Solving climate change requires a new and deeply interdisciplinary approach, says Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor and director of the College of Social Work PhD program, in a recent commentary for Nature Climate Change.
In “Five Dimensions of Climate Science Reductionism,” Mason and co-author Jonathan Rigg, professor of geography at the National University of Singapore and director of the Asia Research Center, argue that complex issues, such as climate change, require collaboration across disciplines in the hard sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.
Social work, sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, and allied health fields like nursing and public health all work on climate change issues, Mason explained.
“Climate change is often framed as a technical issue,” said Mason, referencing what social scientists call climate reductionism—a tendency to extract climate change from its social and environmental contexts. “But putting technologies in place to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change requires the adoption of these technologies by governments, societies, and communities.”
Finding solutions involves people.
This is where the expertise of social workers is important. Mason, whose multidisciplinary research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, is particularly interested in the way climate change affects the most vulnerable members of society.
“People contribute unevenly to climate change, and the consequences are felt unevenly across society,” Mason said. People with less income, savings, or access to credit, for example, are less able to bounce back after being displaced by a devastating flood or a drought-related wildfire.
“That is why we argue there needs to be a more interdisciplinary approach that brings people back in and values local perspectives on globally complex problems,” Mason said.
Mason contends that this collaboration will advance approaches to mitigating climate change that are more viable and likely to succeed.
Mason and Rigg are editors of the forthcoming Oxford University Press book People and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptation, and Social Justice. The book is the product of a symposium of the same name, which they hosted at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in November 2016. The symposium brought together researchers from the United States, Latin America, and Southeast Asia to discuss the human impact of flooding, drought, heat, water, and land change and the policy solutions needed to help people cope with and adapt to climate change.