What has social science research on the public perception of climate engineering done? And what can it do? – Holly Jean Buck

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This piece is adapted from a response in a longer thread of conversation on the topic of “Interdisciplinary collaboration in geoengineering research,” on the very active Geoengineering Google Groupwhich is open to the public. 

What’s been done: It’s been quite provisional so far, and indeed not particularly generalizable or policy-relevant (though I don’t think that was the aim of the 20-30 empirical studies published to date).  I do think it has taught us some things about (1) the ability lay publics of lay publics to grasp and debate this “scientific” topic; (2) how moral hazard works on the individual level; (3) the relevance of naturalness, etc. (see the recent piece by Burns et al in Earth’s Future for a review).  But it’s important to understand how early we are at researching this: it’s as rudimentary as some of the dial-down-the-sun modeling studies were, compared to the distance that one would have to travel in actually understanding geoengineering well enough to practice it.

What’s possible:  I don’t want readers of this blog to assume that it’s impossible to use social science to investigate a socio-technical imaginary, or things that may happen in the future.  (Market researchers look at future preferences and conditions all the time.)  It is certainly methodologically challenging, but it is worth creatively trying some things out, given the danger of dissipating one’s energies in “scientifically attractive but socially and politically unattractive options and in doing so delay the transition to policy formation.” I strongly agree with the calls for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Here are some ideas and questions about how to move forward:
1)  To understand public perceptions of climate engineering, we need more qualitative social science research.
It’s necessary to be out there engaging with people in their own contexts, in order to understand not just their perceptions of geo but what is shaping those perceptions.  With regards to Trump, we needed to be out there not just measuring inequality with statistical measures, but understanding what the experience of it feels like and communicating it to the right people. (Even advertisers are moving towards ethnography post-Trump, reports the WSJ).  I believe that social science CE research without a qualitative or embedded component is going to similarly miss important perspectives.  Though it’s quite time and cost-intensive, as much of life and interaction is moved online, there could be more ethnographic work done via social media and other platforms.  These methods have been under-utilized and could be integrated much better with some of the quantitative or expert-workshop-type work.
2)  While it’s not possible to be fully representative of all the populations around the globe, we can do much better at representing the sampling of discourses out there (a la Dryzek and Niemeyer’s work).
There aren’t going to be 9 billion distinct perspectives on climate engineering; we can seek to understand many of the key ones.  This means taking them all seriously.  In my work, I failed to understand the nature and potential relevance of climate skepticism for geoengineering politics, assuming it was driven by posturing by industry and expecting it to wither away in the changing times.  My current work talking to farmers in the rural US about environmental change / climate engineering has helped me see it in a different light, and I now expect the discourse of climate skepticism to emerge as really relevant for geoengineering research & policy domestically.  Similarly, interviews earlier this year in Lapland were really enlightening in terms of understanding factors particular to that cultural and geographic context which shaped understandings of CE there — ideally there could be teams of researchers everywhere doing this work and comparing notes.  In absence of dedicated funding for this, we need to network better with researchers and organizations already doing embedded work on climate, energy, and land topics in case they would be willing to talk with their communities about geoengineering alongside their work — this is certainly happening, but perhaps we could coordinate and share notes better.
3)  People aren’t evaluating the risks of climate engineering narrowly.
Rather, they see climate engineering as enmeshed in things like consumption, lifestyle choices, national security, and tragedy in other parts of the world (which can get missed if you’re doing a survey about geoengineering and people’s preferences, for example).  The way forward in having discussions about this may not lie in writing academic grants to do things like measure or document “public perception” of climate engineering, but in partnering with different types of organizations who are already conducting broader discussions about what kind of future people want, in which discussion of geoengineering could be one part — i.e., we need just more interdisciplinary but inter-sector work, as is probably obvious.
4)  There’s a lot more to be done with looking at analogues. 
By this I mean not just analogous cases plucked from the “emerging technologies” bucket, but also events in environmental regulation, technology adoption and scale-up, infrastructure / mega-projects, agriculture, development or humanitarian interventions, etc.  Climate engineering may seem new, but socially, it evolves with reference to other practices and events (from agriculture to imperialism and beyond). Since climate engineering is not an technological object but an activity, there are plenty of cases where humans have intervened in their environments for various ends which might have relevant lessons.  This particularly true with carbon removal, as I have argued in Climatic Change: we have examples of policies for and attitudes about C sequestration in biomass and soils to look at, as well as lessons from bioenergy and CCS scale-up (or failure to scale-up, as the case may be).  This is one arena where interdisciplinary collaboration is warranted.
5)  How can we integrate inter-disciplinarity at the grant-writing stage?
One project would be mutually useful, for example, would be to program an elegant graphical user interface where the viewer could experiment and explore different scenarios for geoengineering as compared to climate change projections, with information about regional impacts linked in.  This would be useful as a web-based tool for the general public; for social science researchers wanting to explore public perceptions; for natural science researchers trying to present their findings; in an installation or museum setting for general education.  For grad students in an information science or communications dept., it would be a great source of RA funding and a portfolio piece.  There are certainly several other clearly interdisciplinary projects that the community could collaboratively write grants for; it would be worth curating a list of interdisciplinary funding opportunities.
In short, I hope people don’t give up on considering the potentially useful role of social studies – the stakes of not understanding and communicating with all the parts of society are higher than ever, as we’ve seen, and the time is ripe for some really interesting collaborative work on environmental futures writ large.
Holly Jean Buck is Faculty Fellow with the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, and a PhD candidate in Development Sociology at Cornell University, where she is also a Research Fellow at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Her research interests include agro-ecology and climate-smart agriculture, energy landscapes, land use change, new media, and science and technology studies. With regards to climate engineering, she has written on humanitarian and development approaches to geoengineering, gender considerations, and media representations of geoengineering.