Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا
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Social science must respond to climate change


Climate change is not an external threat to society, but a problem with both natural and social roots. Social sciences therefore need to play a bigger role in environmental research. That is the thesis of the World Social Science Report 2013, recently presented in Stockholm.

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Fossil fuel emissions, deforestation, intensified agriculture, urbanization, emptying of the fisheries and deforestation – humanity has become a massive geological force. The social results are complex, and the question of climate change can no longer be separated from other social problems. This is claimed by an influential report about the status of social science that recently had its Swedish release. The interest was so great that the organizers from the Nordic Africa Institute had to change venue. In a crowded room at the Swedish government offices of Rosenbad, report director Dr.Heide Hackmann pleaded for cooperation:

– The social sciences are essential for reaching equitable and sustainable solutions.

We need to cross the boundaries between the disciplines and realize that climate change is a common challenge.


According to the report, the climate question is linked to global inequalities. Traditionally, high income-countries have stood for most of consumption and emissions, have a better capacity to tackle climate change, and are furthermore not as exposed to the consequences. Africa is in a particularly difficult situation:

– We live on one planet, but in different worlds. To solve the climate issue, we also need to confront these inequalities, says Dr.Ebrima Sall from CODESRIA, an African social science council supported by Sida.

The report makes the case that the social sciences can help us understand these ethical dilemmas, and bring us closer to fair political solutions. The next report, to be released in 2016, will deal with the issue of inequality.


Heide Hackmann urges social scientists to deal with the most pressing issues of our time:

– Social science is not produced where it is the most needed. We need to do something about that.

The report singles out several fields of importance to our response to climate change. For example, in order to alter our behaviour, we need research about what shapes attitudes and values – issues often touched upon by social scientists.

Gender research also has an important role to play. We differ in our vulnerability to climate change, and different experiences and skills can be of use in the creation of more sustainable societies.

According to the report, social sciences can also translate local knowledge for policy makers, clarify the relation between climate change and migration, formulate guidelines for how to respond to natural disasters, create indicators for vulnerability to climate change, and much more.

Dr.João Morais at Sida’s unit for research cooperation commends the report:

– We already know so much about the natural processes. IPCC’s climate panel recently declared that the probability that humanity is responsible for global warming is more than 95 percent, which means “extremely likely”. Now, we need to examine how our societies best can make the necessary adaptations. That’s where the social sciences enter. The world no longer has any place for ivory towers. The situation is critical and everyone – researchers, the public, politicians – have to find solutions together.

Prof. Kerstin Sahlin from the Swedish Research Council issued a warning about exaggerating how directly applicable the social sciences should be:

– All knowledge should be relevant. But the social and human sciences cannot only be focussed on solutions. Critical reflection is as important to research as is policy focus. The former, however, is often overlooked.


The report laments the lack of institutional support to research. This question has a long tradition in Sweden, which has had a unit for research cooperation since 1975. The purpose of this kind of aid is to strengthen the capacity of partner countries to identify and solve their problems on their own. This is dependent upona well-developed university system.

The EU recently launched Horizon 2020, an ambitious research programme with an €80 billion budget. According to the EU Commission, science and innovation are needed to solve the Union’s structural problems within the areas of economic development, climate and society – areas seen as interlinked and therefore in need of common solutions.

Kerstin Sahlin agrees that researchers need to cooperate across disciplines. At the same time, she emphasizes that the social sciences risk getting a subordinate role. Too often, the natural sciences set the agenda, and the social sciences are then brought in to listen and add to their knowledge. Kerstin Sahlin claims that Horizon 2020 is also characterized by this way of thinking.

João Morais also finds that independent research is still needed, but predicts that interdisciplinary approaches will become more and more prevalent. To address health issues in a certain society, a combination of education, health and climate research, and policy actionis needed.

But as the problems seem more and more insurmountable, our consciousness and spirit of cooperation also increase. Ebrima Sall dares an almost utopian vision:
– Human societies have always had to deal with climate change. What is new is that our very existence is at stake. But the seriousness of the threat has given us the opportunity to invent a new and more sustainable global civilization. To accomplish this, we need the social sciences.

Leonidas Aretakis

First published at
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Small-scale agriculture is still the most important source of nutrition. Climate change and decreased land access have made food security a vital issue in parts of Africa. There is a need for research and innovations on how crops can grow in rough climate. To face the slow expansion of the Sahara desert, several countries have come together to build the Great Green Wall. By combining insights from both natural and social sciences, rural areas can face climate change in a holistic and sustainable way.

Read more about the Great Green Wall

The report is recurring and is published by UNESCO, OECD and ISSC. The editors and councillors are prominent researchers from all over the globe, and the report contains over 100 contributions. Sida is one of the report’s financiers.

Read an English summary.

From research grant to cooperation. Read more about how Sida supports research capacity in low-income countries.(

Ban Ki-Moon urges bridging gap between science and policy” (UN News Centre)

We have to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases rather urgently.”Q&A on the IPCC climatereport. (SciDev.Net)

March 26 2014