The LUGO Press

Interview: Elena Bondarouk on the importance of the social sciences in climate research Illustrated by Laura Steel Pascual

Interview: Elena Bondarouk on the importance of the social sciences in climate research

The technological aspects of sustainability sometimes seem to have the upper hand in climate research. It is becoming increasingly clear, however that the social sciences are just as essential to taking climate action – for example by gaining attention in the latest IPCC report. But what exactly is the importance of the social sciences in research on climate change and sustainability? We ask Elena Bondarouk, assistant professor in Public Administration at Leiden University.

“I understand the relevance of this question, but I also find it too bad that this question is still relevant, and that it still doesn’t come naturally that it is necessary to involve social, governance or psychological aspects in climate research. If you want to involve citizens, you can’t just convince them by telling them which technology is best, you need to start a conversation and see what’s going on in people’s lives. Maybe they are way more worried about other things like poverty or loneliness, which is important for a government to know. A government can stimulate citizens to make certain choices, but how do they do that? What is a good policy? A good policy for who? And on what terms? You can’t just copy paste governance from the one case to another. Of course you can make international agreements, but in the end, the implementation happens on the ground, in The Hague, Otterloo, Twente, everywhere on a daily level.”

Elena Bondarouk is a lecturer and researcher at the faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University. She teaches courses in Public Policy analysis and Governance of Materials and Circular Economy, as well as supervises Master theses. In her own research, she specialises in the implementation of policies on air quality. Her interest in this topic started ‘by accident’ when choosing a topic for her PhD, after studying European Studies and completing her thesis on the lobbying of commercial diplomats in Indonesia.

“It is often about giving money, subsidies. I always say to my students, more money is not always the solution. More money also means that you take it away from somewhere else, for example healthcare or education. And something that is good for the climate isn’t always good for other things, like social policies. An example is subsidies on solar panels in the Netherlands. The people who got the subsidies were already quite wealthy, then you are actually stimulating the choice for people that maybe would have gotten solar panels anyway. And especially now that the energy bills are higher, those people profit while others can’t pay their energy bills. Therefore it is very important to think about who to give subsidies to, where this money needs to come from – hence where will you choose not to spend this money on, to decide where you want the money to end up and how you are going to manage it.”

“What I also find interesting is policy framing and how it can be used to convince people or how it can ‘sell’ a policy. It might be fun for everyone to join a participation event of their own municipality where citizens can have a say, so they can see how differently people perceive the same issue. I joined one consultation evening on the spatial planning of my street, that was meant to improve physical accessibility. I really admired the civil servants leading the discussion, because people started bringing up totally different subjects than physical accessibility, like moving the trashcans, removing the trams in total, or the possibility of one-way traffic. There were suddenly so many more unexpected subjects and concerns. So how do you then frame a policy in such a way that everyone sees the relevance of it and feels heard? For the citizens this participation evening was too late in the policy process, but the municipality had the idea that they were really trying to involve them by presenting several possible solutions for the spatial planning of the street. So, it is nice to say that ‘governance should be better’, but what is better governance? You have to get out there and try to understand what problems need to be faced.”

“That is why social issues are so important to keep in mind when dealing with climate issues. The technological development could already be there, but governments have other responsibilities and goals next to sustainability, like healthcare, education or social cohesion. We need to understand this inevitable struggle with priorities – this social process – better. The simple recommendation ‘better governance’ does not suffice, because what exactly should be better about it? That’s a social science question that is just as important to understand as any other question.”