Collaborative, Action-Oriented Social Science on the Climate Emergency

The Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)², is a hub for critical social science research on the climate emergency at the University of California, Berkeley. (SC)² is hosted by Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix. Our research investigates the intersections of inequalities of race and class; decarbonization and adaptation; a rapidly transforming built environment; contemporary political struggles; and, ambitious policy projects.

The most important questions in climate science are settled. The technologies needed to abolish carbon pollution have been developed, or are under development. Right now, our greatest challenge is action. We need to adapt to the climate impacts that are already locked in. And most important, we need to stabilize the climate by decarbonizing the global economy at extraordinary speed and scale. It’s a (very fast) marathon, not a sprint. If this project is going to last, getting more effective with each passing year, we’ll need to decarbonize in such a a way that people like and support—that improves people’s living conditions, deconstructs inequalities, and feels part of a broader effort to make things better.

Moreover, when the increasingly harsh impacts of climate change hit groups of people this not only raises classic social science questions about inequalities; but we must also understand how extreme weather impacts, and the specific choices made in disaster recovery, influence struggles over decarbonization. In the United States, efforts to stabilize the climate will only succeed if they’re in a mutually reinforcing relationship with efforts to build a truly multi-racial democracy—and to block the rise of white nationalism and fascism, including incipient forms of eco-fascism.

Shorter: the dominant climate research questions of our time are social science questions. Groups’ political choices and struggles are the causal factors that will ultimately determine the climate’s future. We’ll need big data and other quantitative strategies to answer those questions. We’ll need qualitative research into the processual causal mechanisms of climate-linked political struggle. Because the climate emergency is fundamentally about the built environment, our research questions will always involve some form of geography. Finally, the centrality of the built environment, and the inevitable technical complexities involved in rebuilding the world, imply a special relationship between social science and engineering , with political economy as the connective tissue. At (SC)2, we’ll pursue this particular configuration of multidisciplinary collaboration.

Our mission at the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2, is to tackle the biggest climate social science challenges that we can manage. We aim to conduct this research in collaboration with scholars across the country and world, and in constant dialogue with various publics—general readers, community groups, social movements, labor unions, elected politicians and their staff. We are also structuring our research to join the great, global debate over which political economic paradigms will best replace neoliberalism. And we are selecting projects and research methods with the goal of informing public debate—and action.

In early 2022, we’re doing collaborative research on three themes:

1. Mapping intersections of climate, inequalities of race and class, and the built environment

We aim to capture the intersections of climate, inequalities of race and class, and the built environment, by putting cutting-edge data science in dialogue with theory and history. We also aim to generate new theory, like work on eco-apartheid; interactive maps and other visualization tools; and support climate policies that center targeted, place-based investments in the United States.

2. Investigating the social barriers to decarbonization

We will investigate the social barriers to decarbonization in the U.S. and around the world with a political economy framework. How do the living legacies of racial capitalism and colonialism continue to shape the green transition? Why aren’t technically feasible solutions being implemented? How must transformative projects be changed to deliver effective, just, and equitable decarbonization? How can decarbonization be interwoven with adaptation? How can the project of decarbonization be interwoven with the construction of multiracial democracy? By growing the dialogue between climate science, energy engineering, and other technical fields on the one hand, and political sociology, political economy, and other intersecting social science subfields on the other, we can create common ground for climate social science. And we can improve debates on how to take climate action at speed and scale—including by constructing, piece by piece, year by year, a new paradigm of economic governance to replace neoliberalism.

3. Helping develop an action-oriented green political economy framework—in dialogue with critical social science on colonialism and racial capitalism, and with movements for racial and economic justice

We’ll reconstruct green political economy to interrogate how investing trillions of dollars in climate action can meet our climate goals, deconstruct inequalities, and deepen democracy. To do this, we’ll stage and join conversations around racial capitalism, decolonization, climate policy, and political sociology. We’ll ask how we can democratize innovation—the process that produces the technological changes that have such influence on our social and economic life. No framework of green political economy can truly live if it has little to say about the histories of capitalism and their relationship to today’s most savage inequalities—and to the greatest dreams and worries that animate young people in the 2020s. And no progressive, egalitarian paradigm of climate, racial, or economic justice can truly live unless it’s generated in dialogue with grassroots social actors eager to fight for that paradigm, in coalitions broad enough to win deep change.

All this work will involve constant conversation between academic researchers, social movements, labor unions, policymakers, and broader publics. We’ll focus in particular on our partnership with the Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank, which (SC)2 incubated along with the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology.

(Beta, April 2022)