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Scientists cultivate socially informed climate resilience efforts

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Housing inequality and workforce development. Urban heat islands. Links between water pollution and farming. Indigenous politics and natural resource management. Though seemingly disparate, these subjects are connected: they all concern climate change impacts.  

The natural and physical sciences have dominated research to date in global climate work: coastal impacts, weather pattern shifts, crop failures, species range shift.  

Now, research originating from the social sciences—sociology, psychology, anthropology, human ecology, archaeology, geography, political science, and more—is emerging as equally important to conversations on climate change. In 2023, when the 5th National Climate Assessment is published, the document that informs federal policy on climate change will include for the first time a chapter devoted to scientific literature in the social sciences. 

The chapter is the result of years of advocacy and labor by a broad group of social science advocates which includes nearly a dozen alumni STPF fellows, as well as calls by the National Academies and climate research community to include more social science research in climate science. Social scientists have argued that as part of physical and environmental systems, climate change is deeply influenced by humans and their societies. This research should be represented in policy guidance as well.   

“It’s become clear that there is a human cost to climate change,” said Ariela Zycherman (2015-17 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Science Foundation, NSF), now an anthropologist at NOAA, where her work looks at how community needs influence policies, and how those policies impact their ability to adapt to climate impacts. “It brings into question: who is impacted and how does that happen? It’s not by chance, but by design—related to social structures that are there, and past investments in infrastructure. Words like resilience, vulnerability, risk: those allow the social sciences to show systemic issues that are at hand.”  

Libby Larson (2012-14 Executive Branch Fellow at NASA) added that it’s become clear that merely adding more and more data from the natural and physical sciences is not enough to address climate change impacts.  

“There has been a strong perspective from natural and physical scientists that if we knew enough about the [climate] system and could communicate what we knew about that system, then policy leaders could then fix it,” Larson said. “Natural and physical scientists have realized a fundamental understanding of the way the climate is changing needs to involve many social science perspectives.” 

Zycherman and Larson are two of nearly a dozen alumni STPF fellows who have been involved in the integration of social sciences in federal climate change, primarily through the National Coordinating Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP), the interagency coordinating body for federal climate change research and the National Climate Assessment.  

The involvement of STPF fellows in the effort is broad and long-running. Beginning in 2014, a task force led by EPA scientist and former deputy director of the GCRP, Chris Weaver (2005-07 fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA), sought to raise the profile of the importance of integration of social science research in climate change research, activities and policymaking. That group evolved into the Social Sciences Coordinating Committee, which provides recommendations on social science integration in GCRP activities and across all chapters of the NCA. STPF alumni on the committee have included Zycherman, Larson, Melissa Kenney (2010-12 fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Leah Nichols (2011-12 fellow at NSF) and Emily Eisenhauer (2015-17 fellow at EPA).  

Other STPF alumni who have been involved include Keely Maxwell (2012-14 fellow at EPA), Cristina Bradatan (2013-14 fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development) and Matthew Jurjonas (2021-22 fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS) Further efforts in equity and environmental justice of the committee have brought on Emily Brooks (2018-19 fellow at the National Park Service and 2019-20 USGS) and Brianna Farber (2019-21 fellow at the Department of Energy).  

“One of the arguments we’ve made for why the social sciences deserve a place in the [NCA] is that we contribute research in adaptation and mitigation,” Eisenhauer said. “We study how those processes work, and what might be working well to address the climate impacts that the nation is facing.” 

The inclusion of social science elements in a national climate change assessment also provides inclusive, nuanced language about the interactions between human and climate systems. While seemingly simple, words hold power.  

“It may seem like a small intervention, but one social science contribution is guidance on equity and justice language, and how to speak about Indigenous peoples and tribes,” Farber said. “There are political consequences for how we talk about things, and in the words we use.”  

A shift from using terms such as “disadvantaged communities” to “frontline community” completely transforms the framing or thinking about community-level priorities, impacts, and planning, for example. Social scientists can aid other scientists and policymakers in understanding the impacts of choosing one term over another, Farber added. 

The inclusion of social science in the document can have other important on-the-ground impacts for local communities, educators and other researchers.  

“Each chapter in itself is short, but people have reported to the GCRP that something concise that lays out what the issues are have been especially powerful as a reference,” Larson said, referring to previous National Climate Assessment releases.  

Eisenhauer observed that this first formal integration of social sciences into a high-profile federal climate change report is reflective of the increase in social justice movements across American society and abroad. Those who are disproportionately affected by climate impacts demand action on policy as well as solutions. Social scientists serve as an important conduit for understanding the interplay of impacts, demands and action for human as well as ecological well-being in the face of climate change, Eisenhauer added.  

“One of the challenges for social scientists is to show why and how social science research is impactful, and to articulate how an understanding of the complexity of politics, social structures and inequality are really important for actually taking action,” Zycherman said. The NCA chapter, she added, “increases support for allowing us that space to understand – it’s an important first step in doing that work.” 


Michelle Donahue

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