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How social sciences can help accelerate the climate movement

Sustainability professionals should look towards the softer sciences if they really want to create impact.

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Climate needs more humanities as well as more science. Image by Julia Vann/GreenBiz

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email ]

When business students or sustainability professionals seek to upskill themselves, they are often advised to strengthen their natural science expertise (learning about renewable energy, nature-based solutions, climate science); their reporting prowess (frameworks such as SASB, TCFD or GRI); or their quantification abilities (greenhouse gas footprint accounting or climate scenario analysis courses). 

While these skills are critical to the climate movement, several scientists have called on the social sciences to play a more central role in helping us address the climate crisis. 

The social sciences are concerned with the study of human behavior and the societies we form. As put by David Victor, these sciences "are central to understanding how people and societies comprehend and respond to environmental changes, and are pivotal in making effective policies to cut emissions and collaborate across the globe." 

The good news is that social sciences are becoming increasingly integrated in our efforts to address the climate crisis. For instance, the latest IPCC Sixth Assessment Report includes far more social science research than previous reporting cycles (including Chapter 5 of Working Group III and Chapter 18 of Working Group II). Also, environmental public policy and economics, two critically important social sciences, have become well-understood in the context of climate change, with several established educational programs for students and young professionals to access.

Here are five lesser-explored social sciences that may be of interest to business professionals looking to broaden their climate toolkits:

1. Climate change communication 

As put by Sir David Attenborough in his inaugural Instagram post in 2020, "saving the planet is now a communications challenge." According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, climate change communication is about "educating, informing, warning, persuading and mobilizing people" around climate action while taking into consideration their varying "experiences, mental and cultural models, and underlying values and world views." Climate change communication research can, therefore, be extremely helpful to professionals that need to communicate complex climate messages. Messaging can range from a real estate manager looking to garner internal support to install solar panels in all corporate locations to a marketing executive hoping to excite Texas-based consumers with a new plant-based steak launch. Climate communication literature can offer insights on how to effectively frame such climate messages, select appropriate messengers and approach different audiences. 

Resources: Climate Outreach, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Potential Energy Coalition.

2. Sociology

Defined as "the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society," sociology is thought by many sociologists to be overlooked in the context of climate change. Yet, this subject matter has much to add to the discourse including helping us unpack drivers of the climate crisis including capitalism and consumption. So how can a sustainability business professional leverage insights from sociology? In many ways but especially when dealing with resistant stakeholders (colleagues, suppliers, customers). For instance, imagine you’re an investment manager at a private equity firm looking to encourage your executive team to divest from fossil fuel companies. Sociology can help you better understand (PDF) the social constructs in which your executives operate by prompting insightful questions such as: Do your company executives attribute status to fossil fuel investments or do they hold the belief that capitalism and fossil fuel divestiture are incompatible? Proactively posing these questions can help you develop a more suitable approach when engaging your colleagues. 

Resources: Living in Denial, The Oxford Handbook on Climate Change and Society and Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology.

3. Behavioral science

When the outgoing director of the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) was recently asked what the NIH could have done differently in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, he said: "Maybe we underinvested in behavioral research." A lead behavioral science adviser at the World Resources Institute agrees and argues that "we should not make the same mistake in the climate crisis."

Applied to the climate crisis, it can help us understand how people process, respond to and share information to identify the drivers that transform awareness to action.

Behavioral science is the scientific study of human behavior. Applied to the climate crisis, it can help us understand how people process, respond to and share information to identify the drivers that transform awareness to action. For sustainability professionals, this knowledge can be especially helpful in delivering climate programs by putting behavior change levers into effect including social norms (showing people that climate-friendly behaviors are common), self-efficacy (demonstrating to people that their actions can make a difference), collective efficacy (helping people see they are part of a larger group that collectively can make a difference) and more. 

These science-based levers can be used in all sorts of ways including increasing the likelihood of a new "zero waste" policy being executed in offices globally or gaining budget approval from the finance department to electrify the corporate fleet. 

Resources: Behavioural Insights Team and Rare’s Center for the Behavior and Environment.

4. Climate psychology

Globally, 72 percent of people are worried about being personally harmed by the impacts of climate change, with Google searches for “climate anxiety" soaring 565 percent between October 2020 and October 2021. As a sustainability professional engaging colleagues on the climate issue, it is important to be aware of the "emotional dominos that can follow" such engagement as well as the resources that you can share with newly alert colleagues requiring support. As put by Susanne Moser, "burnt-out people aren’t equipped to serve a burning planet," which is why it is so critical for people to seek support if they are experiencing climate anxiety. The good news is that several resources, developed by psychology experts, can be used in workplaces to help people cope with climate emotions. 

Resources: All We Can Save Circles, Climate aware therapist directories, Gen Dread newsletter and the Good Grief Network.

5. Environmental justice

Environmental justice refers to the right to a safe and healthy environment for everyone, regardless of race, income, gender, age, national origin, ability or other considerations, as well as a place at decision-making tables. We have a great deal of work to do in this area. As put by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the poor and vulnerable, those who have contributed the least to global climate change, are the first to suffer and the worst hit. As climate change worsens, each climate-related disaster pushes those most at risk deeper into poverty or permanent displacement. In the U.S., BIPOC are 75 percent more likely to live near toxic facilities, and receive the least investment in clean energy and resilient infrastructure that protects against climate impacts. 

Sustainability professionals can play a critical role in helping address these injustices. One of the best ways to do that is to bring diverse voices into the conversation. As put by Mustafa Ali, senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization with the Hip Hop Caucus, "If we truly want to win on climate and the environment, that means all voices must help drive the process." Sustainability professionals can also further educate themselves on the topic by consulting this list of educational resources curated by Robert Bullard, regarded by many as the father of environmental justice.

Resources: Intersectional Environmentalist, Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Climate Justice Alliance.

If you’re a student or business professional looking to strengthen your sustainability toolkit, I hope you consider further exploring these social science resources, alongside strengthening your natural science, reporting and quantification abilities.

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