Contemporary societies are being transformed by growing preoccupation with global environmental risks.1,2 The scientific basis for worries about human-induced climate change has consolidated, but many dimensions and implications remain uncertain and imprecise. In this area of what has been called ‘post-normal’ science, facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent.3 Plurality is its essence, and meaning-making fills gaps left by uncertainties. Actors—scientists, decision-makers, industry representatives, and members of environmental groups and the general public—variously clash and converge in their attempts to shape how societies understand the threat and what should be done about it. Among those favoring preventive action, some downplay or deny the uncertainties. Others—often with important leadership and financing by vested interests—exaggerate the uncertainties, or define them and the sociopolitical and economic implications of action to reduce carbon emissions in ways that undermine policy. Although everyone involved tends to focus on scientific arguments, choices of explanation by all the involved actors, and their very engagement in the debate, reveal political arrangements, moral commitments, and sociocultural ties as much as individual or group interests.4–8


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This domain of Wiley's Interdisciplinary Reviews (WIREs) Climate Change is concerned with the social status of climate change knowledge. It reviews literature on the politics, institutions, and cultures that shape how the threat of human-induced climate change is understood and the measures taken to address it. It focuses on the conditions of climate change knowledge in social environments and enterprises, the sociopolitical dynamics shaping climate knowledge production, and perceptions and uses of climate knowledge in different sociocultural and political arenas. This includes the level of credibility, honor, or prestige such knowledge enjoys—or lacks—in societal, scientific, and political decision-making bearing on policy and remedial action.

The domain is premised on the notion that climate knowledge and associated perceptions are powerful determinants of policy action. Such knowledge and perceptions are shaped by both individual and collective phenomena: Whether and how we react to scientific arguments highlighting the danger of climate change depends on whether we hear, understand, and believe them. ‘Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them,’ as the second century Stoic philosopher Epictetus wisely noted. In light of increasing evidence of environmental dangers at local, regional, and planetary levels, and insufficient societal responses to prevent and remedy the threats and their impacts, our very understandings of environmental reality—including the scientific and political products and processes that shape them—need to be scrutinized. Better knowledge of the factors blocking effective preventive and adaptive action in the area of climate change increases the chances of improvement.

A growing body of empirical work reveals a more complicated picture than that portrayed by rational actor models and the associated ‘linear’ understanding of policy uptake and societal benefit as automatic consequences of the production of scientific knowledge. Decision-makers' conceptual frameworks are embedded in sociocultural and political enclaves. Neither blank slates nor necessarily rational, earnest information-seeking individuals, decision-makers tend to integrate new information into preexisting political agendas and deeply rooted conceptual frameworks. If the new information does not fit the latter, the common tendency is to variously ignore or contest it, or to leave it in a state of lingering mental contradiction.9–11

Examining how such processes work—how tendencies, processes, and structures are interlinked, from the individual to the subcultural and broader societal and planetary levels—can inform societal responses to human-induced climate change and other threats. Identification of what climate change means to different actors, and the kinds of information that is and is not communicated, circulated and deemed credible to, and among, different actors and institutions, can help consolidate a needed two-way interface between science and policy, and bring into focus key obstacles to communication, understanding, and action, including where and why such obstacles exist, and what might be done to overcome them. It matters, for instance, if U.S. water managers—guided by prevailing values in their professional subculture—construe forecasts as something only ‘wimps’ use, to the extent that such preconceptions prevent use of potentially useful information.11 The same is the case when poor farmers in drought-prone regions in the less developed world choose to ignore unfavorable scientific forecasts for planting seasons, guided by deeper cultural notions of responsibility and identity.12 Or, again, it matters when U.S. governmental decision-makers construe climate science as ‘liberal claptrap’ 13; or when some of their Brazilian counterparts construe it as a means through which hegemonic nations shape the subjectivities of Brazilian scientists to advance narrow political interests at odds with Brazilian national interests.14,15 It also matters to know how the media portrays climate change16–21; how environmental scientists' own sociocultural and political meanings and contexts shape the knowledge they produce, believe, and promote6,22–32; how local (e.g., indigenous) understandings informed by tradition and other ways of knowing may enrich environmental knowledge33–35; and how, why, and with what consequences some kinds and sources of knowledge and evidence gain dominance—i.e., whose knowledge and views are (or are not) recognized—in important forums such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC).6,15,23,27,33,36–38 It matters how governments decide what knowledge to produce and what knowledge to deem legitimate and sufficiently important to guide decision-making processes, why they make the judgments they do, and the consequences of those judgments.15,37–42 Finally, it is of fundamental importance that societies learn to value and create decision-making processes that are informed, democratic, and participative,43–56 and which place issues of environmental sustainability, ethics, and responsibility at their center.57,58

