‘This is what social science does’: how a new master’s degree aims to tackle the climate crisis

<span>The problem of plastics in the ocean is an example of an issue that went from scientific discovery to broad public awareness in a short timeframe.</span><span>Photograph: mattpaul/Getty Images/RooM RF</span>
The problem of plastics in the ocean is an example of an issue that went from scientific discovery to broad public awareness in a short timeframe.Photograph: mattpaul/Getty Images/RooM RF

When the Paris agreement was signed in 2015, it included a commitment to limit long-term global temperature rise to 1.5C, and was seen as a significant turning point in the fight against the climate crisis. But since then, progress has been slow and it’s not time humanity can afford to waste. The frequency and intensity of natural disasters such as drought, hurricanes and floods continue to increase – 95% of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic is already gone and wildlife populations have fallen by 69% since 1970.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said a “fundamental societal and systems transformation” is needed to tackle the impending climate emergency.

Part of the problem is a lack of attention to the importance of social change, Daniel Welch, programme director of the new master’s degree in social change, environment and sustainability at The University of Manchester, says. “The author Amitav Ghosh claims [in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable]the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture and, thus, imagination’. What we’ve found is people can envisage a society of sustainable consumption. But they really struggle to imagine the social processes involved to get us there.”

There is broad and deep support from the public to live more sustainably. One recent study from global social purpose organisation the Behavioural Insights Team found that 88% of Britons would like to make more sustainable choices if they could, and 86% would like government and businesses to do more to help others make more sustainable choices. Another report, from Deloitte – which surveyed 23,000 people across 44 countries – found that 55% of gen Z and 54% of millennial respondents research a brand’s environmental impact and policies before accepting a job. Among gen Alpha (those born since 2010), interest is even higher – almost seven in 10 (67%) say they want saving the planet to be the focus of their career.

While there are growing opportunities to work in this area, there is a real skills gap that needs addressing, Welch says. “There’s huge demand from organisations, NGOs, governments and thinktanks. There are psychologists there, there are behavioural economists there, but there’s very limited provision from a social science [perspective]. And there’s a deep irony there because this is what social science does. There’s a huge contribution to be made by people who specialise in understanding these processes of social change and how to help shape them.”

The launch of the new master’s degree at The University of Manchester is an attempt to bridge that gap. Students will cover a range of relevant topics including theories of social and behavioural change, the politics of global climate change, understanding big data for social research, and key issues in sustainable consumption and environmental sustainability. While some students may come from social science backgrounds, offers have also been extended to individuals with diverse humanities undergraduate degrees such as history, English, marketing and other related fields, provided they demonstrate a strong interest in the social sciences.

The university itself is home to the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI), which focuses on understanding and mitigating the negative impacts of consumerism on the environment, society, and economy, while also striving to foster positive changes towards more sustainable living.

The University of Manchester is ranked first in the UK and Europe (and second worldwide) for impact against the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, and is the only university that has consistently been in the top 10 for the past decade. As an institution, The university aims to reach zero direct carbon emissions by 2038 and is the only one in the UK to have social responsibility as one of its three core strategic goals.

Kevin Gillan, one of The university’s senior lecturers in sociology and a researcher at the SCI, will be teaching a new module on environmental activism and advocacy as part of the master’s degree, covering the history of environmental movements from the 1960s. He says the climate emergency is now at an inflection point, but the greater level of awareness shown by students gives him hope for progress.

“The speed at which we become aware of new issues has increased. Plastics in the ocean, for example – the time period from the scientific discovery and measurement of the problem to broad social awareness of it was very short. If you compare that with something like how long it took us to get good at recycling … that took decades to embed.

“Taking on the various environmental challenges obviously involves a lot of scientific knowledge,” he says. “It involves technological development and innovation … but that doesn’t mean change is going to happen. People don’t necessarily adopt [those measures]. Governments don’t follow through. So that’s where we see the sociological angle coming in … how do we embed these changes? In 2016, when I started teaching an undergraduate course called global social challenges, students were aware of climate change but didn’t have much knowledge. Now they’re coming in with the motivation to do something and the recognition that doing something might be their job, not something they do on the side.”

Welch agrees: “The human race has a tremendous imaginative capacity for cultural change. Lessons of history show that radical social and cultural change does happen, and it can happen in the space of a generation. But we need to understand those processes so we can help shape them.”

Find out more about studying at The University of Manchester and its new master’s degree in social change, environment and sustainability