Climate science ‘needs greater social science input’

Climate change poses specific challenges for mountain communities Copyright: Flickr/Peter576

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[KATHMANDU] Climate researchers pay too little attention to social sciences, delegates at the International Conference of Mountain Countries on Climate Change have heard.

The meeting in Nepal (5–6 April) was attended by around 30 country representatives, and concluded with a ‘Kathmandu Call for Action’, with a view to highlighting the specific needs of mountain countries at international negotiations, including the forthcoming Rio+20 Summit in June.

"More interaction between the natural and social sciences is necessary," said Dirk Hoffmann, executive director of the Bolivian Mountain Institute, adding that the lack of effective dialogue between science and social policy is hampering the implementation of adaptation measures.

Hoffmann gave an example of agricultural engineers studying the effects of heat stress and reduced water supply on plant growth, who failed to incorporate the views of farmers’ perceptions of climate change and their collective or individual attempts to adapt.

He also noted that "climate is almost absent [from discussions] in the social sciences", and urged sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and historians to participate in climate change science discussions, and provide information on how past and present societies have reacted to climate variations, and how political decision-making processes can motivate people to act.

"The climate isn’t the only thing changing," said Michael Glantz, director of the Consortium of Capacity Building at the University of Colorado, noting that social behaviours also have a direct impact on the climate and need to be studied.

His comment was echoed by Masayoshi Nakawo, executive director of the National Institutes for the Humanities, in Japan, who studies the relationship between natural environments and human behaviour.

"They are linked in a very complex way," Nakawo said, noting that some social problems typically blamed on climate change, such as water shortages, can have predominantly social causes.

His research in China found that reforestation policies had increased, rather than decreased, the demand for water. The measures had restricted access to traditional sheep pastures in mountain regions, forcing nomadic pastoral communities to take up lowland farming, increasing the demand for water.

Social scientists are increasingly becoming involved in climate change research, according to Parul Rishi, a behavioural psychologist at the National Institute of Technical Teachers’ Training & Research in Bhopal, India.

"Social scientists are involved in studies relating to people’s attitudes towards changing climate, and climate change perceptions of people living in different geographical zones, and the likely impact of climate change on livelihoods, particularly in marginalised classes," she told SciDev.Net.

Rishi, who is studying psychological perspectives of climate stresses in coastal India, said areas social scientists still need to engage with include human behaviours in cold arid zones, and at the level of international policy.