In what is maybe its most significant message, the report says we must re-frame climate change from an environmental problem and instead understand it as a social challenge. That places the problem squarely in the lap of humanity. Climate change – if we focus on solutions – is not primarily about carbon, it is caused by people. Through the impacts it has on society, it has faces and places. Human institutions and human knowledge, human responsibility and human action are what it comes down to if we care to do something about it.

And this is what makes the report so interesting: it exemplifies the kind of social science research that can help us better understand the human causes of climate and environmental change and their consequences for different people, groups and regions around the world. It describes the necessary conditions for change and a vision for the future and provides examples of researchers, decision-makers and stakeholders working together to find acceptable and effective solutions. With 150 authors from 41 countries, it offers a radical, innovative, comprehensive vision of a planet shaped by social processes that both constrain and enable what we can do.

It acknowledges advancements in our understanding of these human dynamics, but calls for synergies and new ways of working across social science disciplines, between the social and natural sciences, and between researchers and those who must take action. Without the physical and life sciences, we will not understand the Earth’s fragility; without the social and human sciences, sustainable social transformation is impossible.

This call for a new kind of social science, a bolder, better, and different social science, is itself bold and demanding. But it will need considerable support to deliver. The production of social science research on environmental change around the world is uneven. Despite already urgent local environmental problems, social scientists do not always have the capacity to carry out necessary research. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the United States and Australia are amongst the biggest producers of social science research on environmental change, yet some of the most vulnerable regions of the world work in isolation from the global scientific community or lack support for social science research because governments and funders underestimate the potential future consequences of climate change, or see it as an economic or strategic opportunity.

This has to change. Counter to outdated perceptions of the social sciences as abstract, theoretical and removed from practical realities, the social sciences have become practical and focused. For example, economists have developed an inclusive wealth index – a radical shift in the way progress is measured. Old metrics are being replaced with more telling indicators. Sociologists and geographers have brought to the fore the importance of gender in understanding impacts of climate change and developing effective response options. Political scientists and ethicists have proposed alternative governance frameworks that can foster greater justice. Psychologists are helping us understand how to better facilitate behaviour change. Together social scientists bring a new and different lens through which to view our world, they offer a new approach to solutions; collaborations between researchers and information users are proving effective in addressing the urgent challenges before us.

The World Social Science Report 2013 thus voices a much needed clarion call – to researchers in its own ranks, to scientists in neighboring fields, and to the funders, science policymakers, and those charged with implementing durable and equitable solutions to climate and environmental change who might benefit from their insights: we must radically re-envision and reframe the challenge before us, and help generate the knowledge needed to meet it. As global environmental changes force us to face staggering human-made crises, now is not the time to stay on the sidelines. The social sciences, along with their supporters and partners, must step up to help as the world struggles to find a path towards a more secure and sustainable future.

 Photo used with kind permission from Climate Safety;  Creative Commons 2

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