The 2024 Nils Klim Lecture, by Siddharth Sareen


On 4 June, the Nils Klim Symposium was held in honour of Laureate Siddharth Sareen. The manuscript of his opening lecture is published here in full.

Reflect and Act: Energy Social Science and Impact!

By Professor Siddharth Sareen

It is a marvel of our global history, however uneven, that academic institutions exist in every country worldwide. Israel’s destruction of these places of learning and reflection in Palestine during 2023-2024 was ground for such solemn concern precisely because the loss is almost unfathomable. Universities and other institutions of research and higher education stand, like us researchers, on the shoulders of giants. These are not just intellectual giants – although they have certainly been central to building up the sciences and humanities – they are also administrative geniuses, savvy politicians, and supporters of learning who have over the past several centuries collectively ensured that these institutions are founded, nurtured, expanded and able to endure in the face of countless societal challenges. The life of the world is plagued by many a quandary where it momentarily seems easier to tear down than to build up. Yet wisdom lies in nourishing continuity with the past even as we engage in the present and turn our minds and actions towards various desirable futures. That we have these academic institutions as physical temples of learning, rooted in – often inequitable and problematic – pasts and yet serving to convene our emerging generations alongside the stalwarts whom society has invested in over the passing decades, is an extraordinary achievement.

So we find ourselves, as social scientists working in these hard-won and painstakingly-kept institutions, in the fight of our lives, not just as researchers but as part of societies worldwide that are confronted with climate change and our seemingly collective inability to nip the problem in the bud. The manifestation of the actual phenomenon in its countless avatars – wildfires, floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, melting – multifaceted as it may be is but one aspect of the problem. It runs skin deep. Crack the surface and complex social contours are laid bare. Economic inequality, political concentration of power, lack of equal representation, marginalised perspectives and social exclusion, self-serving incumbency and alienation from public interests are a handful of the key elements that constitute the messy assemblage that upholds the fundamental drivers of climate change – drivers that are anthropogenic. These drivers are, namely, the unwillingness of a small privileged percentage of humans worldwide to accept sensible limits for responsible consumption within our planetary boundaries and earth’s regenerative capacity; the political failure to institutionalise systems that would prioritise sustainable production and block polluting supply-side practices; and the lack of popular resistance to our rollicking descent down the slippery slope of hubris into spiralling climate change despite considerable lip service and well-meaning but modest efforts towards rapid mitigation.

We are not in this fix – not as citizens, nor as researchers – due to a lack of our technological ability as global society to transform our energy systems and rein in our economic systems to value sustainable practices and prioritise low-carbon activities, thereby dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A quarter millennium since the Industrial Revolution got going proper, the early 21st century has been the most heartening period of the modern era with respect to developing affordable low-carbon energy sources that are rapidly scalable. Solar energy has become the most rapidly growing energy source worldwide in the 2020s. What we struggle with, however, perhaps more than ever before, is how to steer our collective human ambition and imagination towards valuing simpler things, finding beauty and joy without unbridled growth and runaway consumption, and most of all, caring for nature and each other. Unimaginable destruction has accompanied this era of industrialised warfare, rapacious capitalist extraction of natural resources from landscapes plundered beyond recognition, and the accelerated metabolism of human activities straining at the limits of earth’s abundance. In the blink of an eye, we are losing tropical rainforests, coral reefs, coastal ecosystems, glaciers, and the delicate balance that has endured for millennia to bring forth the lives that we so cherish.

How strange, and how terribly tragic, that we seem unable to muster the requisite gumption to get our act together. Is this collective failure compatible with the same world that has kept alive its academic institutions, many of them incredibly well resourced, to ensure the continuity of knowledge and advancement of our understanding of complex realities and concerns beyond our narrow interests and spheres of existence? This is a question that should concern social scientists. Given the primacy of our energy systems and the need to transform them for our very survival as a society with some possibility of equity and inclusion (rather than mass struggles for survival and over a shrinking resource base in the midst of rising uncertainty), it is incumbent upon us to attend to questions of energy transition and transformation. Since the 2010s, dawning recognition of this responsibility has spurred on timely and exciting energy social science research and education. More than ever before, we now see insights propagate from and across energy geographers, energy science and technology studies researchers, energy anthropologists, political ecologists, environmental sociologists, energy humanities scholars, development researchers, and energy governance scholars (such as political scientists). This brings me to the question I wish to address. Under dire circumstances worldwide, how can the insights that energy social scientists hold enable equitable transitions to low-carbon energy futures?

