Climate scientists are increasingly important to understanding how society relates to its environment. Yet, we still don’t know much about how social processes shape what climate science looks like — including who practices it, how climate knowledge is made, and how such knowledge is applied. Knowing more about these social processes can improve science.
Zeke Baker recently published two articles focusing on various ways climate science shapes, and is shaped by, social contexts.
“How people act with respect to climate depends, in part, how they know climate —what its features are, how it impacts them or their environment, what they think the future may hold, and why it matters,” said Baker, a sociologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies housed at the University of Oklahoma.
“Like communities or organizations, science is likewise social,” he said. “It stands to reason that the ‘what’ of climate is variously connected to the ‘who’ of climate scientists and of publics who hold views or take action regarding climate.”
Published in the British Journal of Sociology, “Agricultural Capitalism, Climatology and the ‘Stabilization’ of Climate in the United States, 1850-1920,” highlights how concerns regarding global warming can be situated in historical context.
“This historical context includes centuries-long concern with climate change, as well as research launched in the mid-twentieth century on fossil-based industrialism and global warming. But it also includes a period in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century during which climate became for most scientists something peculiar—it was understood as something that did not change,” Baker said. “Rather, it was something that could be represented neatly on a map, but something that generally speaking existed outside time.”
Bake said what started as an archive-based analysis of climate change science evolved into figuring out a puzzle. He wanted to know why so many scientists, beginning in the 1850s, wanted to establish this new enterprise they began calling climatology, and that took climate outside the context of human-caused environmental change.
The transformation was not purely based on scientific advances, he said. It was also based on the social context for how people came to understand climate and weather. The field of climatology emerged along with agricultural development and new, bureaucratic modes of government, particularly between the 1850s and the 1920s. A “stable” climate helped to evaluate, develop, and govern land in the relatively new context of market society.
“People benefited from climatology, but of course, climate change has made the prospect of a ‘stable climate’ — along with the vision of economic expansion without limit — untenable,” Baker said.
Research demonstrates how industrial capitalism, a type of social system, has changed the climate system.
“However, until recently, researchers have not really focused on how developments in climate knowledge are marked by the same social forces,” Baker said.
Baker emphasized the findings from this study hold implications for how we understand the relationship between science, politics, and society today.
“The issue is not just a matter of ‘accepting’ or ‘denying’ climate science,” he said. “Rather, we need to interrogate how the kind of society we have (or want to have) places limits or assumptions on what climate science is all about.”
As a historical scholar, Baker said he is concerned about some of the increasingly common perspectives that shape climate policy.
“I worry about the perspective that dealing with climate change entails ‘climate stabilization,’ by engineering climate if necessary,” he said. “Does this inhibit science and the public from envisioning and building alternative ways of knowing and acting with regard to climate change?”
Published in Global Environmental Change, “The Social Structure of Climate Change Research and Practitioner Engagement: Evidence from California,” is a co-authored study based on a survey and interviews with climate researchers.
Baker and co-authors find that researchers are spending more time on issues related to climate change; however, they strongly want to engage more frequently with public audiences than they do at present.
“They face pervasive barriers to doing so based on the structure of professional and research institutions,” Baker said. “Based on survey results, climate change research has remained for the past two decades the domain of certain scientific disciplines that are also, our survey finds, the least likely to engage non-research audiences.”
Baker said the study suggests that research and professional organizations should be evaluated in order to address how they inhibit or enable efforts to more regularly bridge the divide between climate science, public decision-makers, and our climate change-impacted society.
Thinking across historical and contemporary contexts, it is clear that science and society shape one another, Baker said.
“The question for the public as much as for researchers is what the configuration should look like as communities and governments grapple with the challenge of climate change,” he said.