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Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy

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Illustration by David Parkins

Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy

David G. Victor calls for the IPCC process to be extended to include insights into controversial social and behavioural issues.

David Victor 01 April 2015 PDF NATURE

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is becoming irrelevant to climate policy. By seeking consensus and avoiding controversy, the organization is suffering from the streetlight effect — focusing ever more attention on a well-lit pool of the brightest climate science. But the insights that matter are out in the darkness, far from the places that the natural sciences alone can illuminate. With the ink barely dry on the IPCC’s latest reports, scientists and governments are planning reforms for the next big assessment1, 2. Streamlining the review and writing processes could, indeed, make the IPCC more nimble and relevant. But decisions made at February’s IPCC meeting in Nairobi showed that governments have little appetite for change. The basic report-making process and timing will remain intact. Minor adjustments such as greater coverage of cross-cutting topics and more administration may make the IPCC slower. Similar soul searching, disagreement, indecision and trivial procedural tweaks have followed each of the five IPCC assessments over the past 25 years3. This time needs to be different. The IPCC must overhaul how it engages with the social sciences in particular (see go.nature.com/vp7zgm). Fields such as sociology, political science and anthropology are central to understanding how people and societies comprehend and respond to environmental changes, and are pivotal in making effective policies to cut emissions and collaborate across the globe. The IPCC has engaged only a narrow slice of social-sciences disciplines. Just one branch — economics — has had a major voice in the assessment process. In Working Group III, which assesses climate-change mitigation and policy, nearly two-thirds of 35 coordinating lead authors hailed from the field, and from resource economics in particular. The other social sciences were mostly absent. There was one political scientist: me. Among the few bright spots in that report compared with earlier ones is greater coverage of behavioural economics and risk analysis. In Working Group II, which assesses impacts and adaptation, less than one-third of the 64 coordinating lead authors were social scientists, and about half of those were economists. Bringing the broader social sciences into the IPCC will be difficult, but it is achievable with a strategy that reflects how the fields are organized and which policy-relevant questions these disciplines know well. It will require big reforms in the IPCC, and the panel will have to relinquish part of the assessment process to other organizations that are less prone to paralysis in the face of controversy. Tunnel vision The IPCC walks a wavering line between science, which requires independence, and diplomacy, which demands responsiveness to government preference. Although scientists supply and hone the material for reports, governments have a say in all stages of assessment: they adopt the outline for each chapter, review drafts and approve the final reports…..

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