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Social Sciences Can Help Meet Climate and Energy Challenges, DOE Head Says

The social sciences have an increasing role in the U.S. Department of Energy’s climate and energy agenda. They can also help meet climate and energy challenges, says Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.


The social sciences “can and probably must” help address climate change and energy challenges, according to Ernest Moniz, secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Speaking at the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference on 9 December in Washington, D.C., Moniz said the social sciences have an increasing role in DOE’s climate and energy agenda, as well as in convincing consumers and businesses to accept renewable technologies and alternative vehicle and fuel options. In addition, the social sciences play a role in the interagency Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) coordinated by DOE and in global climate change agreements, he said.

The demand side “is a prime area for the application of social sciences writ broadly,” Moniz said. “I have never seen a credible solution to our climate change challenges without a major demand side contribution.”

Quadrennial Energy Review

Moniz said that the first installment of the QER will be out at the end of January, contemporaneous with the White House sending the proposed fiscal year 2016 budget to Congress. He said the first installment of the document will focus on energy infrastructure—including the transmission, storage, and distribution of energy—and that the social sciences can help with efforts to educate the public and to meet energy and climate goals.

“We have enormous energy infrastructure challenges. We have challenges that derive from the fact that things like our hydrocarbon production (a) is booming and (b) has a very different geographic footprint than has been the case. And that leads to many very public issues,” Moniz said. He mentioned, for instance, that the shipment of oil by rail has increased dramatically and that as a result, there also is competition between moving oil, coal, grains, and other commodities by rail. Moniz said that the issue is not only a question of responding to the hydrocarbon boom and other trends but also of building infrastructure that is more resistant to severe storms and other threats such as cybersecurity.

“The issue is how are all of these developments going to go in the right direction to get us where we need to be in, say, 2030, in terms of resilience and economic performance,” he said. The QER “will have some dollars attached in various places. There may be some sticker shock overall. But this is the kind of thing [where] the public and the private sectors are going to have to work together.”

A “Disconnect” in Climate Polling

Moniz said he hopes the 11 November joint announcement on climate change by the United States and China “will prove to have been a watershed event in terms of getting global action, the kind that we need to have come forward in Paris” at climate negotiations in 2015. Moniz said that meeting the U.S. goals in the agreement, including reducing emissions by 26%-28% below the 2005 level by 2025, is a challenge.

“To get there, we are clearly going to need a lot of people rowing together in the same direction,” he said. “The polling that has come out now on climate increasingly confirms that there is very strong acceptance of the importance of climate change and the need to respond to climate change. It is also true when you ask for a priority listing of various issues, [it] comes pretty far down on the list.” He said the social sciences could help with this “disconnect.”

The U.S.-China announcement is significant, Moniz noted, because “it’s important just to have recognition that the Chinese government, the largest emitter in the world clearly, in effect is taking steps” to address achieving the peaking of carbon emissions around 2030. Moniz also underscored another aspect of the announcement that focuses on China’s intention by 2030 to increase to 20% its share of nonfossil fuels used in primary energy consumption. He said it is an ambitious goal that amounts to 10 gigawatts a month of total installed capacity.

Integrating Social Sciences at DOE

Moniz noted that before becoming energy secretary, he co-chaired a panel under the auspices of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). That panel produced a report in 2010 about accelerating the pace of change in energy technologies through an integrated federal energy policy. Among the report’s recommendations were that DOE, along with the National Science Foundation “should initiate a multidisciplinary social science research program to examine the U.S. energy technology innovation ecosystem, including its actors, functions, processes, and outcomes. This research should be fully integrated into DOE’s energy research and applied programs.”

The report suggested that the research program should look into questions such as how and why advanced energy technologies are accepted or rejected by consumers, what the barriers are to adoption of new technologies, what market conditions are needed for a technology to compete, and what the role of public policy is in promoting advanced technologies in the marketplace.

He emphasized that DOE is not setting up what could be called an office of social science research for several reasons. “First, we think it’s probably more effective when integrated into the entire program. But secondly, it would probably be suicidal to set up this kind of office at DOE, as all kinds of mission questions would certainly arise.”

Integrating social science research into programs “can be very effective and is the kind of thing which I believe we will continue to grow,” he said. “I’m not here to say that we have fully met the vision laid out in that PCAST recommendation, but I will say that we are certainly working to address many of those questions in an enhanced way and will continue to do so.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2014), Social sciences can help meet climate and energy challenges, DOE head says, Eos, 95, doi:10.1029/2014EO020447.

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