October 3rd, 2007 <-- by William H. Hooke (Guest) -->

Readers of may remember a four-volume assessment of the social science research relevant to global climate change that appeared about a decade ago, entitled Human choice and climate change, edited by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth L. Malone. If not, here’s a bit of background. This was a truly extraordinary effort, centered on a Vancouver meeting in 1997, and involving more than one hundred contributors. Especially intriguing was a small satellite document issued with the assessment entitled “Ten suggestions for policymakers.” To quote Rayner and Malone:

“What can public and private decisionmakers learn from a wide-ranging look at the social sciences and the issue of human choice and climate change that illuminates the evaluation of policy goals, implementation strategies, and choices about paths forward? At present, proposed policies are heavily focused on the development and implementation of intergovernmental agreements on immediate emissions reductions. In the spirit of cognitive and analytic pluralism that has guided the creation of Human choice and climate change, we look beyond the present policy priorities to see if there are adjustments, or even wholesale changes, to the present course that could be made on the basis of a social science perspective. To this end we offer ten suggestions to complement and challenge existing approaches to public and private sector decisionmaking:

    1. View the issue of climate change holistically, not just as the problem of emissions reductions.

    2. Recognize that, for climate policymaking, institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits.

    3. Prepare for the likelihood that social, economic, and technological change will be more rapid and have greater direct impacts on human populations than climate change.

    4. Recognize the limits of rational planning.

    5. Employ the full range of analytical perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and the humanities in climate change policymaking.

    6. Design policy instruments for real world conditions rather than try to make the world conform to a particular policy model.

    7. Incorporate climate change into other more immediate issues, such as employment, defense, economic development, and public health.

    8. Take a regional and local approach to climate policymaking and implementation.

    9. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts will be largest.

    10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making. ”

In a carefully-crafted, crisply written 40-page document, Rayner and Malone expanded on these statements*. Ten years later, it is worthwhile to take stock, and reassess these statements and supporting analysis. How well have they stood the test of time? What has been their impact on the policy process to date? What about going forward? Do they offer intriguing starting points for policy formulation? Could they guide or constrain the search for viable policy alternatives? How has the status of social science research changed in ten years? The continuing pertinence of these notions is illustrated in recent material such as the following, a comment by Professor Mike Hulme, Director of the Tyndall Center, and School of Environmental sciences, UEA, on the Stern Review, prepared for the British Ecological Society Bulletin. Hulme asks

“But how effective will it [the Stern Review] be and what difference will it make? In ten years time, will we be able to look back and analyse a pre-Stern and post-Stern discourse about climate change, or see the 2006 marking some break-point in climate policy?

I suspect not. To look for the reasons one need do no more than re-wind the clock to 1998 and the publication of the proceedings of the largest co-ordinated exercise yet undertaken by social scientists into examining the implications of climate change for human choice (Rayner and Malone, 1998). A self-proclaimed ‘complement’ to the United Nation’s IPCC, this five year assessment delivered ten suggestions for policymakers in regard to climate change. They deserve wider visibility and recognition [emphasis added]. To understand the limits of The Stern Review let me mention just three of these ten suggestions, all of which emerged from an extended examination of knowledge emerging from the social sciences (and anthropogenic climate change after all has emerged from society, not from nature):

• ‘Recognise that for climate policy-making institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits’. The Stern Review has very little to say about new institutional arrangements commensurate with the nature of climate change decision-making. The barriers to effective action on climate change is not incomplete science or uncertain analysis, but the inertia of collective decision-making across unaligned or even orthogonal institutions.

• ‘Employ the full range of analytic perspectives and decision aids form the natural and social sciences and humanities in climate change policymaking’. The Stern Review remains dominated by natural science and macro-economic perspectives on decision-making and although some concession to the role of values and ethics is made in the review, the values and ethical judgements made are pronounced rather than negotiated.

• ‘Direct resources to identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts [of climate change] will be largest’. The Stern Review continues to place emphasis on linear goal-setting and implementation; a more strategic approach is to focus on measures that promote societal resilience and opportunities for strategic switching, informed by regional and local perspectives.” asserts that “Policy choices will likely serve the interests of society most effectively if they are grounded in the best available knowledge and understanding.” Surely that assertion, to be correct, has to encompass the social sciences as well as the natural sciences. Your thoughts and comments?

William H. Hooke

*The supporting text can now be downloaded here.


  1. David B. Benson Says:

    I agree and so does Biopact:

    In particular, ethnological studies make a substantial difference when introducing biofuels to so-called indigeneous peoples.

    Something similar will be required everywhere there is an attempt to permanently sequester carbon dioxide deep underground.

  2. Matthew Stepp Says:

    This issue is reminiscent of some of the problems pointed out in Daniel Sarewitz’s book, “Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress”. In it Sarewitz lays out a series of “mythologies” that dominate the scientific community:

    Infinite Benefit offers that more money spent on research, the better life will be. Unfettered Research states that any line of basic research is as likely to lead to societal benefit as another. Accountability only allows for external responsibility, where questioning science is seen as ignorant and a threat to humanity. Authoritativeness gives policy formulation solely to scientists, for only a wise decision is made when a policy maker takes action consistent with sciences advice. Lastly, the Endless Frontier is humanities expression of desire to continually understand nature through constant scientific inquiry.

    This mind set has led the scientific community since its expansion after WWII. A conflict has arisen due to this and a portion of it is pointed out clearly in Dr. Hooke’s piece. The human element of research is nearly nonexistent within climate policy studies. Only interdisciplinary research that takes into account societal needs as well as progress within science will lead to a set of solutions that will mitigate the climate issue.

    In my opinion, a key point to tease out of Rayner and Malone’s “ten suggestions” is to view climate policy holistically. Current mitigation plans and research questions focus on new technologies and various economic subsidies or disincentives. The impacts of such plans are elusive because any model fails to account for the non-rationality of markets and society. New technologies rely on private industry, yet the short run costs of such products will inhibit such innovations from taking a serious hold on emission reduction in the critical decades to come. Many of the economic based solutions, hybrid car subsidies for example, assume that drivers will act the same as before. Yet, interestingly, due to the increased gas mileage, there is a very good chance that drivers will drive more, possibly subduing any long term reductions. The non-linearity and non rational behavior is what should lead the scientific community to view the problem as a whole (not in just emission reductions as stated in the piece).

    Unfettered research in the case of climate change seems not to be leading to infinite benefit. More time has been used studying the basic research of the issue, which is very important, but not enough time has been used to actually study the underlying problem. Large scale change will be needed to begin a course of sustainability – single band aid solutions will not allow for the whole sale elimination of the climate “crisis”. The focus of the community needs to be diverted somewhat from this and towards the immediate melding of business, economists, political scientists and social scientists in a much more organized fashion than now.

    Policy choices grounded in the best available knowledge and understanding is a lofty goal – for the “available” knowledge of many academic communities has not been utilized to its full extent. I worry that the paltry policy solutions being touted are in no way near as broad as they need to be. I may be way off base here, but the political windows of opportunity for climate policy solutions may only be open for a short time – the national mood is in its favor – so the science community needs to make its few chances count.

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