How Can Developing Our Social Science Help Confront Climate Change?

Vanessa Adel presenting on climate change publics

What are we called on to do as social science scholars in the face of catastrophic global climate change – and how are we called to do it? 

Last summer, scholars at UMass Amherst and the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India laid the foundation for a transnational collaboration on these questions. And last week, an over-capacity crowd of university students, faculty, staff and community members packed ISSR’s November 6 seminar on Climate Change, Sustainability and Social Science Research, underscoring the urgency of these questions for many others at UMass and the wider Pioneer Valley. Five panelists showcased the diversity of methods and trajectories that research on climate change and sustainability is taking across social science disciplines, and testified to both the possibilities and pitfalls of efforts to translate academic research into public and policy action. The vibrant exchange that followed suggested that seminar participants and the networks they connect can nurture the kinds of authentic, equitable, and sustained collaborations that are needed for transformational climate change action. 

Such transformational action, the panelists made clear, requires that we produce knowledge about climate change that reflects the experiences, understandings, and aspirations of those least able to shape either policy or research, as well as those with the institutional and social power to do so. Peter Haas (Political Science) summarized his discipline’s insights on the problematic policy architecture for effective climate change action at the international level, while Elisabeth Hamin (Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning) emphasized how power and resources shape the ability of mid-sized communities to implement effective climate change adaptation strategies. Vanessa Adel (Sociology) unpacked the way that climate knowledge itself is shaped by power and privilege – often silencing the insights and concerns of poor and working-class communities of color that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and least able to influence adaptation policy. Benjamin Warner (Geosciences) showed how social science research can reveal community narratives that challenge the engineering/interventionist mode of water and land management, reflecting alternate ways of relating to nature and of what “sustainability” means, while James Boyce (Economics) emphasized the real progress that can be made by working social science analysis of the hidden costs and benefits of policy options more tenaciously into mid-level economic and social policy.

The ensuing discussion sought out ways to nurture the kind of collaboration that can produce and translate transformational climate change knowledge – a conversation that ranged broadly and which ISSR will follow up on via email in the coming days. UMass itself can be one direct beneficiary of more concerted efforts to support, synthesize and translate the research its scholars produce into better practices for campus planning and design – and can share these experiences with other large public institutions seeking to improve their practice. You can download and explore the panelist's presentation slides here, and get ready to join the conversation! Thanks to support from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences,  International Programs Office, and Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research & Engagement, ISSR will convene a working group of faculty and doctoral students interested in future collaboration. We encourage interested scholars to contact Tim Sacco to get involved.