Today, the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program1The Anxieties of Democracy program receives generous support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. is proud to publish a series of three reports that set the stage for a political science research agenda on climate change. We publish these reports at a time when steadily accumulating evidence from the natural sciences has established that climate change is a real and dangerous phenomenon that must be addressed. While climate change research is traditionally associated with the natural sciences, our reports are motivated by the belief that the social sciences should join the fray by pursuing more climate change-specific research.
Evidence regarding the existence of climate change is widespread, recognizable, and gives cause for anxiety. The year 2017 has nearly broken the record for billion-dollar climate disasters, and for two consecutive years the world has experienced its hottest July on record. Given its links to disasters, rising temperatures, and the spread of disease, climate change is a serious threat to global health. And across the globe, members of the public fear that climate change is a leading threat to national security. Against this backdrop, the reports published today argue that the social sciences, in general, and political science, in particular, have a critical role to play in helping societies devise, adopt, and implement successful mitigation and adaptation policies.“While these reports primarily summarize and encourage research in political science, we hope they will also be useful to social scientists from other disciplines, as well as others working on these questions.”
These reports are the output of the Anxieties of Democracy working group on climate change under the leadership of Robert O. Keohane and Nancy Rosenblum. The working group has convened on several occasions to discuss key issues in climate change policy and politics, to establish the state of the field in climate change-oriented political science, and to identify promising avenues for intervention. While these reports primarily summarize and encourage research in political science, we hope they will also be useful to social scientists from other disciplines, as well as others working on these questions.
The reports outline an agenda on climate change research for social scientists in three areas: understanding “public demand” for climate change policy; designing and evaluating climate policy strategies; and examining the normative assumptions involved in decision-making about climate change. Together, the reports give a broad overview of the state of political science research on climate change. We hope the reports will be useful to a range of audiences, including graduate students seeking inspiration, experienced scholars looking to familiarize themselves with climate change literature, educators putting together courses on the politics of climate change, policymakers and political organizers seeking expertise, and concerned citizens looking to understand the challenges ahead.
The first report asks why, even though public support for climate change policies is common, sustained mobilization in favor of implementing such policies is not. The authors, David Konisky, Doug McAdam, and Johannes Urpelainen argue that not enough social science has been dedicated to answering this question. They point to existing work, which is often siloed in studies of public opinion, grassroots mobilization, and political institutions, and call on researchers to implement an integrative perspective across these three areas. They also encourage research on the effectiveness of public pressure in favor of climate action in different countries and across levels of government.
The second report tackles the challenge of proposing and evaluating climate policy strategies. Taking a bird’s-eye view of the policymaking process, Scott Barrett, Jessica Green, Robert O. Keohane, and Michael Oppenheimer ask what broad strategies can be designed to increase the adoption of specific, successful climate policy initiatives. They propose seven criteria for evaluation, and, in light of these criteria, discuss five potential strategies ranging from “pledge and review” to direct enforcement. While they focus primarily on mitigation policies (intended to reduce carbon emissions), they also advocate paying attention to other types of climate policy, such as adaptation and solar radiation management.
The third report, by Melissa Lane and Nancy Rosenblum, lays out an agenda for political theory and climate change. The report encourages scholars who take a theoretical or normative approach to ask what unexplored assumptions get in the way of addressing the problems posed by climate change. The authors propose three areas in which such assumptions may be found: the role of scientific expertise in democratic decision-making (including tensions between scientific and political authority), the role of fear in democratic deliberation, and the ethical and distributive questions that will arise with adaptation to climate change.“Collectively, they also highlight the general importance of studying climate change from a social science perspective.”
Together, the reports impart a sense of urgency: They all argue that there is not enough political science research on climate change, and that more is needed as soon as possible. Collectively, they also highlight the general importance of studying climate change from a social science perspective. It goes without saying that the natural sciences, technology, and engineering are indispensable parts of the toolkit to fight climate change. But it is only through research on social and political processes that we can understand how citizens and institutions can make the decisions necessary to combat climate change.