Climate change is a people problem

The Earth is warming. It’s because of humans, and it will negatively affect nearly every area of human life. The scientific consensus is robust and clear: we don’t need more research to conclude that climate change is happening because of human activities, is already harming our planet and people, and will have even more catastrophic consequences if it’s not curbed.

It might seem logical, then, that we, individually and collectively, would make rapid changes to mitigate climate change. We’d pass policies that ensure we stop relying on fossil fuels, we’d invest in technologies that improve our ability to stop climate change and adapt when necessary, and we’d adopt more sustainable lifestyles, changing how we travel, shop, and eat. But these things aren’t happening with nearly the speed they need to, and history shows that this inaction is not new.

This is because climate change is a people problem. Both in considering the causes of climate change and the things that need to happen to stop it, people are front and center. People make decisions about policies, about how to spend money, and about how to live their lives.

This means that in order to address climate change, we need to start with an understanding of people. Although we will absolutely benefit from more work that advances our understanding of climate change itself and how we can mitigate it, we also need to drastically increase our prioritization of the social sciences in addressing climate change and all the challenges it brings.

Social scientists can help us understand the human dimensions of climate change, an understanding that is crucial for making sufficient progress in addressing it. The social sciences — fields like psychology, sociology, economics, geography, political science, history, and anthropology — equip us with ways to study and understand how people think about climate change and how they come to develop their beliefs; how our cultures and communities affect our beliefs and actions; what makes for a successful social movement; and how climate change will affect our political, food, and economic systems. The social sciences inform our understandings from the most specific levels (like how individuals behave in different circumstances) to the broadest (such as a consideration of human evolution across the planet over thousands of years).

We need to remember that people play the leading role in our planet’s climate change saga, and, accordingly, to prioritize the social sciences in everything we do to address climate change.

More Reading
If you’re interested in learning more about the role that the social sciences can (and should!) play in addressing climate change, here are just a few articles and organizations that I’ve found helpful and inspiring:

  • Rare: A nonprofit organization. From their website: “Rare is a global leader in using behavior change to achieve long-lasting conservation results.”
  • Climate Central: an organization that researches climate change and reports on it to the public. They’re deliberate about basing their communications in social science research to determine the best ways to get their messages to the public.
  • Humans are not just the problem; they are the solution to climate change, an article by Prof. Karen O’Brien, which discusses different levels, from individual behaviors to collective worldviews, that affect how people respond to climate change.
  • Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation by Nathan J. Bennet et al., an article about the importance of elevating the social sciences in order to improve conservation policy and practices.

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