In tackling climate change, we need to draw on many different kinds of knowledge – including evidence from the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH).
The climate emergency has not only been denounced by scientists, but also by new generations who are witnessing political inaction on the issue. Since 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported scientific results on climate change risks and adaptation measures. But after 30 years of perceived inaction, in 2018 a 15 year old girl (Greta Thunberg) initiated the Fridays for Future movement for climate action, leading to a surge in attention worldwide.
In this context, the energy transition is increasingly seen as one of the ‘grand challenges’ for European energy research and policy. This challenge can only be approached by inter- and transdisciplinary thinking, including SSH contributions.
This was one of the main takeaways of the Energy-SHIFTS scoping workshop reflecting on the use of evidence in EU energy-policy making. Organised by ARU and co-hosted with the European Universities Association, the event brought together 21 policy-makers, practitioners and researchers to discuss how SSH evidence is, and should be, used in energy policy.
Speaking truth to power?
In times of “post-truth” politics on one hand, and rising youth movements demanding climate action on the other, speaking truth to power has arguably become an obsolete principle. Knowledge is becoming more contextualized and politicized.
SSH can help in navigating these developments conceptually and methodologically. They can help to understand how societal demands come about and how visions of ‘energy futures’ emerge. They can also look behind taken-for granted mechanisms in collective decision-making, and map alternative future pathways.
So, the potential role of SSH in EU energy-related research is not only to provide answers to questions, but also to orient the debate and consider all its complexity. Energy transitions are not only technological and ecological challenges, but also political and social ones. For instance, SSH research helps us understand the knowledge-action gap in climate mitigation policies.
A key theme of the workshop was that we need to integrate SSH-research into the European energy research and policy agenda. The main challenge is how to do it, and especially, how to do it quickly.
A ‘needs based’ approach
A ‘needs based’ approach would help; in other words, looking at what questions need to be solved and what perspectives can be useful. SSH offers diverse approaches that have not traditionally been considered in the energy sector. For example, behavioural sciences can help us to learn how people use energy, while political science and sociology enable us to understand collective action for a sustainable energy system (e.g. citizen initiatives, energy co-ops, etc.).
It is crucial that SSH topics and approaches are included in European funding strategies, and that the SSH community are included in selection processes. This requires greater recognition by EU institutions, as well as increased self-organization of the SSH research community. The recent EU elections might open up a window of opportunity for change.
In conclusion, SSH have been and will be a key element in understanding energy transitions. The traditional mono-disciplinary perspective doesn’t work anymore, and new approaches that value diversity are required. The tools and mechanisms mentioned in this brief reflective text are only first steps towards the change that is needed.