This domain on the social status of climate change knowledge reviews literature on these and other topics related to the politics of climate change, including how the interplay of power, politics, and perceptions shape the production and use of climate knowledge.


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This domain, research on the status of climate knowledge, and this journal as a whole are necessarily interdisciplinary. This is because the disciplines have different strengths and blindnesses. By its very nature, climate change highlights the insufficiency of any single discipline. Thus, for instance, anthropology and sociology are central to this domain, as the traditional disciplines concerned with status dynamics, and with sociocultural structures and dynamics in general. However, the insights and approaches they have developed need to be supplemented and integrated with insights and approaches of other fields. For instance, sociological studies of climate politics59,60 do not generally integrate attention to culture, status, and belief systems in their analyses, and anthropology has been slow to address environmentally consequential modern and ‘elite’ belief systems. The interdisciplinary field of science studies has thus made some of the strongest contributions to understandings of the ways in which trust, social networks, and political arrangements shape the status of scientific knowledge,61–63 also in the case of climate science.6,14,15,23,64–66

Climate change challenges territorial organization of the world order,67 as well as disciplines' tendency to separate and analyze in isolation the ‘high’ politics of nation state and the ‘low’ politics of everyday life in families, firms, and communities.68 Political science analyses of macro-level, intergovernmental, and national-level governmental dynamics are thus relevant and important, as are studies of history, psychology, public opinion surveys, communication structures, political ecology, and social geography, among others. Geography is marred by its own limitations and resistances to the study of climate change.69 However, reflecting its internal heterogeneity which bridges a variety of disciplines and approaches, work emerging from geographers suggests the potential of the field to help lead the development of new, more integrated approaches to the study of climate change, approaches that highlight the importance of attending simultaneously to policy outcomes, decision-making processes, and science, including—centrally—the role of meaning-making.69–72 It is clear that fresh calls and frameworks for improved analyses of environmental decision-making have come from scholars and teams of scholars seeking to combine the strengths and insights of different disciplines.

This domain has especially important overlaps with other WIRE domains on Climate, History, Society, Culture; Perceptions, Behavior and Communication of Climate Change; and Policy and Governance. Because of the existence of these other domains, and the respective areas of expertise of the domain editors—including my own, as an anthropologist—this domain tends to concentrate relatively more on sociocultural dimensions related to climate knowledge. However, some articles in this domain are co-sponsored with other domains, and it is important to recognize that some of the separation between this domain and others is partly a function of practicality.


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The most commonly recognized foci for social scientific research on climate change center on perceptions of local climate and weather, the uses of forecasts, and sociocultural and economic impacts of ecological change, e.g., the consequences of climate changes for agriculture and political stability.35,73 A correlate is the tendency in global change programs and research enterprises to understand the ‘human dimensions’ in a limited manner, reflecting a conception of culture, attitudes, and beliefs as just one set of factors among others, such as population change, technological change, or political-economic institutions.74 The radical rethink needed should understand knowledge itself as a cultural product. This renders culture, attitudes, and beliefs an all-encompassing factor affecting all that we know about the environmental phenomena in question and all that we imagine and do to address environmental threats.

