The likely impacts of environmental changes in general, and of climate change in particular, have rapidly penetrated and shaped contemporary public debates, increasing public attention on the problems of adapting to and eventually mitigating these impacts. Recently, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Research Council (NRC), and the Stern Review have systematically appraised the state of climate change research, and have called for a more robust engagement of the social sciences to address the social and human dimensions of environmental problems. This, in turn, has led the scientific community and policy practitioners to undertake a number of “stock-taking” projects (i.e. the World Bank program on Exploring the Social Dimensions of Climate Change) seeking to map and synthesize the history of past and existing ad hoc environmental research endeavors by social scientists, in the hope that reflecting upon this compounded knowledge will spur more necessary social science research.

“In the arena of environmental change, the Council initiated one of the first systematic efforts of the social sciences to address environmental change in its program, Research on Global Environmental Change (GEC).”

These developments are of particular interest to the Social Science Research Council, not least because the organization has, since 1923, reached across disciplinary and institutional boundaries in strengthening research capacity, especially around issues of urgent public concern. In the arena of environmental change, the Council initiated one of the first systematic efforts of the social sciences to address environmental change in its program, Research on Global Environmental Change (GEC). The GEC ran from 1989 to 1998, and was supported by a wide variety of funders, including the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

In 1989, the SSRC responded to at least 15 years of sustained research by natural scientists on environmental change, and at least 10 years of periodic assessments by the United Nations. At the time of the GEC’s founding, the issue of environmental change dwelled only on the margins of public debates. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) organized in 1979 the first “World Climate Conference,” expressing concern over regional and global changes of climate caused by human activity. In 1985, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the WMO, and the International Council of Scientific Union (ICSU) convened a conference to assess the impact of greenhouse gasses on climate variability, and reached a consensus that a rise in global mean temperature would occur in the 21st century. But it was not until 1987 that the World Meteorological Organization called for research on how increased greenhouse gases would impact socioeconomic systems, as well as the earth’s climate. Conceived at the same time as the establishment of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by UNEP and the WMO in 1988, the GEC emerged at a pivotal moment in the global environmental debate, seeking to foster an emerging, interdisciplinary research field on the human dimensions of global environmental change.

In 1988, William C. Clark, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and Robert W. Kates (a member of the Council’s board of directors and involved with the World Hunger Program at Brown University) secured funding, with the help of SSRC Program Director Richard C. Rockwell for this collaborative program. Early support came from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and National Science Foundation. Programming began in 1989 under the leadership of the Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change, comprised of 10 leading environmental scholars. (Nearly 20 researchers served on the committee at different times until the completion of the program in 1998.) The interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scholarship represented by these scientists was of the highest quality. Thomas C. Schelling, for example, was a founding committee member who became one of two 2005 Nobel Prize Laureates in Economics. Edith Brown Weiss, at Georgetown University Law School, chaired the Committee from 1989 till 1994, and Steven E. Sanderson, formerly dean of Emory College, currently president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, succeeded her as chair till 1998. Social and natural scientists from a wide range of disciplines—anthropology, political science, law, sociology, ecology, geography, economics, history, demography, mechanical engineering, plasma physics, applied physics, information science, plant, soil and environmental sciences, and forest resources—made up the GEC committee.

“The GEC committee members and staff had a direct impact on environmental scholarship of the past two decades.”

The committee invited colleagues and younger scholars to collaborate on events and publications produced in working groups, each chaired by a GEC committee member. The working groups took up research questions that framed GEC’s program areas: Land-Use/Cover Changes; National Implementation of International Accords; Environmentalism and the Poor; Social Learning in the Management of Global Environmental Risks; and Landed Property Rights. With over 20 workshops and nearly 40 publications, the GEC committee members and staff had a direct impact on environmental scholarship of the past two decades.

In the early years of the GEC, working groups supported several synthetic pieces aimed at building core knowledge for the new field of human dimensions of global environmental change. The most acclaimed of these, The Earth as Transformed by Human Action: Global and Regional Changes in the Biosphere over the Past 300 Years (Cambridge University Press, 1993) was edited by Billie Lee Turner II, William C. Clark, Robert W. Kates, and John F. Richards and went on to serve the wider scientific community as a reference and resource on global changes. The volume sought to establish a theoretical framework for assessing in detail the environmental changes wrought by modern societies in the past three centuries.

Working groups continued to nurture scholarship on a range of subjects, from adaptation to environmental change to the study of population and the environment. Among these works were two important volumes coming out of the Social Learning working group, Learning to Manage Global Environmental Risks (MIT, 2001). The first volume maps adaptations to climate change, ozone depletion, and acid rain in a comparative history of ten individual country studies, while the second provides an analysis of environmental management functions. John F. Richards (1938–2007), chair of the Landed Property Rights working group and professor of history at Duke University, also examined the complex relations among markets, states, and communities in his work, Land, Property, and the Environment (ICS, 2002). The Environmentalism and the Poor working group collaborated with the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) to bring the experiences and perspectives of poor Third World women to the center of the debate about the relationship between population and environment in the edited volume, Population and Environment: Rethinking the Debate (Westview, 1994).