Energy Social Science and Impact

Reflection is a form of action at frontiers of understanding. It is important to recognise it, as it is at the core of all science, and provides a foundation to inform action and impact. Energy social scientists have reflected upon the deadlocks and breakthroughs that relate to low-carbon energy futures. During rapid global innovation and power tussles over energy systems, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is thriving. This means there is an increasingly solid basis in place for energy social science to inform and inflect decision-making on energy futures. Yet how does academic reflection translate into action to enable equitable transitions? To address this pressing query, it is vital to examine the roles energy social scientists play in governing energy transitions.

We are peculiar creatures, operating in academic institutions that are typically considered as being at a remove from ‘the real world’ of broader society. The intent of giving people space to think and reflect, to exchange learning and build continuity into the knowledge enterprise, comes with the risk of insulating researchers too much from the pace and urgency of particular societal challenges, such as climate change. While tens of millions of vulnerable people have been displaced already by the 2020s, and the global discussion increasingly recognises our likelihood of causing several degrees of global warming well beyond the 1.5˚C limit of the Paris Agreement – and has begun to focus on ‘loss and damage’ related to climate adaptation – energy social scientists have to worry about any number of far more banal concerns.

Early career researchers have to consider job security and tenure, linked to which they make choices about their academic practice, such as where to publish outputs, what sort of disciplinary or interdisciplinary profile to cultivate, and how to land competitive research grants (and then implement them) while maintaining some agency in developing particular competencies, conceptual engagement, and gaining experience with and across sectors and contexts. Mid-career researchers have a firmer appreciation of the complexity of academic practice and institutions, having navigated some of these themselves, and are more equipped to be deliberate in their choice-making, but also more burdened with responsibilities internal to the academy more than outward-facing for transdisciplinary engagement. Some use this phase to ripen particular competencies and priorities, for instance advancing their societal outreach and striking up novel transdisciplinary collaborations as key parts of their oeuvre for impact. Senior researchers often have greater place attachment, having spent their influential career in a place over a span and cultivated extensive networks, playing an enabling – often invisible – role, while dealing with the many demands that come with greater experience and carrying a larger share of responsibilities. At best, they build institutions around them to enable others, or contribute at a high level to advance and renew disciplinary practice all over the world. At worst, they become complacent and rest on their laurels, enjoying the creature comforts and recognition of the academy without giving back as much as they cost in sheer salary terms.

While all of these broad strokes are generally applicable to energy social scientists as much as to other researchers, with caveats for individual variation, they require some refinement due to the distinct nature of such researchers. Social scientists are interested – and trained – in studying society while being positioned in relation to it (and partly in it, regardless of particular contexts of study and one’s own trajectory, due to the very process of conducting research). We have never been used to some sort of assumed distinction from our subject of analysis, but rather approach this as a matter of contextual definition and explicit situated engagement. This form of reflexivity is further sharpened when it comes to energy social scientists. Conducting social science research on energy in the 21st century, even as energy systems undergo substantial, rapid (and in some cases frustratingly slow) changes, is an incredible challenge and opportunity to renew our understanding of change itself, whether applied to institutions, infrastructures, practices, relations of accountability, social difference, or related concepts and phenomena. While one never steps into the same river twice, a river being in spate or disappearing underground all of a sudden poses challenges with a quantum difference when compared to the more philosophical pondering of whether one’s experience of a seemingly similar river is changed by less dramatic shifts in that entity and in oneself, as well as in one’s surroundings with the passage of time. With energy transitions underway, albeit patchily, energy social scientists are grappling with changing topographies and ontologies at the core of our enquiry that place novel demands on our epistemologies.

All this scene-setting brings me back to the present question of what this reflexivity and momentousness of our particular scholarly enquiry does in terms of work in and on the world. How can the insights that energy social scientists hold enable equitable transitions to low-carbon energy futures? It can seem an ironic question at times, when we inhabit worlds and practices in systems rigged for a rapid pace of production, exchange, and measurement – we travel relatively often and cause considerable carbon emissions in the process; we tend to be or become upper middle class people (at least over time) and often live in contexts where our personal spheres embody considerable privilege and security, even respect; and some of us work at quite a bewildering pace and with a span of coverage that many outside academia would find quite puzzling, even to the point of scepticism. How many things can one be an expert in, say when evaluating grant applications? Well, perhaps half a dozen, split by a lunch break? This is only meant half in jest. Energy social scientists are in high demand, with society catching up to the value of some of the work that we have been putting together since the early 2010s in increasingly focused and cohesive ways. This means both that there is lots to be done, and also that researchers feel it incumbent upon themselves to contribute as much as they can, given the very real calamitous stakes that vulnerable peoples and nature increasingly face perforce.

