Social scientific knowledge in times of crisis: What climate change can learn from coronavirus (and vice versa)

Read this new editorial commentary from WIREs Climate Change, written with colleagues from Orebro University, Sweden.

Abstract. Crisis, by its very nature, requires decisive intervention. However, important questions can be obscured by the very immediacy of the crisis condition. What is the nature of the crisis? How it is defined (and by whom)? And, subsequently, what forms of knowledge are deemed legitimate and authoritative for informing interventions? As we see in the current pandemic, there is a desire for immediate answers and solutions during periods of uncertainty. Policymakers and publics grasp for techno?scientific solutions, as though the technical nature of the crisis is self?evident. What is often obscured by this impulse is the contingent, conjunctural and, ultimately, social nature of these crises. The danger here is that by focusing on immediate technical goals, unanticipated secondary effects are produced. These either exacerbate the existing crisis or else produce subsequent crises. Equally, these technical goals can conceal the varied, and often unjust, distribution of risk exposure and resources and capacities for mitigation present within and between societies. These socio?political factors all have important functions in determining the effectiveness of interventions. As with climate change, the unfolding response to the COVID?19 pandemic underscores the importance of broadening the knowledge base beyond technical considerations. Only by including social scientific knowledge is it possible to understand the social nature of the crises we face. Only then is it possible to develop effective, just and legitimate responses.