Thus, while an important objective of this domain on studies of the social status of climate change knowledge is to identify obstacles to the production and uptake of useful climate-related knowledge, the project of examining assumptions about knowledge and associated sociocultural and political and psychological processes must also analyze the formation of scientific consensus, its foundations, and its uses. Reviewing studies of the sociocultural and political processes in which climate science is enmeshed, this domain embraces the critical, reflexive strand of social studies of science. Work along this line has revealed how such processes shape engagements with the problem of climate change, including climate scientists' very production of climate science and the formation of scientific consensus and political agreements.24,37,38,65,66,75

Such studies, and the constructivist framework underpinning them, have thus far received little space within the IPCC. Taking them to heart exposes the oversimplification in scientists' claims to objectivity, including characterizations of the IPCC as providing objective knowledge. This opens up to what for many is uncomfortable territory, as the authority granted by widely accepted perceptions of science as objective yields political leverage to those wanting to use science to promote social and policy change. However, political expedience must not foreclose investigation, exposure, and recognition of how science and politics are ‘coproduced.’65,76 Moreover, recognition of such coproduction should not result in relativism or policy paralysis. Indeed, broader recognition of both the strengths and limits of science may be helpful, if not necessary, to pave the way for more informed and democratic decision-making.52 Importantly, understanding the limits of science can force recognition of the inescapable need for political deliberation and decision-making, for which science is no substitute.77–80 It can reveal attempts to portray science as separate from power and politics as themselves political, problematic, and counter productive to effective policy built based not on a mischaracterization of uncertainty but on a sound accommodation of legitimate disagreements.6,81 The interpretive humanities and social sciences, integrating a critical reading of the natural sciences and informed by a spatially contingent view of knowledge, are necessary to attain the interdependent, twin goals of forging more effective policies and improving understanding of what climate change means to different people and places, and to the relationships between peoples and places now and in the future.70,71


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Work in the area of global environmental change requires a ‘radical rethink’ of not only human dimensions research but of the social sciences as a whole, including their inherited assumptions and disciplinary divisions.82 Despite long-standing calls for this, rethinking has, with few but notable exceptions,56 been slow in the coming, and this reticence constitutes the most fundamental challenge this domain faces.

One of the challenges for an editor of this domain is to decide what to include under the rubric of ‘climate change knowledge.’ What counts as such? Leaving aside the difficulties of objectively defining the boundary between what is and is not scientific knowledge,83,84 to what extent should the domain take to heart the argument that lay persons also are important knowledge producers in the area of climate change,50,85–87 including indigenous groups, whose ways of knowing partly contrasts, partly resembles, scientific ways?88,89 This domain reviews literature on the participation of a wide range of social groups in deliberations and other practices related to climate change.

Another level of challenges to work in this domain is methodological: how does one establish what ‘the social status’ of climate knowledge is? To what extent is it possible and meaningful to define boundaries between the social groups involved, in a context of environmental politics marked by internal fragmentation, flux, and fragmentation?8,23,90 Consider also that analysts' access to knowledge of the status of climate knowledge is mediated by discourses about perceptions, and that both discourses and perceptions are intangible, difficult to probe and measure, shifting in nature, and oftentimes nested at the nexus of numerous conflicting standpoints (ibid.; see also Ref 91). As observed by Arran Gare,92 the environmental crisis is the ultimate source of disorientation, engendered in part by the new, complex ‘subpolitics’1 that it reflects, generates, and intensifies.

Perhaps the above difficulties help explain why the biggest challenge for this domain is a scarcity of work in areas directly bearing on the social status of climate knowledge. Neither published work nor expert authors were found for all areas in which I, as editor, wished to see a vibrant and sizeable body of work waiting to be reviewed, e.g., on whether and how lay persons may help create and improve climate science, or on how multilateral institutions such as the World Bank have integrated climate knowledge across their internal divisions, to mention just two examples.