Reflect and Act

So to the endgame. As energy social scientists, we navigate challenges in our ontological practice: we work hard, often consume highly in some respects even while trying to be conscientious in others, and face trade-offs. Should we let a good article on a relevant theme go through, or press harder for marginal enhancement in quality, knowing it may well put back publication by many months? Do we pursue excellence for its own sake as some sort of intellectual achievement, or do we value putting it to work for its logical implications equally, perhaps even more? This last issue is one that haunts the daily practice of researchers who care about impact, given the yawning gap between scientific knowledge and policy evolution and implementation. Fossil fuels have already been subsidised by trillions of dollars in the early 2020s, even as the world blows past globally agreed-upon climate change limits despite renewable energy sources having become economically competitive and being rapidly scaled up. The self-interest of elites drives poorly thought-out trajectories for future infrastructure development, for instance continuing to tie many a city into imposing forced car dependence amongst its inhabitants (despite its energy and space intensity), or incentivising people to take frequent leisure trips by air by marketing it as a more desirable lifestyle choice rather than promoting thriving local community activities and infrastructures. It can seem redundant to run projects that yield established insights about priority-setting, or even meaningless if the ample existing sources of evidence – and analysis, policy advice, and outreach! – have yet to bring about even obvious measures for low-carbon energy futures.
Being right for its own sake can only get one so far. And from a conceptual point of view, it can even become sterile – railing against the political economy of a sector does less to advance novel understanding or inform real-world change than engaging with that political economy and teasing out why it refuses to budge. Perhaps such engagement, by situating knowledge among practitioners and forming unusual alliances, by percolating into the embodied knowledge of well-positioned actors who make decisions but lack time to keep up with the state-of-the-art in their busy work schedules, can get us further than the most scintillating but ultimately alienating forms of critique that primarily serve to bolster our reputation amongst kindred spirits. This is not only an argument for transdisciplinary practice as something that adds value beyond one’s academic discipline or disciplines. It is also an argument for such engagement beyond our comfort zone as an essential component of interdisciplinary exchange and disciplinary renewal. Reaching beyond one’s comfort zone does not necessarily entail operating in discomfort, it can also be appreciated as a way to expand the safe space in which understanding can blossom across lines of difference.

Yet this is hardly roses all the way. Transdisciplinary engagement is difficult, often disappointing, endlessly frustrating, and can leave one feeling alone, perhaps bitter, unappreciated, misunderstood. Many practitioners see energy social scientists as some sort of entertaining peacock, a novelty in a mix that usually comprises engineers discussing and operating transitioning energy systems, trained in different jargon and less equipped to partake in densely technical discussions. One can take something away from such experiences and dynamics, but it would be overly optimistic to claim that such exchanges always – or even often – lead to change and mutually beneficial knowledge transfer. Far from it! They can make one painfully aware of the Sisyphean task of building bridges across siloed modes of practice where we sorely lack common references and mutually aligned incentives. In a sense, that is the work we must perform: build a common basis in understanding. Not only or even predominantly with experts, but with all manner of political constituencies that need to join forces to rally for equitable low-carbon energy futures. In spending time working with and dwelling on the gaps and frustrations, we also identify the links where the chain of logic is frayed, and where society requires informed advocacy and coalition-building. We can cast light where darkness looms heavy.

These are terms too often dismissed out-of-hand as having more to do with activism rather than with academia, which is reflective of another key fault line that striates intellectual and societal understanding. Energy social scientists are well positioned to see where things fall apart between our knowledge base for the requisite actions to mitigate climate change and build more equitable and low-carbon energy systems versus the poor track record of global action to date. We probe the nooks and crannies where things go awry and identify sociospatial patterning at and across multiple spatial scales. It is we who must then take the lead in acting to enable political and material change. This can morph into a variety of forms, from actually participating in such measures, to identifying pathways and activating others who are better positioned to catalyse and propagate particular kinds of action.

In sum, our best chance of enabling low-carbon energy futures as energy social scientists is to be truly engaged researchers. Engaged with those who make and implement decisions in the energy systems and contexts where we conduct research, engaged with those (both people and ecosystems) who bear the brunt of adverse impacts in ongoing energy transitions (or stagnation) to bring forward their marginalised perspectives, and engaged in wider public discussion to help engender improved societal understanding of the scientific basis that must direct our time-bound decisions at this crucial juncture. Embracing this lodestar will guide our academic practice along virtuous pathways in ways too manifold and context-specific for generic principles to do justice to. But it is painfully evident when such engagement is not the driving force of energy social scientists’ endeavours, and it is a missed opportunity and abdication of responsibility. We have a historic moment we must seize, for which we require all hands on deck. The ethos of engaged research is what I refer to with ‘reflect and act’, and it is in doing so that we collectively imbue the idea of ‘impact’ in energy social science with meaning.