Climate change: Why do social sciences matter?

Climate change is an urgent environmental and social challenge. Social, political, and economic drivers - and ultimately human behaviour - are all significant contributors to climate change, meaning that the social sciences are crucial to tackling the challenges of the climate crisis.

Oxford’s social sciences researchers are working across a range of disciplines and in collaboration with climate scientists to contribute to global efforts on climate change, including the some of the biggest challenges presented by climate change – and some you may not have thought of. 

Watch our film below to find out more:

Film transcript

Featuring Dr Jin-Ho Chung (JC), Dr Radhika Khosla (RK), and Dr Stephen Fisher (SF).

Climate change: Why do social sciences matter?

SF: Climate change is a major global problem.

RK: It underlies all of life.

JC: The biggest challenge we are facing in the 21st century.

Newsreader: Unequivocal, that human activities are responsible for climate change.

SF: All sorts of aspects of life are influenced by the consequences of climate change. The most immediate things you notice are the weather events.

RK: But what we need to remember is that what we do, what we eat, where we live; climate change is as much a question of changing our weather patterns as it is a question of everyday lifestyles.

JC: We need to have an interdisciplinary approach to understand climate change in a better way.

Oxford social scientists are working hand-in-hand with climate scientists to find solutions to the biggest challenges of climate change:

  • Global net zero
  • Nature based solutions
  • Adaptation and resilience
  • Food and water security
  • Green finance
  • Energy transition
  • Clean transport

RK: The social sciences are key to solving climate change because climate change is embedded and part of each of the different things that we do, whether it is in our homes, in the workplace, in our political institutions, and whether it is with the technologies that we're going to need to be able to solve this problem.

SF: It's really important that social scientists understand how people think about climate change, what they want to have done about climate change, and how they can resolve the problems resulting from climate change.

Social scientists are also working on climate-related challenges you might not have thought of:

Jin-Ho Chung: Climate related mobilities and the informal city

JC: Our current research is about climate related migration and mobilities. There was a report from the World Bank in 2018: people migrate within their country's border if their migration is caused by climate change.

Newsreader: Coastal regions are especially at risk. Experts believe millions of people will be displaced by climate change over the next half-century.

JC: Cities in developing countries are already going through hard times with the increase of population. These migrants end up being in slums, or informal settlements and are often neglected from government policy and practice. 

We are no bound of ensuring that our communities will not be erased by sea level rise due to climate change.

We want to understand what kind of politics will be created between existing communities and those who have just arrived so that we can develop better policy responses to those migrant communities.

Radhika Khosla: The Future of Cooling

RK: Cooling has been a blind spot in sustainability debates because for a long time we've focused on heating. Any of those words related to cooling [such as a 'cool', 'cold', 'cooling'), they are not part of any of the United Nation's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or the 149 targets that make up those goals. 

So our research focuses on understanding and shaping the future trajectory of global cooling demand, so that it shifts towards sustainable development. 

The research is focused on understanding the technical and the non-technical aspects of cooling. For instance, what is the circular economy of cooling? Where do cooling products get made? Where do they get used? And where do the get dumped?

A lot of the future of cooling growth globally is going to take place in places like India, in Indonesia. Because these are societies that are the cusp of growth, they haven't locked themselves into certain types of consumption patterns.

There are moments to intervene, where cooling can be provided in a non-energy-intensive manner, and it can be low carbon, and that allows us to shape the trajectory of cooling not just in these countries but even globally.

Being able to influence change and inform change is key to the work that we do.

Stephen Fisher: Peoples' Climate Vote

SF: The Peoples' Climate Vote was an initiative from the United Nations Development Programme. It was a big survey of what people around the world think of climate change.

Newsreader: The largest climate poll ever conducted has surveyed 1.2 million people in 50 countries. 

SF: It was all about trying to bring the voices of people around the world to climate policymakers at the very highest level in the United Nations and in governments. 

The Peoples' Climate Vote was a collaboration between the United Nations Development Programme and the University of Oxford, working together with the expertise on both sides.

Through the media, it's estimated that some 2.4 billion impressions were made.

JC: We understand how climate change has happened in the past, how climate change will happen in the future, but we don't know how this climate change will affect people's livelihood. 

SF: Climate change needs to be solved by everyone around the world, especially governments and people in power, and social scientists can help inform people about how that might be best done.

RK: It underlies our economies, it underlies individuals, it underlies businesses, it underlies productivity... Climate change is the biggest threat that we face.


Discover more Oxford social scientists' climate change research and impact