Why we need more social science research on climate change

A solid evidence base on the social science of climate change is essential for navigating the scale and complexity of the climate crisis. While climate change requires the input of many disciplines, the drivers of and the solutions to climate change are fundamentally social, economic and political. We need to understand them better.

Led by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), research funders in the UK have long been aware of this. As far back as 1991, ESRC sponsored the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment, where I got my first academic job. I am now directing another ESRC centre, the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, which started operating more than a decade ago.

Now we have published a comprehensive review of UK-funded social science research on climate change over the last 10 years that reveals the country’s significant contribution in this area, but also some important research gaps.

Research councils have supported a wide range of projects

We found 481 climate change projects with a significant social science component that have been supported by UK research councils since 2008. This includes 15 research centres dedicated to or contributing to social science research on climate change. Combining both their social science and non-social-science components, the 481 projects have received research council funding worth a total of £438 million.

A search of Gateway to Research, the portal of publicly funded research operated by UK Research and Innovation, yields more than 3,000 climate change projects, however. Our review therefore suggests that only one in six publicly funded climate change projects has a significant social science component.

The good news is that the supported research covers a considerable diversity of topics, sectors, methods and geographies (see Figure 1 below). Research council support is split evenly between research on adaptation (concerned with increasing climate resilience) and mitigation (concerned with reducing greenhouse gas emissions).

There is also an even split between projects that focus on the UK and overseas. Unsurprisingly, adaptation projects are often about developing countries – with a particular interest in Africa – as these locations face the greatest adaptation challenges. Mitigation projects are typically focused on the UK and other industrialised countries – the nations with the biggest dents to make in their emissions.

This graph shows UK social science research on climate change by sector by number of projects and amount of funding

Figure 1. UK social science research on climate change by sector

Source: Fankhauser et al. (2019) UK Research on the Social Science of Climate Change. A Synthesis of ESRC and Related Investments

Some thematic priorities stand out

Climate change governance – internationally, nationally and sub-nationally – and the design of climate policy are natural research interests for social scientists and almost 40 per cent of the projects deal with these issues. Particularly over recent funding rounds, there has been growing interest in practices and behaviour in relation to climate change, exploring such issues as public attitudes to climate change or to specific climate solutions.

Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable work on the transformation of the UK energy sector, where the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has sponsored a series of prominent end-use energy demand centres. Climate-compatible development, particularly in Africa, has benefitted from additional funding through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which is dedicated to developing countries.

Other funding priorities highlighted in the report include floods and droughts in the UK, agriculture and land use, and climate change and the natural environment.

Notable research gaps remain

Among the most important research gaps we found are:

  • The political economy of the zero-carbon transition. The technical and behavioural solutions needed to tackle climate change are increasingly understood, but we need to know more about the political economy constraints that prevent us from implementing them.
  • Combining environmental and social objectives into a just transition. The need for a just transition has emerged as an important theme in the international climate negotiations, but has not yet received enough attention from social scientists. The Grantham Research Institute is initiating a new project that will partly plug this gap.
  • Poverty alleviation in a zero-carbon world. More research is needed to inform the ongoing debate about (real and perceived) trade-offs between emissions reductions and poverty alleviation.
  • The integration of climate and broader environmental research. Social science research on climate change and on the natural environment has been conducted too much in parallel. It is time to bring these important strands of work more closely together.
  • The social science of carbon capture and negative emissions technology. Achieving net-zero emissions in the UK and elsewhere will require access to negative emissions technology, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Much work is still needed to understand the social, economic and regulatory aspects of these technologies.
  • The role of sustainable finance. Redirecting financial flows towards zero-carbon, climate-resilient investment is one of the biggest levers in the fight against climate change. Decision-makers in policy and practice are beginning to realise this but the social sciences are lagging behind, albeit with a few exceptions such as a new sustainable finance programme at the Grantham Research Institute.

Thanks to the support of research councils, UK universities play a prominent role in international climate change research, including in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to which UK researchers contribute actively. This is an important, if sometimes overlooked aspect of the UK’s global leadership on climate change.

However, as countries around the world ratchet up action against climate change, so should social science research to study and guide the global effort. Social science input will be essential to the success of COP26, the crucial climate summit the UK is expected to host in 2020. Climate policy needs to be informed by the best available evidence.

Professor Sam Fankhauser is director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre on Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP), both at the London School of Economics. He is also the Principal Investigator of the Place-Based Climate Action Network (PCAN), which produced the report, ‘UK Research on the Social Science of Climate Change: A synthesis of ESRC and related investments’. The report was co-authored with Ana de Menezes and Nina Opacic.