Human choice and climate change

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene…The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen…And waste its sweetness on the desert air…” from Elegy written in a country churchyard, Thomas Gray (1751)

Not familiar with Gray’s poem? It’s a delight. Gray first paints a picture of a peaceful rural churchyard in the gathering dusk, then focuses on the tombstones. He wonders about the souls buried there, reflecting that they may well have been very special people, though never well-known.[1]

The report that is our focus today should itself be widely recognized and highly regarded. Instead, it remains obscure.


Fifteen years ago, social scientists were asked to provide a perspective on climate change. The result was a four-volume assessment of the social science research relevant to global climate change that’s been out more than a decade. Entitled Human choice and climate change, it’s edited by Steve Rayner and Elizabeth L. Malone.

Never heard of it? Ask your colleagues. Bet they haven’t heard of it either.[2] If not, here’s a bit of background. This was a truly extraordinary effort, centered on a Vancouver meeting in 1997, and involving more than one hundred contributors. Especially intriguing was a small satellite document issued with the assessment entitled “Ten suggestions for policymakers.” To quote Rayner and Malone:

“What can public and private decisionmakers learn from a wide-ranging look at the social sciences and the issue of human choice and climate change that illuminates the evaluation of policy goals, implementation strategies, and choices about paths forward? At present, proposed policies are heavily focused on the development and implementation of intergovernmental agreements on immediate emissions reductions. In the spirit of cognitive and analytic pluralism that has guided the creation of Human choice and climate change, we look beyond the present policy priorities to see if there are adjustments, or even wholesale changes, to the present course that could be made on the basis of a social science perspective. To this end we offer ten suggestions to complement and challenge existing approaches to public and private sector decisionmaking:

1. View the issue of climate change holistically, not just as the problem of emissions reductions.

2. Recognize that, for climate policymaking, institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits.

3. Prepare for the likelihood that social, economic, and technological change will be more rapid and have greater direct impacts on human populations than climate change.

4. Recognize the limits of rational planning.

5. Employ the full range of analytical perspectives and decision aids from natural and social sciences and the humanities in climate change policymaking.

6. Design policy instruments for real world conditions rather than try to make the world conform to a particular policy model.

7. Incorporate climate change into other more immediate issues, such as employment, defense, economic development, and public health.

8. Take a regional and local approach to climate policymaking and implementation.

9. Direct resources into identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts will be largest.

10. Use a pluralistic approach to decision-making. ”


In a carefully-crafted, tightly written 40-page document, Rayner and Malone expanded on these statements. Fifteen years later, it is worthwhile to take stock, and reassess these statements and supporting analysis. How well have they stood the test of time? Do they still seem fresh? Or do they feel dated? What has been their impact on the policy process to date? What about going forward? Do they offer intriguing starting points for policy formulation? Could they guide or constrain the search for viable policy alternatives? How has the status of social science research changed in the years since?

If you ask me, these suggestions looked to be on point when they were issued, and they continue to look spot on today. Are they widely used? That may be a different story. Perhaps they’re used in a fragmented way…but not so much as a framework. And attribution is rare. But here’s one small exception…

When the Stern Review came out in 2006, Professor Mike Hulme, Director of the Tyndall Center, and School of Environmental sciences, UEA, on, prepared a comment for the British Ecological Society Bulletin. Using the Rayner/Malone assessment as a yardstick, Hulme predicted that the Stern Review would have little impact. He asked:

“But how effective will it [the Stern Review] be and what difference will it make? In ten years time, will we be able to look back and analyse a pre-Stern and post-Stern discourse about climate change, or see the 2006 marking some break-point in climate policy?

I suspect not. To look for the reasons one need do no more than re-wind the clock to 1998 and the publication of the proceedings of the largest co-ordinated exercise yet undertaken by social scientists into examining the implications of climate change for human choice (Rayner and Malone, 1998). A self-proclaimed ‘complement’ to the United Nation’s IPCC, this five year assessment delivered ten suggestions for policymakers in regard to climate change. They deserve wider visibility and recognition [emphasis added]. To understand the limits of The Stern Review let me mention just three of these ten suggestions, all of which emerged from an extended examination of knowledge emerging from the social sciences (and anthropogenic climate change after all has emerged from society, not from nature):

• ‘Recognise that for climate policy-making institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits’. The Stern Review has very little to say about new institutional arrangements commensurate with the nature of climate change decision-making. The barriers to effective action on climate change is not incomplete science or uncertain analysis, but the inertia of collective decision-making across unaligned or even orthogonal institutions.

• ‘Employ the full range of analytic perspectives and decision aids form the natural and social sciences and humanities in climate change policymaking’. The Stern Review remains dominated by natural science and macro-economic perspectives on decision-making and although some concession to the role of values and ethics is made in the review, the values and ethical judgements made are pronounced rather than negotiated.

• ‘Direct resources to identifying vulnerability and promoting resilience, especially where the impacts [of climate change] will be largest’. The Stern Review continues to place emphasis on linear goal-setting and implementation; a more strategic approach is to focus on measures that promote societal resilience and opportunities for strategic switching, informed by regional and local perspectives.”

The tragedy is that social scientists have a lot to offer a world seeking to make fullest use of Earth observations, science and services in order to achieve safety in the face of hazards and sustainable development and natural resource use. If more robustly underwritten, social scientists could contribute far more. But what they have offered has all too often gone ignored, and prospects for substantial budget increases look slim indeed.

We can do better.

More on how coming up soon.

[1] As you’ll discover if you read the complete poem and the Wikipedia article more fully, Gray worried about his own mortality, and whether history would remember him. It in fact was a close thing…versions of his poem were reprinted without attribution…

[2] Okay, I’ve said that twice now. If I’m wrong, please don’t let the matter lie. Rebuke me! Tell me how, and where, and by whom these findings are being used on a daily basis. We’d all find that rather encouraging.

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6 Responses to Human choice and climate change

  1. Judith Curry says:

    Bill, another gem of a post. I’ve posted on this at Climate Etc

    “Wow, this is just too sensible for words. Too bad nobody(?) seems to have paid attention to this back in 1997 (or since). Its difficult to imagine such sensible ideas emerging from today’s currently hyperpoliticized situation. These ideas deserve to be widely read and discussed.”

  2. If anyone is interested in getting the ‘Human Choice and Climate Change’ set of books, they are available at discounted rates at

  3. Pingback: “Human Choice and Climate Change” available at discounted rates | Living on the Real World

  4. Pingback: Human Choice and the Weather-Ready Nation | Living on the Real World

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