Skip to main content

The Earth has humans, so why don’t our climate models?


While climate models have rapidly advanced in sophistication over recent decades, they lack dynamic representation of human behavior and social systems despite strong feedbacks between social processes and climate. The impacts of climate change alter perceptions of risk and emissions behavior that, in turn, influence the rate and magnitude of climate change. Addressing this deficiency in climate models requires a substantial interdisciplinary effort to couple models of climate and human behavior. We suggest a multi-model approach that considers a range of theories and implementations of human behavior and social systems, similar to the multi-model approach that has been used to explore the physical climate system. We describe the importance of linking social factors with climate processes and identify four priorities essential to advancing the development of coupled social-climate models.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Data availability



Download references


This work resulted from a working group jointly supported by both the National Institute for Mathematical Biological Synthesis, a synthesis center supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award DBI-1300426 with additional support from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875. BB, JW, and AZ additionally acknowledge support from NSF through VT EPSCoR Grant Nos. EPS-1101317 and OIA-1556770. FH additionally acknowledges support from the RUBISCO SFA, which is supported by the Regional and Global Model Analysis program activity in the Biological and Environmental Research office in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC05-00OR22725.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Manuscript was conceptualized at working group meetings including all authors. BB, KL, JW, LG, NF, and FH were all involved in writing the initial manuscript; BB, KL, JW, and LG revised the final manuscript. All authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript and approved of final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brian Beckage.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Code availability


Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Beckage, B., Lacasse, K., Winter, J.M. et al. The Earth has humans, so why don’t our climate models?. Climatic Change 163, 181–188 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Coupled social-climate models
  • Natural-human systems
  • Climate change
  • Behavioral theory