So, it’s all just too late, right? Studying climate politics in a time of despair

11 December 2018, 0405 EST

This is a guest post from Kate Neville, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and School of the Environment at the University of Toronto, and Matthew Hoffmann, a Professor in the Department of Political Science and Co-Director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.[1]


Things are not good. We have twelve years before catastrophic climate change is completely unavoidable. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising like a “freight train.” In the face of bleaching and ocean acidification, coral reef conservation is falling short, with global declines of reef cover of 30-50% since the 1980s. Greenland’s ice sheet melting is “off the charts.”

Accompanying the barrage of bad climate news are articles discussing the despair that climate scientists are feeling in the face of their growing knowledge of climate catastrophe combined with the lack of movement they see on climate action (see e.g. here and here). They feel like they are shouting into the ether and no one is listening.

Most of these articles focus on natural scientists on the front lines of studying the dynamics and impacts of climate change itself. However, despair is not a scarce commodity in communities that care about climate change—social scientists who study climate politics are also subject to the existential angst that comes with knowing a catastrophe is looming and feeling helpless to stop it.

By studying the social, economic, and political dynamics that make progress on climate action difficult, social scientists bear the dual burden of both understanding what environmental damage is happening/projected and why the world is not responding to these urgent warnings.

This isn’t a self-care commentary—although we recognize the importance of self-care for social scientists working on climate change (and can turn to much of the same advice and practices as natural scientists). Instead, this is our plan for finding courage and hope in the face of climate change. We ask how do/should we navigate despair (and find hope and courage) in our teaching and research (both individually and as a community)? What can and should we be doing as social scientists in the face of existential crisis? We suggest four principles as a guide.

Combine rigorous research with normative agendas

There is no such thing as normatively neutral research (as all of us know). This is especially true with climate and sustainability research in the social sciences—to premise one’s scholarship in the study of how societies strive (or not) for environmental sustainability in a time of industrialized production, mass consumption, growing inequality, and rapid destruction of our planet’s core systems cannot be neutral. Yet, too often scholars are pressured to sublimate their normative standpoint and do ‘objective’ research.

This is bad advice in general, but even more so in a time of climate crisis. The key, it seems to us, is combining transparency in pursuing a normative agenda with a commitment to rigorous research (broadly defined). The combination is crucial for a host of reasons. Transparency in our normative agendas makes it possible to more fully evaluate research results—it provides context for the choices we make and conclusions we reach through our research.

Both within the academy (internal/institutional settings) and beyond (external/public realms), the authority and legitimacy of scholarship and scholars are, in part, based on academic rigor, understood as shared standards for academic training and research conduct (broadly conceived). So, do good research in both senses of the word—rigorous research with careful analysis, and ethically grounded research from a clear standpoint of advancing climate action and environmental justice.

Pursue real-time research

The normative agenda behind most social science research on climate and sustainability also entails an imperative for studying social and political dynamics as they are unfolding. We need to do more of what Levin and her co-authors (2012) call “real-time research.” This is a significant challenge because most social science methods and tools were not developed for, and are not always well-suited to, studying socio-political dynamics and processes that are far from complete—we often lack the “outcomes” that are the beginning point for much of social scientific research. We need to get over this. The imperative of environmental crisis unfolding around us means that we need to be more creative with how we go about our studies.

One mantra that we (authors) have stopped repeating to graduate students is that you cannot study the future and you probably should not study the present. It strikes us as intellectually and socially irresponsible advice to our students and our colleagues alike. On the contrary, we need to use and further develop rigorous methods that do not rely on having complete cases, natural experiments, or well-defined outcomes. Such methods include scenario analysis (Pulver and VanDeveer 2009), pathways analysis (e.g., Bernstein and Cashore 2012; Levin et al. 2012), the use of counterfactuals (e.g., Betsill and Corell 2001), and visualization techniques (e.g., O’Neill et al. 2017). If we want, as a community, to have a voice in shaping societal responses to environmental crises, our rigorous, normatively driven research has to speak to the “fierce urgency of the now,” to quote Martin Luther King.

Value engaged scholarship

Our colleague Jessica Green provides a clarion call for scholarly activism from naming our normative commitments to communicating research to public and policy audiences. As Green clarifies, becoming an activist in the public sphere is not the only path to engaged scholarship. Our third principle is a call for the broader academy to revalue politically engaged scholarship and support a return to problem-driven research.

There is no single path to valuing engaged scholarship, but among the questions that must be asked include ones about the practices of publishing, the venues and types of scholarly exchange, and the processes of research development and design. Where do we publish? With whom do we engage in conferences and workshops? Who has access to these venues, based on cost, location, and affiliation? Whose work are we reading, and, as Sara Ahmed asks, whose ideas are cited?

These practices of institutional gatekeeping determine whose voices have authority and power within the academy, and which ideas and premises are taken seriously. A broad understanding of engaged scholarship would include providing knowledge and arguments to multiple communities in accessible ways both in terms of language and outlets; speaking truth to power, by identifying assumptions in work in our own fields that reinforce the status quo, and challenging institutional practices that maintain existing incentives; and engaging in the co-generation of research with multiple partners, with the recognition, as Audra Simpson explores, of the rights of communities to refuse such engagement.

Build community and look to the margins

Jonathan Rigg and Lisa Reyes Mason (2018) advocate for integration of social sciences and humanities in climate research and action, or what they term “deep interdisciplinarity.” Integrating scholarly work in the social sciences does not just reveal and track the barriers to meaningful social transformation, but can reveal openings for change and offer imaginative pathways forward. Building strong interdisciplinary communities to realize this potential requires institutional change that alters how resources and value are allocated in the academy. Narrowing metrics of scholarly recognition, premised on high-impact journal article publishing, translate into reduced opportunities for scholarships and research grants, which constrains the ability of scholars to push the edges of the research canon.

We should strive to develop the institutional spaces and material support needed for scholars to engage in interdisciplinary, problem-driven, status-quo-disrupting, engaged scholarship. This will not be easy given the oft conservative structures of academia, but the work is crucial. It includes supporting diverse venues for publishing academic work, and challenging the economic models of publishing that restrict access to academic work; providing financial opportunities and recognition for junior and vulnerable scholars, to enable them to engage in boundary-pushing work; and supporting a plurality of intellectual approaches, ontologies, and methods.

Academic institutions can provide space for boundary-pushing work, but such changes must be demanded and defended, both individually and collectively. The margins of existing scholarship are places to start, as we can find ways to uplift, amplify, and support scholars who are already pursuing applied, engaged research practices. It is the most vulnerable people who are already bearing the costs of pushing back against injustice: within academia, those on the precarious edges of the institutions; beyond academia, those whose lives and livelihoods are most directly threatened by environmental degradation, industrialization, and dispossession.

Navigate despair and embrace the uncertainty of hope

As Rebecca Solnit reminds us, despair is the certainty that things can never change; but “the future hasn’t already been decided,” she writes. Social science research reveals the clarity of this observation: the prevalence of uncertainty, the myriad transformative possibilities. We end with a call, then, for social scientists to turn away from despair and back to their research—as challenging, complex, and unknown as it is—as an act of radical, defiant, and restorative hope.

[1] This post is excerpted and amended from our chapter is a recent volume edited by Justin Alger and Peter Dauvergne (2018)