Climate Change and Public Policy: The Hard (Social) Sciences of Influence, Public Policy and Global Governance

The need for a greater emphasis on multidisciplinary research in the area of climate change was made even more evident by a poll discussed in The Times, entitled ‘Widespread scepticism on climate change undermines Copenhagen summit‘. The article leads with the point that ‘[o]nly a quarter of people believe that climate change is the most serious problem that the world faces’. Furthermore, the poll conducted in Britain over the previous weekend (7-8 November), found that ‘only two in five people in Britain accept as an established fact that global warming is largely man-made.’

Putting to the side all of the issues that might be raised about the reliability and validity of any weekend poll of Britains, from sampling to question wording, it struck me as a tremendous example of a very common feature of research on climate change — its focus on the hard sciences, from climate forecasting to earth sciences, and the relative neglect of the social sciences. Some of the biggest questions that the article raises are: Why do people hold these beliefs? Why are the findings of scientists not well understood or accepted by more of the public? Why are policy initiatives so difficult to implement nationally and globally? Why does the press focus on the 2 in 5 who do not accept a fact, versus the 3 in 5 that do? These are all basic questions of the social and political sciences, not the so-called hard sciences. Yet, the funding of research on climate change is hugely skewed toward the sciences, as compared with the social sciences.

Even when these questions are asked or foregrounded, leaders look to the hard scientists to answer them. Environmental scientists sign a petition and wonder why it is not directly translated into policy, leading social scientists to wonder if they have a clue about how policy is shaped, how opinions are formed, how influence works in politics and public policy. Do people realize that entire fields are devoted to the study of influence, persuasion, communication, the politics of policy-making and policy implementation, and so on. These ‘soft’ sciences are needed to address the hardest questions about whether governments around the world will be able to respond to the threats of climate change. Part of the success of Al Gore’s work on climate change has been his ability to communicate with the public, but even former Vice President Gore focused on the science of climate change rather than the politics of climate change policy. Hopefully, he and others are doing much more behind the scenes to shape policy and practice, including public opinion, by employing what we know from the social sciences.

Until governments place priority on the social sciences in addressing some of the hard questions about influence and policy related to climate change, we cannot expect to make real progress. The common refrain of the scientist is that we know what should be done, but the policies are not being implemented. ‘Why are our pronouncements not automatically reflected in policy?’ Well, the study of the politics of public policy has a long history, and much to offer, but remains largely neglected by the climate change community that seems to adopt this overly rational view that scientific findings are immediately translated into law and policy. Where is Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli when we need him?

Comments are most welcome