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Social Science Matters: Climate change

Climate change is a hot topic and constantly in the news. Thousands of Dutch high school students protested at the Malieveld in The Hague. News website Nu.nl has barred climate change deniers from their comments section to prevent ‘fake news’. How does climate change impact the research community, and in particular our own social and behavioural sciences? How do our researchers in their specific fields engage with climate change?

Simon Otjes

'Are people who are short of money opposed to climate measures?'

- Simon Otjes, Politcal Science

The yellow vest movement blew across from France, but never really caught on much in the Netherlands. In France, the movement originated with protests against excise duties on petrol. The yellow vests argued that tax increases of this kind particularly affected those who already found it difficult to make ends meet. So this raises the question of the relation between people’s financial situation and their support for green policy measures that benefit the planet but entail economic costs for individuals.

I am currently carrying out research into this question, together with André Krouwel of the Dutch online voting aide Kieskompas. Through the Kieskompas panel, we presented people with a series of statements that all involve weighing up climate measures and economic costs, such as taxes on airline tickets, motorway tolls, or the choice between tackling climate change or protecting employment opportunities. These items constitute a strong scale: people in favour of climate measures often support several measures, and those who object to higher costs are also concerned about employment opportunities.

So does individuals’ socio-economic status predict their position vis-à-vis these measures? In terms of whether individuals identified themselves as working class or middle class, we find no connection between their stance and their economic class. But we do find a connection with people’s subjective assessment of their own financial position. We can assess people’s sense of financial security by asking how likely they view the possibility that they may experience a period of having little money for household costs, for instance. The less financial security people feel, the more likely they are to oppose climate measures. We took into account that people in urban areas are more likely to support climate measures than people in rural areas, that women are more often in favour of green policy than men, that more highly educated individuals are more often in favour than those who have received a lower level of education, and that young people are more often in favour than older people.

Opposition to environmental measures is thus linked with how people directly experience their financial position. But take note: we’re talking specifically about measures that involve weighing up economic costs and climate benefits. So there is some basis for yellow-vest-type sentiments. However, this is not to say that financially insecure people always and everywhere will be opposed to green measures under all circumstances. Precisely in areas where environmental pollution is visible and has a direct impact on the quality of the air or drinking water in poorer neighbourhoods, people in these neighbourhoods may support environmental measures in anticipation of direct benefits in the form of purer air or cleaner drinking water.

Henk Staats

'Human beings not well equipped to solve environmental problems'

- Henk Staats, Psychology

Environmental problems can be analysed in various ways and within various disciplines, but they are first and foremost the result of the behaviour of individuals. The arising and solving of problems, even the defining of something as a problem in the first place, are all eminently matters that have to do with how human beings tick. Opinions, emotions, attitudes, and expectations about other people’s behaviour all play an important role, for citizens not only in their capacity as consumers, residents, or drivers, but also as entrepreneurs or politicians.

Unfortunately human beings are not well equipped to understand and solve environmental problems. The most important factors are of a cognitive and motivational nature. As regards the cognitive part, we human beings are not good at fully understanding the gradually accumulating effects of our actions. And the motivational component lies in us recognizing the importance of our own personal contribution to these problems, which is more difficult still. Human beings are guided in their behaviour by a more or less conscious assessment of costs and benefits, which are usually determined above all by short-term personal interests. Those interests vary a great deal, incidentally: financial considerations may play a role, but time, effort, personal preferences, and social approval or disapproval also all weigh in and often have more influence.

What generally has very little influence, however – and this is an important cause of environmental problems – is our awareness of the disadvantages that certain behaviour may have for the collective, disadvantages in the distant future, and disadvantages in a distant location.  In that context we sometimes talk about three dilemmas confronting an individual: the social dilemma (me vs. the rest), the temporal dilemma (now vs. later), and the spatial dilemma (here vs. somewhere else).  And even if climate change is becoming somewhat visible here and now, it is still the case that it mainly plays out ‘later’ and ‘somewhere else’. Possible solutions, on the other hand, seem to damage personal interests here and now, which generates an extremely high level of resistance.

Read more in the recent survey article of the prominent environmental psychologist prof. Gary Evans, Cornell University on Projected behavioral impacts of global climate change. Annual Review of Psychology.

Wouter van de Klippe

‘Input is required from all sciences and communities’

- Wouter van de Klippe, Science and Technology Studies

The consequences of climate change are immense, global, deeply political, and they are disproportionately impacting marginalised communities. Much work in the field of Science and Technology studies highlights the need for the extension of dialogue to a diversity of communities when crafting policy. This is especially the case when problem areas are either highly uncertain or contain high-decision stakes. Arguably, climate change is both.

This extension of dialogue requires acknowledging several characteristics of the science-policy-society relationships  surrounding climate change. First, it means recognising that increased scientific knowledge does not necessarily entail coming to a consensus regarding the actions and policy that should follow.  Whatever policies are derived from the knowledge we produce will almost certainly have disparate consequences. Therefore, deliberation must include explicit political debate where underlying values and norms can be openly disputed.

Second, it means recognising that the stakes contained within climate change and the policies developed to mitigate it extend far beyond the scientific academy. This means that deliberative processes must be inclusive and democratised, and since the consequences of climate change are distributed unequally, must incorporate knowledge from vulnerable and marginalised communities.

Conceptualising discourse around climate change in this way makes explicit the need for a diversity of forms of knowledge from a diversity of communities. Indeed, the natural sciences provide immensely valuable insight into climate change, but this knowledge must be used in conjunction with other forms of expertise, both from within the academy and outside it. Since the stakes of climate change extend to all global communities, these communities must be given an adequate space to articulate their needs. The mitigation of the continued destructive force of climate change will require input from the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and especially knowledge from vulnerable communities around the globe.

Andrew Littlejohn

'Embracing diversity in search of environmental justice'

- Andrew Littlejohn, Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

How can the social sciences, including anthropology, help us imagine and move towards a low-carbon and sustainable society? Much of the scientific community, for good reasons, focuses on the hunt for technological solutions: carbon capture, solar radiation management, more scalable and efficient green energy production. However, absent such techno-fixes, avoiding high-warming scenarios—and coping with them, if they occur—also requires rethinking the ideologies underpinning what Timothy Mitchell calls our “carbon democracies.”

These ways of thinking and living do not only cause unsustainable economic practices: they also produce profound inequality of access to and control of the resources powering the economy and uneven distributions of the resulting environmental degradation. Economies, ecologies, and societies are, in other words, deeply intertwined: moving beyond the current impasse requires, then, not only greater elucidation of how they interact, but also unearthing alternative ways of connecting them.

This is where anthropology comes in. From the discipline’s early, colonial days to its contemporary, postcolonial present, anthropologists have long been concerned not only with relations between human beings and their environments, but also how these relations are being reworked by modern and late-modern capitalism. The latter presumes an easy separation of nature and culture, relegating the former to the role of “resource.” However, this is only one among many ways of conceiving both the human and its relation to the nonhuman world.

By giving voice to or amplifying the already-raised voices of people for whom boundaries are more porous—places where a river is not just a collection of H20 but, as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe puts it, “we are the river and the river is us”—anthropology provides inspiration for how we might re-imagine what it means to be human in ways conducive to sustainable living. Against what one might call the “monoculture” of contemporary economic and development ideology, in other worlds, the discipline asks how we might embrace the diversity of human-environment relations in search of environmental justice in its broadest sense.

Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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