New Initiative Announcement! Human Choice & Climate Change

Tandem Research's - Human Choice & Climate Change Initiative will develop a better understanding of the human and social dimensions of climate change in India.

Action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build societal resilience to immutable impacts of climate change has never been more urgent. The global average temperature rise has already reached approximately 1 degree Celsius and action towards meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the average temperature rise to 2 degrees is wavering; the more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees will certainly be missed. Climate impacts are already being felt as our agricultural systems collapse, forests burn, cities flood and rising temperatures expand the reach of vector-borne diseases.

One reasons for several decades of inaction is that climate action has been overwhelmingly framed as a technical issue – this has shaped our understanding and also our search for solutions. Climate change is in fact a thoroughly social issue. It’s a problem of collective societal action: our social, cultural and political choices. “Debate about climate change is often a surrogate for a broader, so-far intractable political discourse about population, lifestyles, and development” (Rayner and Malone, 1998).

Discussions on climate change have been framed by climate science, derived through earth system modelling and general circulation models whose results have remained largely unchanged in the previous two decades: anthropogenic climate change is accelerating, and we need to take urgent action to avoid the worst impacts. Continued IPCC assessments have meant that climate science is so much ahead of our social and political response. The ‘deficit model’ of public and political understanding of science persists: people act irrationally (i.e. don’t act to curb climate change) because they don’t understand the science or for the lack of enough science or evidence. However, political institutions and societies are slow to act on the understanding that science is generating because of deeply entrenched human values and choices (Stern et al, 2016). With the current focus on the physical science aspects of climate change - institutional, behavioural, and socio-political arrangements that can deliver the urgent action required remain understudied, less understood.

Debates over policy solutions to climate change have instead privileged technological solutions dominated by results of integrated assessment models (IAMs) which are general equilibrium simulations for the global economy under a variety of climate futures. Undue focus on only the technological challenges that must be overcome has created irrational exuberance over potential future technologies that may yet ‘save the day’. As successive deadlines for peaking emissions have come and gone, climate scientists have talked up even more speculative technologies to keep targets ‘within reach’ for policymakers (Geden, 2018) in order to ensure that their message is not politically unpalatable. Such an overwhelming reliance on technology as the silver bullet has been reflected in IPCC assessments since the 1990s and has seen a range of technologies from fossil fuels with carbon sequestration (CCS) to bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) to increasingly negative emissions geoengineering called upon as future solutions that could still enable climate targets to be achievable (Mclaren and Markusson, 2020).

For example, techno-economic optimization studies of energy futures in India overlook key aspects of the societal and political contestation over alternative energy policy pathways (Mohan and Topp, 2018). Powerful modellers continue to tinker with their models at the margins – moving deck chairs on a sinking titanic. Incorporating social science methods such as narratives, surveys, and socio-technical scenarios is critical to bridge the gap between social and technical processes of change and their co-evolution (Mithra et al, 2017).

COVID-19 has also forced a socio-technical ‘experiment’ on us - remote working, drastic fall in personal vehicle use, shutdown of international travel, and more. Technical change needs to be accompanied by changes in behaviour, institutional arrangements and business practices. Experiments are a useful way to open up spaces for innovation, new configurations, and pilot programmes, to test, trial and learn about innovation and change (Karvonen and Van Heur, 2014). Urban living labs have emerged in cities across the world to test socio-technical innovation around climate action in real life laboratories in partnership with citizens. What would the impact on resident mobility and emissions be if specific city streets were cordoned off to cyclists and pedestrians for a week? How will citizens react to a pilot programme of electric rickshaws?

Much of the focus of climate policy has also been at the national level - which never really trickles down in the Indian context. For a long time the issue of climate change has been held hostage by the Ministry of External Affairs – framed as a global burden-sharing problem rather than one of public action and societal resilience. How can we engage growing mid-sized Indian cities and villages in climate action? City leaders and stakeholders are generally best suited to design strategies for addressing their own local climate change risks. India’s success in addressing climate change in the future will overwhelmingly depend on strong institutional arrangements at urban local levels and with panchayats, especially in relation to disaster response and adaptation to climate impacts, developing approaches that provide local level officials and a range of local stakeholders the opportunity to collectively envision and meaningfully debate urban futures to set a common policy agenda.

“At this point in history, the need for sustainability politics, rooted in ethics and aesthetics, may be more urgent than the need for sustainability science based on expertise” (Rayner 2002).

The research and science stacks up, and yet governments remained paralysed and people don’t change. Climate change is a global phenomenon but it plays out in specific landscapes in particular ways. How we imagine and respond to this change is culturally rooted. It is shaped by our beliefs and cultural ways of seeing; it is connected to the places we can trace our ancestry to; it plays out on landscapes we call home. Ultimately we need to bring creatives/artists, scientists and communities together to stimulate a cultural narrative that will engage and inspire a sustainable and vibrant future society.

There are crucial conversations that we need to have around tackling vested interests, political accountability, social change and climate justice. For example, what are the social arrangements that are conducive to collective action? What kind of frameworks are needed to support action at various levels? What are the adjustments in lifestyles people may be willing to accept for environmental improvements? How are private sector actors responding to government initiatives on climate? What can local governments do in terms of climate preparedness?

Tandem Research’s Human Choice & Climate Change Initiative will address the overall objective of developing a better understanding of the human and social dimensions of climate change in India.

The initiative will be spread across four different interrelated themes
  • Discourses and social and political engagement

  • Groundswell - decentralizing climate action

  • Social dimensions of technological change and

  • Cultural and aesthetic response


Hoegh-Guldberg, Ove, et al. "Impacts of 1.5 C global warming on natural and human systems." Global warming of 1.5° C. An IPCC Special Report (2018).

Wu, Xiao, et al. "Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States." medRxiv (2020).

Stern, Paul C., Benjamin K. Sovacool, and Thomas Dietz. "Towards a science of climate and energy choices." Nature Climate Change 6.6 (2016): 547-555.

Geden, Oliver. "Policy: Climate advisers must maintain integrity." Nature 521.7550 (2015): 27-28.

McLaren, Duncan, and Nils Markusson. "The co-evolution of technological promises, modelling, policies and climate change targets." Nature Climate Change (2020): 1-6.

Mohan, Aniruddh, and Kilian Topp. "India’s energy future: Contested narratives of change." Energy research & social science 44 (2018): 75-82.

Moezzi, Mithra, Kathryn B. Janda, and Sea Rotmann. "Using stories, narratives, and storytelling in energy and climate change research." Energy Research & Social Science 31 (2017): 1-10.

Karvonen, Andrew, and Bas Van Heur. "Urban laboratories: Experiments in reworking cities." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38.2 (2014): 379-392.

Rayner, Steve. “We know enough.” The Guardian (2002)

Rayner, Steve, and Malone, Elizabeth L. “Human Choice and Climate Change: an international assessment (1998) Battelle Press, USA.

'Human choice & climate change' Steve Rayner and Elizabeth L. Malone’s 1998 assessment of the climate crises did not have the influence in mainstream climate agenda that it should have.


Vikrom Mathur

Vikrom is an anthropologist of science and technology. His diverse research interests include the governance of emerging technologies, social and cultural dimensions of technological transitions, political and social contingencies on the production of scientific knowledge about Nature, cultural perceptions of environmental risk, dynamics between science and policy, and Cultural Theory. He has a PhD from the Institute of Science, Society, and Innovation at the University of Oxford. Vikrom is a Senior Fellow of the Observer Research Foundation & Associate Fellow of the Stockholm Environment Institute.