In its several programs touching on the environment, the SSRC has also provided support for younger scholars working in the field. SSRC fellowship and grant programs provided funding to over 60 innovative projects especially from younger researchers (graduate students and post-docs) whose scholarship has shaped the ways in which a new generation has come to understand the relations between society and the environment.

The GEC program’s prolific activities and its research agenda helped to focus attention on the social and human dimensions of environmental change. For example, the Land Use/Cover Changes and the Landed Property Rights working groups, chaired by Billie Lee Turner II and John F. Richards, developed a global land use/cover model, a research tool to enable social and natural scientists to analyze and project global land use/cover changes over periods from decades to centuries. Their efforts led the International Geosphere/Biosphere Program of the International Council of Scientific Union to integrate land use/cover as a core project area in 1993. The GEC successfully nurtured similar collaborative relationships with the Smithsonian Institution and the African Academy of Sciences, among others.

GEC collaborations lasted long beyond the completion of the program, and continue to contribute to the current momentum drawing the social sciences into environmental research. Several GEC committee members went on to lead environmental studies programs and centers at their own institutions. Diana Liverman, a founding committee member, is currently director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University. The program aimed to promote mutual learning between social scientists and natural scientists. Exemplary in this way is Stephen H. Schneider, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, and Committee Member from 1989–1996, who is director of the interdisciplinary Center for Environmental Science and Policy.

After the completion of the GEC program in 1998, committee members continued to promote social science contributions to environmental problems. Harold K. Jacobson (1929–2001), professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan, considered the human dimensions of climate change as a convening lead author of the 1994–1996 second scientific assessment of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (This was the first IPCC report to consider at length the social and economic dimensions of adaptation to climate change.) Roger Kasperson, research professor of geography at Clark University, is currently a member of the Human Dimensions of Global Change Committee of the NRC Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), which recently recommended that the CCSP do a better job of promoting social science research about climate change. Committee members continue to collaborate with each other and to train numerous young scholars, bringing them into collaborative environmental projects and publications.

A variety of meetings and events organized by the GEC working groups nurtured these lasting relationships. In collaboration with the Human Dimensions Program of the International Social Science Council, the Duke University School of the Environment, and the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network, the GEC sponsored and helped organize the First Open Meeting on the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Community—in one sense, bringing to fruition the mission to build a new interdisciplinary field. Held at Duke University, the event brought nearly 300 US and international scholars together in six plenary sessions and over 25 small-group sessions. Given the relative novelty of the human dimensions of global environmental change as a field, the meeting became an important and ambitious event for an international community of scholars to think collectively about the social dimensions of environmental changes.

“The program maintained the SSRC’s commitment to the production of context-specific knowledge about pressing public issues.”

It is not surprising, then, that the GEC program focused on environmental changes that are global (or at least continental) in scale, anticipating the shift of attention within the academic community away from area studies to global and globalization studies in the late 1990s. Even so, the program maintained the SSRC’s commitment to the production of context-specific knowledge about pressing public issues. For example, in addition to workshops, seminars, and conferences, the Social Learning working group held regional research summer training institutes to explore what kinds of research questions about adaptation required regional analysis. The SSRC Global Environmental Change program paved the way for global contemporary environmental projects framed by regional, transregional, and inter-area perspectives.


Eda Pepi is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Stanford University. Her research interests include gender and kinship; ethnicity, race, and indigeneity; and citizenship, sovereignty, and the state in the Middle East and North Africa. Pepi’s current project, “Marital States: Ethnicity and Gendered Citizenship in Jordan,” theorizes the relationship between gender and politics by investigating migration, citizenship, and statelessness. She examines ethnographically how the Jordanian state polices its borders by regulating the marital and reproductive choices of Jordanian women and migrant men. Pepi has come to these research interests having earned her BA at Harvard University and after working as program assistant at the Social Science Research Council’s Migration Program.

Peter Sahlins currently is a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests are situated in early modern and nineteenth-century France; social, legal, and cultural history; and the history of animal-human relations. He is also the director of Interdisciplinary Studies Field Major and he worked as director of academic affairs at the SSRC from 2006 to 2008. He has served widely on university and professional committees, and was executive director of the France-Berkeley Fund (1994–2002) and founding director of the University of California’s Paris Study Center and its constituent international programs (2002–2005).

This essay originally appeared in Items & Issues Vol. 6, No. 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2007-2008. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on February 22, 2017