Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

The goal of this chapter is to provide perspectives of social science research and analysis that go beyond much of available carbon science work that is sector based and economically minded—research that as yet is not sufficiently reflected in carbon cycle studies. The research discussed in this chapter thus is not intended to be a comprehensive, integrated picture of the society-carbon interaction that produces carbon emissions. Rather, the framing of the research discussed here begins with people and their social structures. This framing is different from, but complementary to, that used in the research discussed in most other chapters in the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR2; see Box 6.1, Two Framings of Research Relevant to the Carbon Cycle).

The framing in most of SOCCR2 begins with a description of the carbon cycle in spatial and quantitative terms, proceeds to calculations of carbon emissions to the atmosphere and their sectoral sources, and then analyzes human activities that contribute to the carbon emissions in those sectors and the impacts that increasing emissions have on physical and social systems. This framing has been used in physical science research and extended to much energy and economics research, areas not covered in this chapter.

Knowledge gained through this research framing can identify opportunities for carbon management that target the largest emissions categories (e.g., fossil fuel–based energy and transportation, urban settings, and agriculture; see Ch. 3: Energy Systems; Ch. 4: Understanding Urban Carbon Fluxes; and Ch. 5: Agriculture). However, barriers to such technically oriented opportunities exist in ways of life and social or governance structures at local to global levels.

This chapter, in contrast, discusses research conducted using a framing that begins with an analysis of social conditions and structures in which carbon plays various roles. In this alternative framing, 1) the myriad and interrelated ways carbon-embedded structures and processes support ways of life become evident and 2) the socially feasible pathways to opportunities for carbon management emerge in the larger societal context. Pathways indicated under research using a people-centered framing are likely to solve multiple social goals rather than trying to achieve the single goal of emissions reductions because institutions and groups (e.g., governments, businesses, and families) have a different and broader set of issues to deal with than carbon management. Similarly, decisions that affect carbon emissions will be based on multiple factors—often including economic costs but also family, time, job, convenience, what others do, what is best for the group or organization, and other considerations.

6.1.1 Carbon Embeddedness in Social Structures and Processes

Although carbon is part of (i.e., embedded in; see Box 6.2, Embedded Carbon) most social structures and processes, it is largely invisible to people as they go about their daily lives. People may (or may not) think of carbon as they see smokestacks or burn wood in a campfire because the ­carbon-emitting processes that produce electricity, heat buildings, and drive industrial processes may stay in the background, out of sight and out of mind.

Nevertheless, emissions and associated structures and processes start with people—their needs and wants and how various social, political, and economic configurations and technologies both shape and are shaped by those needs and wants. From energy choices and services to economic policies and from urban hardscapes to rural landscapes, carbon is emitted, conserved, or captured as people work, travel, eat, and engage in other everyday activities and as human institutions and economic systems form and operate (see Figure 6.1).


Figure 6.1: Carbon Embeddedness

Figure 6.1: As people work, learn, run errands, travel, and enjoy family and civic life, carbon is a common “thread,” running through their infrastructure, tools, and environment (represented here by the white “threads” in the figure). Thus, analysis of the carbon cycle will be enhanced by identifying human uses of and reliance on carbon.


Research that begins by examining social structures and practices analyzes categories that may include standard sectors such as energy, transportation, buildings, and agriculture, but starting with people brings in a wide range of other topics as well. Eating, for example, a seemingly straightforward activity, encompasses a vast system of farm and food production, agricultural policies and supports, imports and exports, transportation, middleman transactions, retail stores (e.g., location and products offered), and people’s preferences along with income and health considerations. Obtaining and keeping a job, considered in a people-centered systems approach, similarly involves a range of activities such as educational opportunities and costs; income levels; locational factors such as housing, transportation, and commercial buildings (and/or home offices); access to electronic technologies; and health insurance and other benefits—the list could go on.

Social science research that examines people and the social embeddedness of carbon includes different approaches based on the research questions to be answered but often emphasizes systems and network perspectives and multiple societal factors within those systems. Because these approaches represent lines of research not assessed in the First State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR1; CCSP 2007), some references may predate that document.

6.1.2 Chapter Structure

First, this chapter discusses five approaches that represent lines of social science research within the climate change community, lines that are well established but usually not framed as questions about societal relationships with carbon or the carbon cycle.

  • Section 6.2. At individual, institutional, and organizational levels, behavioral research explores connections among motivation, intention, and actors with regard to energy-related consumption and other individual and social behaviors.

  • Section 6.3. Governance research provides insights into why and how policy-environment decisions are made and implemented through both informal and formal processes.

  • Section 6.4. Scenarios of the future point to the power of connecting climate change and carbon emissions to their social-economic (socioeconomic) consequences.

  • Section 6.5. Vulnerability assessments specify who will probably be harmed by climate change, what the harm will be, and where interventions can be made at regional and local levels.

  • Section 6.6. A socioecological systems perspective demonstrates linkages among climate change–related hazards and social vulnerabilities and risks.

Next, the chapter introduces three less well known social-scientific approaches that hold potential for increasing basic understanding and providing useful future directions for decision makers to consider.

  • Section 6.7. Sociotechnical transition studies illuminate how technological transitions happen as actors, artifacts, and processes shape and reshape each other.

  • Section 6.8. Social network analyses map the connections among people with similar interests and goals, thus showing potentially changeable pathways and roadblocks.

  • Section 6.9. Social practice analyses reveal the configurations that produce emissions but also support valued, or locked-in, ways of life.

The final three sections are crosscutting. Section 6.10 points out the crucial roles that communication and stakeholder involvement play in ­people-centered research. Section 6.11 discusses opportunities to reduce carbon emissions, including individual and social actions at various levels and timescales. Finally, Section 6.12 provides a brief summary of findings, as well as specific steps in the path for research related to social systems and embedded carbon.

Essential to research in all these areas is increased interaction between researchers and stakeholders. Economic theory may posit people as self-interested individuals who assess a full set of information before making decisions that maximize utility at the lowest cost, but actual decision makers consider others’ opinions and approval, weigh other characteristics more highly than cost, and satisfice rather than maximize (i.e., they settle for the first minimally acceptable option rather than weighing all options using multiple criteria). Understanding how people really decide and change requires questioning, observing, and interacting. According to Ch. 18: Carbon Cycle Science in Support of Decision Making researchers and stakeholders must co-produce knowledge.

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