Fighting for the social sciences


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Research from Brazil has shown that drought predictions can be used to justify the withdrawal of credit and seeds to farmers.

By Dr Luke Parry

SEATTLE, United States (23 May, 2011)_Social science is treated as the poor cousin by climate scientists, according to Dr Diana Liverman, a plenary speaker at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers held in April. Dr Liverman demonstrated how natural scientists, who receive most of the funding for climate science, tend to harbour a series of incorrect assumptions about human behaviour and societies.

Physical scientists assume that the principal threat to food security from climate change is due to effects on agricultural yields. Research has been focussed on developing drought-tolerant crops for example, instead of examining how climate change affects food prices and politics. This ignores other factors that will determine availability and access to food. Recent instability in food prices (and consequent food riots in developing nations) has been driven not just by climate or competition from biofuels, but also due to changes in energy costs, population growth, dietary changes and financial speculation, says Liverman.

Dr Liverman argued that climate modellers and other physical scientists are naive when they ‘throw their research over the fence’ and assume that data such as climatic forecasts will benefit society at large. Research from Brazil has shown that drought forecasts can exacerbate poverty because drought predictions are used to justify the withdrawal of credit and seeds to farmers.

The drivers and consequences of environmental change are not pre-determined, despite widespread views to the contrary in the natural science community.  We are wrong to assume that population size is the main determinant of deforestation, for example, when a study by Erica Lambim (Stanford University) clearly shows that population is generally less important that economic, technological and political factors. In addition, reducing population growth in developing countries will not be achieved merely by supplying contraceptives. Huge declines in fertility rates are largely due to woman’s choices and this rests on improving the status of women through literacy and employment opportunities.

She suggests that the environmental agenda can be high jacked by commercial interests when we assume that public systems of resource management (and tragedies of the commons) are doomed to failure. She warns that ecologists have made dangerous assumptions with a private capital focus for Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES). Why not prioritize reducing emissions instead of hoping that a tax-and-trade approach will work? Oliver Coomes (McGill University) has shown that carbon prices will probably be woefully insufficient to reduce deforestation, for example.

Dr Liverman also argues that the scientific community has been wrong to assume that changing attitudes to the environment will produce behavioural change. Climate scientists should engage more with psychology and explore how deeply held values, fears and routines constrain our behaviours more than our media-influenced attitudes.

The audience were left in no doubt that social science is both rigorous and important in understanding the causes and consequences of climatic change.  Dr Liverman concluded that the vast contribution social scientists can make to scientific and political debates on climate change can only be fully realized once biases in funding (currently massively in favour of the physical sciences) are corrected.

Luke is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Lancaster University and has also worked with CIFOR since a Forest Livelihoods Fellowship in 2005. He has a decade of experience in tropical forests, including Borneo, East Africa and Amazonia. His current research includes the human dimensions of Amazonian wildfires, the welfare and environmental consequences of rural-urban migration and environmental-economic tradeoffs in the Brazilian Amazon. Luke’s previous research was focussed on hunting in tropical landscape mosaics. Luke holds a Ph.D in Environmental Sciences from the University of East Anglia.

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