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

Drawing on the seminal work of Holling (1973) to analyze complex adaptive systems and explore their resilience, researchers define socioecological systems as “nested, multilevel systems that provide essential services to society such as supply of food, fiber, energy, and drinking water” (Berkes and Folke 1998). They seek to answer research questions such as 1) What are the connections and dependencies between ecological and social systems (Berkes et al., 2003; McGinnis and Ostrom 2014)? 2) Why are some socioecological systems sustainable, or resilient, and some are not (Cole et al., 2013; Leslie et al., 2015; Ostrom 2009; Pahl-Wostl 2009)? Binder et al. (2013) describe 10 of the frameworks for conducting research on socioecological systems that include change dynamics, but the common goal is to include both social needs and the elements that create and support ecological production that, in turn, supports human beings. Interlinkages, feedbacks, and dynamics can be represented.

6.6.1 Methods Used to Analyze Socioecological Systems

Researchers who investigate socioecological systems and their resilience employ frameworks and models, often presented in network diagrams with or without multiple levels. Data may be gathered from published research, surveys, and interviews with stakeholders. Studies can be highly theoretical or focused on specific areas or systems. For instance, Cox (2014) analyzed the socioecological system of the Taos Valley Irrigation System in northern New Mexico, finding that the multilevel governance structure and the social networks have made the whole system stable and resilient. The study concludes that many factors “are needed in order to sustain complex [social-ecological systems] over time. Moreover, it is important to understand the relationships among the contributing factors. This complexity and interconnectedness would argue against the highly simplified approaches to environmental and development policy analysis that have persisted in scholarship and practice” (Cox 2014).

6.6.2 Application to Carbon Cycle Research

Applying this approach to an integrated analysis of the carbon cycle–and–human society system results in analysis of carbon as part of the configuration that supports humans with livelihoods and daily living activities. This integrated approach sets up a solution space that includes wider alternatives than those achieved simply by reducing emissions through substituting technical fixes; it can explore co-benefits (e.g., health and efficiency) that could more easily lead to action. Formulating questions such as those about people and the carbon embedded in their lives brings in considerations such as urban design, improved health, more leisure time, simplified life arrangements, and more cohesive communities.

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