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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

The IPCC's Interdisciplinary Dilemma: What Natural and Social Sciences Could (and Should) Learn from Physics


An ambitious goal of 1.5°C in average temperature change was set by the global climate treaty at the Conference of the Parties in Paris 2015. To meet that goal, it has become clear that the social sciences need to contribute more to the IPCC’s interdisciplinary project. Despite this consensus, however, natural science approaches and practices continue to dominate the debates on climate change. In particular, social sciences are expected to contribute viable and highly synthesised concepts for managing the transition to low-carbon societies. This approach, however, asks for something the social sciences alone cannot deliver. Rather, a different mindset is called for. In physics, for example, there coexists a plurality of competing, yet equally valid, paradigms. Both Newtonian and quantum physics offer valid perspectives on the world, even though they cannot be unified in a single standard model. Just as in physics there exist paradigm differences between natural sciences and social sciences/humanities which, although equally valid, cannot easily be bridged. It is argued therefore that mutual recognition and acceptance of the differences would be an essential step towards interdisciplinary cooperation facing the necessary transition.

Insights Paper