As stressed by prominent scholars in the area of ‘sustainability science’ (see, for instance, Ref 93), meeting the sustainability challenge requires application-oriented, interdisciplinary research. Hence the ambition of this WIRE journal is also to be interdisciplinary. Despite the emergence of countervailing trends,94 interdisciplinary, application-oriented research remains limited by academic institutions and associated traditions and incentive structures.95–97 In anthropology and sociology, application-oriented research tends to be conceived as separate from theory, and as inferior to it. Important ‘Mode 2 science’ efforts in sociology illustrate the important contributions the field can make when it rejects the mutually exclusive dualism between theory and applications, as in analyses, e.g., of conspicuously overlooked issues related to power, privilege, knowledge/ideologies, and natural resource use bearing on climate change and sustainability more generally.98 Similarly, anthropological work on how knowledge and framings do or do not travel across uneven power networks can advance understanding of policy and development issues related to climate change,99,100 and contribute significantly (see, for instance, Ref 101) to new efforts in global change research to study ‘Earth System Governance’102 in new ways that more adequately attend to the complexity of actors acting at multiple scales around the same issue area. Important studies are emerging in anthropology in the area of climate change,35 albeit with the self-limiting and, unfortunately, rather persistent characteristic of focusing overwhelmingly on indigenous, ‘traditional,’ and ‘marginal’ peoples and victims, at the expense of the broader populations and the elites who are largely responsible for creating the threat through their life-styles and decision-making processes, and for defining it, whether in the world of science or politics. For this and other reasons, anthropologists still engage only timidly with the issue of climate change,103,104 some 20 years since anthropologist Laura Nader urged anthropologists to ‘study up’105 and Steve Rayner accused his anthropologist colleagues of ‘fiddling while the globe warms.’106 Albeit without the same disinclinations to study ‘up,’ knowledge gaps and disciplinary obstacles also limit the production of climate research in sociology.97,107–109 Fortunately, there are important exceptions in each of these fields, and the accumulation of exceptions becomes a sign of change.

The multiscalar nature of climate change is also a profound challenge to academic disciplines, and a key reason why interdisciplinarity is necessary. Political ecology and anthropology focus on local phenomena at the expense of regional and global dimensions; it is often written as if local areas were marked by clear boundaries and as if there were no international world. When mentioned, macrolevel phenomena is often characterized in ways that are vague, prefabricated, and unempirical.110–115 The state and elites are an increasing but still uncommon focus in these areas of scholarship, and to the limited extent that they are studied, the emphasis is overwhelmingly outside of the rich, industrialized countries. Yet first world decision-makers and scientists ought to be central objects of study, for the reasons suggested above.

Exhibiting a similar bias toward the local, the interdisciplinary field of science studies is best known for minute analyses of scientific laboratories or other locally situated practices. With important exceptions (see, among others, Refs 39,54,55,76,77,116–125), the field has been less inclined to integrate attention to environmental risk with analysis of broader political, economic, and administrative structures, including national and international law, policy and politics (for a critique of science studies in this regard, see Ref 126).

Accounts of global environmental governance grounded in orthodox international relations perspectives attend to the supranational dimensions that tend to elude anthropologists and sociologists. Although important new initiatives in this respect are under way,102 such accounts attend relatively less to dynamics below and above the state level—which is where much of the ‘subpolitics’ around climate change and other new, systemic environmental risks take place.1,102,127 Political scientists have been reluctant to deal with intersubjective phenomena mediated by perceptions, lacking methodological resources within the field and preferring to analyze more objective qualities of the knowledge in focus.128,14 While important contributions in their own right, such studies generally ignore the things science studies are good at: explaining consensus, controversy, and the interrelationships between science, power, and politics, including how norms are incorporated into factual claims, the role of images, instruments, social networks and trust. To the extent that studies in political science focus on the role of science in decision-making, they rarely attend to internal heterogeneity and to the particularities of which types of knowledge matters, when, why, and among whom.14,129–131


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The relative scarcity of studies of the status of climate knowledge reflects disciplinary divisions and preferences. Many disciplinary minds are trained to favor rigorous, ‘objective’ methods and hard numbers. Yet, however intangible and hence unattractive they may seem as scientific objects, values, beliefs, and imaginations of the future fundamentally shape societal acquisition and use of climate change knowledge, as well as skepticism toward it. For their part, the fields traditionally best equipped to contribute to the study of these subjective and intersubjective phenomena have been conspicuously slow to engage in research focused on human-induced climate change, limited by their own long-standing disciplinary inclinations.

The productivity of joining perspectives from many fields of knowledge thus becomes apparent, as does the continued need to make interdisciplinarity a reality rather than empty talk. Fortunately, there are some signs of change. The prerogative and challenge is to establish dialogue and a sufficient level of integration across disciplines to identify and address key questions and how they might be explored, and to create the institutional and organizational structures with the greatest potential to nurture such undertakings.


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