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

6.12.1 Research Insights

Findings from these lines of research draw on scientific knowledge about social change, the role of science in societies, multilevel governance, and social-psychological behavior in many settings. The following research findings and insights reflect the people-centered framing discussed throughout the chapter and hold promise for future exploration.

People-Centered Research. Research that is framed to begin with people and explore how various social, political, and economic configurations and technologies have carbon embedded in them reveal points of intervention that are practical and feasible.

Expanded Use of Data. “Big data” and associated data-mining activities related to social segments, lifestyles, and purchasing and activity patterns could significantly expand relevant knowledge about people, social systems, and embedded carbon.

Analysis of Real-Life Decision Making. Understanding how people really decide and change requires questioning, observing, and interacting; decision makers rarely make ideal, completely rational decisions.

Invisibility of Energy and Emissions. Energy consumption and emissions are part of people’s routines and habits, within patterns of social interaction, and are governed largely by social norms and expectations—without regard for or reference to (out-of-sight) energy sources or carbon emissions resulting from these activities.

Shared—and Varied—Patterns of Energy Use. Energy-using activity patterns are shared within groups, stabilized and constrained by energized technologies and infrastructure; large variations are seen in different groups, across populations (e.g., of households or firms), and over time as people modify and adapt.

Relative Unimportance of Cost Motivations. Environmental values, social influences, and concerns for others are more frequent and actionable motivations for carbon-reducing equipment purchases and energy-use behaviors than are potential cost savings.

Deeper Understanding of Consumer Behavior. Although the energy-efficiency industry tends to assume that customers are rational in evaluating information, psychological research has shown that even well-informed social actors routinely pass over clear and simple “rational” choices that would save money by saving energy.

Success in Marketing Efficient Technologies. “Market transformation” research has been successful in identifying “upstream” actors and organizations in supply chains and engaging with technology designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers to encourage and facilitate bringing more efficient technologies to the marketplace at appealing prices.

Codes and Standards for Efficient Technologies. Efforts by some states and the U.S. federal government to regulate the energy-using characteristics of appliances and buildings through codes and standards have had wide systemic impacts on technology efficiency.

Importance of Considering User Behavior. “Behavioral potentials” for energy savings (e.g., in equipment-use patterns and practices) have become increasingly recognized. When planning efficiency improvements, utility regulators and efficiency advocates have added the consideration of what people actually do with energy-using equipment to the technology specifications.

Understanding and Modeling Complex Decisions. Capturing the complexity of carbon-relevant decisions to show effective and democratic paths to reduced carbon emissions could be accomplished through developing inclusive integrated models and increased understanding of the systems involved.

Improved Understanding of Governance Processes. To understand patterns of carbon emissions and, importantly, how to facilitate sustainable emissions trajectories, researchers and decision makers would benefit from increased understanding of the governance processes guiding emissions’ production, maintenance, and conservation, leading to identification of feasible governance options for reducing carbon emissions.

Differences and Common Needs Among Governance Systems. The governance systems for the energy, urban, and agricultural sectors overlap and sometimes contradict one another; they differ from one another in three important ways: their sources of power and authority, their institutional arrangements, and the sets of their stakeholders engaged by governance processes. Despite the differences in how these systems are governed, they share a set of governance needs to effectively and sustainably govern carbon—needs to adapt, increase resilience, coordinate among sectors and scales, and reorient toward conservation and, ultimately, reducing GHG emissions.

Broadened Use of Scenarios. Opportunities exist to broaden the use of scenarios in global change research to include consideration for normative questions such as, “What are the futures that various people want?” and “How can they be achieved?”

Systems Analysis to Improve Options for Effective Action. Analysis of carbon as part of a socioecological system that supports humans with livelihoods and daily living activities sets up a solution space that includes wider alternatives than simply reducing emissions by substituting technical fixes; the socioecological approach can explore co-benefits (e.g., health and efficiency) that could more easily lead to action.

Technologies as Embedded in Social Systems. Technologies are deeply embedded in social practices, regulatory and market rules, landscapes, and values; the technical cannot be divorced from the social.

Needs for Both Policies and Markets. Well-developed systems are unlikely to be overthrown by new ones through market processes: sustainability transitions likely will be faster and more comprehensive with strong governmental policies in the form of a phase-out of unsustainable technologies. Research indicates that sustainability transitions benefit from control policies, pursued with rigor and perseverance, next to innovation-support policies.

