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Social Science Perspectives on Climate Change workshop

The Social Science Perspectives on Climate Change workshop was held in Washington, DC in March 2017. The workshop was organized by the Social Science Coordinating Committee (SSCC) of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), in cooperation with the American Anthropological Association, the American Association of Geographers, the American Sociological Association, and the Society for American Archaeology. The workshop had three aims:

  • Demonstrate how the social sciences can add important methods, perspectives, and data to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts;

  • Enhance collaboration between academic and federal social scientists, and between natural and social scientists; and

  • Develop products that support the Fourth National Climate Assessment, USGCRP’s Interagency Working Groups, and federal agencies.  

This workshop brought together about 30 academic social scientists from archaeology, cultural anthropology, human geography, and sociology, with some 60 federal staff involved in climate change-related activities. Each of these disciplines has developed a large body of research on the human dimensions of climate change. The workshop served to highlight examples of this work. 

The SSCC, together with the four social science associations, selected three themes for the workshop:

  • Describing key factors shaping differences in social vulnerability to climate change;

  • Providing social science perspectives on drivers of and responses to global climate change; and

  • Identifying innovative tools, methods, and analyses to clarify the interactions of human and natural systems under climate change.

The four associations recruited scholars to serve with SSCC members on three interdisciplinary writing teams, which prepared preliminary white papers for the March 2017 workshop. There the writing groups met with federal participants, who offered reactions and ideas for improving the white papers. The papers have been extensively revised since the workshop. The three white papers, which are intended for an agency/practitioner audience, are posted below; the papers have also been revised for peer-reviewed publications (see links below).

Read the workshop report.

These white papers and the subsequent peer-reviewed journal publications are the products of a workshop hosted in part by the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Social Science Coordinating Committee. They were developed by multidisciplinary teams comprising scientists and researchers from federal agencies and academia. These papers and their conclusions do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of the federal government, the Social Science Coordinating Committee, or the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Social Vulnerability: Social Science Perspectives on Climate Change, Part 1

Download white paper

Suggested citation: D. Hardy, H. Lazrus, M. Mendez, B. Orlove, I. Rivera-Collazo, J. T. Roberts, M. Rockman, K. Thomas, B. P. Warner, R. Winthrop. (2018). Social vulnerability: Social science perspectives on climate change, part 1. Washington, DC: USGCRP Social Science Coordinating Committee.

Abstract: Recent extreme weather events in the United States exemplify the uneven impacts of climate change on populations, even within relatively small geographic regions. Differential human vulnerability to environmental hazards results from a range of social, economic, historical, and political factors, all of which operate at multiple scales. While adaptation to climate change has been the dominant focus of policy and research agendas, it is essential to ask as well why some communities are disproportionately exposed to and affected by climate threats. The cases and analysis presented here consider four key themes—resource access, culture, governance, and information—and identify actionable steps that will help reduce vulnerability. Social scientific approaches to human vulnerability draw vital attention to the root causes of climate change threats and the reasons that people are forced to adapt to such threats. Because vulnerability is a multidimensional process rather than an unchanging state, a dynamic social approach to vulnerability is most likely to improve mitigation and adaptation planning efforts. 

The paper has been revised for journal publication:

Thomas K. et al. (2019). Explaining differential vulnerability to climate change. A social science review. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 10(2): e565, 2019.

Drivers and Responses: Social Science Perspectives on Climate Change, Part 2

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Suggested citation: S. Fiske, K. Hubacek, A. Jorgenson, J. Li, T. McGovern, T. Rick, J. Schor, W. Solecki, R. York, A. Zycherman. (2018). Drivers and responses: Social science perspectives on climate change, part 2. Washington, DC: USGCRP Social Science Coordinating Committee.

Abstract: This paper assesses research from cultural anthropology, archaeology, geography, and sociology to define social science concepts relevant to climate change drivers and the factors that influence the effectiveness of mitigation and adaptation strategies. The paper presents significant ways in which these four social science disciplines—often underrepresented in governmental and inter-governmental assessments of climate change—address demography, economy, politics, social stratification and inequality, technology, infrastructure, and land use as key factors driving climate change. The paper details how these factors interact dynamically over space and time. Governance structures, social and institutional contexts, past decisions, existing infrastructure, consumption, and production are key elements in mitigation and adaptation processes; and social, political, technological, and economic factors often produce unintended, unanticipated consequences. Overall, these four social science disciplines highlight multi-tiered, multi-centric approaches and governance structures that encourage trust, agency, and cultural and historical relevance.

This paper has been revised for journal publication:

Jorgenson A. et al. (2018). Social science perspectives on drivers of and responses to global climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 10(1):e554, 2018.


Innovative Tools, Methods, and Analysis: Social Science Perspectives on Climate Change, Part 3

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Suggested citation: P. F. Biehl, S. Crate, M. Gardezi, L. Hamilton, S.L. Harlan, C. Hritz, B. Hubbell, T. A. Kohler, N. Peterson, J. Silva, 2018. Innovative tools, methods, and analysis: Social science perspectives on climate change, part 3. Washington, DC: USGCRP Social Science Coordinating Committee.

Abstract: Humans both contribute to and are impacted by climate change. Understanding the interactions between human societies and climate has long been a major goal of fundamental and applied socio-ecological research in archaeology, geography, sociology, and cultural anthropology; this research employs a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative approaches and datasets. To address the dynamic interactions within and between disciplinary approaches, this paper synthesizes recently developed innovative tools, methods, and analyses. Advances in geospatial tools, including remote-sensing technologies, and approaches to modeling, including agent-based modeling, take advantage of and yield ever-larger databases. Innovations that take advantage of “Big Data” are changing the spatial and temporal scope of inquiry. Databases of cellphone-call data, for example, allow near-real time monitoring of human responses to disasters. Survey data can be combined with climate and weather records or environmental characteristics to understand how environmental factors interact with public perceptions, behaviors, and attitudes towards policies. Information from interviews and long-term participant observation helps researchers understand the impacts of climate change not only on people’s beliefs and desires but also on other domains of their lives, such as culture, health, and family. To find patterns of human/environment interactions in more distant times, archaeologists employ a large suite of temporally precise proxies for climate change in conjunction with an improving record of human impacts on the environment and responses to climate change. 

We begin the paper by discussing the importance of a synthesis framework and the contributions of social science, especially archaeology, geography, sociology, and cultural anthropology, to understanding climate change, highlighting commonalities and differences of those four social sciences. We argue that a better understanding of social science tools, methods, and analyses will enhance climate-change research and provide accessible synthesis products that can inform decision making and resource management. We then discuss how each discipline rigorously collects and analyzes quantitative and qualitative data, including the pertinent statistical and computational tools. In the next section, we discuss methods for synthesizing information and creating narratives that support actionable science that federal agencies, especially the U.S. Global Change Research Program, can use. We conclude by identifying key insights and future directions that will enhance the translation of social science research into actionable applications.