Analysis of Social Practices. Daily living rests on dependencies among people, activities, technologies, and supply systems and how various social practices relate to each other. It thus involves appreciating the social origins of taken-for-granted “needs” for particular goods and services, which, in reality, vary considerably across time, space, and populations. By not assuming that patterns of activity—human interactions with technologies or current levels of energy use—are fixed or unquestionable, the practices perspective can lead to rethinking housing, transportation, home-workplace relationships, lifestyles, technology designs, and policy approaches.

Two-Way Communication. One-way communication of scientific findings is problematic (especially when people’s values or beliefs seem threatened), but well-designed stakeholder involvement can result in mutually accepted actions.

6.12.2 Research Priorities

Carbon is embedded in myriad types of social-economic-political-cultural institutions and thus is involved in the interwoven systems that emit and sequester carbon. Human institutions include government, industry, energy, transportation, buildings, urban areas, land, agriculture, and households. The current state of the carbon cycle is, therefore, an extremely complex, although not intractable problem. Recognizing the social embeddedness of carbon leads to research that will deepen knowledge about how social systems both persist and change, indicating pathways by which carbon emissions can be reduced and carbon sequestration increased.

Although much valuable research is sector based and economically minded, social science researchers have gone beyond these types of research to develop approaches that focus on people and their social configurations—systems of systems—that have carbon embedded in them. This focus is important to assess uncertainties and the progress of mitigation and adaptation efforts. More and more, the challenge of carbon cycle research and management is to deepen basic understanding of how people are negotiating change in their own interests as they live and participate within organizations and institutions, according to constraints, opportunities, and values in specific situations. If people are to contribute to major reductions in carbon emissions, they also will modify their lifestyle choices in the name of what they may initially perceive as intangible or yet-unknown environmental benefits.

The research lines described in this chapter lend themselves both to interdisciplinary research and to stakeholder involvement in development of research questions, priorities of decision makers, and feasibility of proposed actions. Future research needs encompass a spectrum of approaches, as listed below, to increase understanding of people’s ­decision making and change processes.

Theory and Data Gaps. Opportunities to better leverage existing social science datasets or approaches for climate and carbon research include the following:

  • Theory without data. Potentially useful social science theories—including social survey–based analysis; ethnographic analysis; and narrative sources of insight into people’s beliefs, understandings, and actions—have been applied only limitedly to climate change research.

  • Granular data on human activities currently applied almost exclusively for commerce. In particular, big data and associated data-mining activities related to social segments, lifestyles, and purchasing and activity patterns could significantly expand relevant knowledge about people, social systems, and carbon. However, this potential has not yet been deployed or customized for climate change questions.

  • Data with little or no theory attached. They include highly aggregated census data and utility billing data, which are common in policy analyses but lack information about users. Social sciences have had only limited involvement in such analyses.

  • Data analysis methods and the evaluation of scientific acceptability. These approaches are not yet advanced enough to sync with the new worlds of data and types of issues to be addressed.

Recognition of the Social Nature of Energy Use. Future research and institutional changes would benefit from recognizing the social nature of energy use—including the social organization of technologies and energy systems, the social patterning of energy demands, the social nature of energy-conservation choices, and the social delivery of energy-efficiency programs and policies.

Broader Views of Governance. A key area for future research will be shifting from a focus on individual policy tools (e.g., carbon pricing or energy-efficiency incentives) to understanding how governance arrangements (in terms of their power structures, institutions, and stakeholder sets) shape the carbon cycle by encouraging or inhibiting energy conservation and reducing carbon emissions. Issues of fragmentation (e.g., multiple sources of partial authority) and misaligned incentives (e.g., low prices for energy supplies with large social costs) are likely to be pervasive.

Links Among Carbon Management and Other Governance Arrangements. Emerging climate change governance arrangements (e.g., emissions trading schemes, renewable portfolio standards, urban plans, and land-management systems) will interact with energy, urban, and agricultural governance systems, individually and together. Integrated research will represent these interactions.

Technological Transitions. Social scientific research provides better understanding of why transformative technological change comes about and whether or not change can be steered and accelerated in sociotechnical systems to lessen the anthropogenic influence on the carbon cycle.

Social Networks and Practices. Research can map social networks of relevant potential actors in carbon cycle research and mitigation activities and describe everyday practices in which carbon is embedded; both approaches can reveal potential pathways for carbon management.

Use of Existing Tools and Methods. Research that applies such developed methods as scenarios, vulnerability assessment, sociological systems, social network analysis, and social practices analysis to include the carbon cycle will highly complement physical science research by providing understanding of social perceptions of and engagement with aspects of the carbon cycle.

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