September/October 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 7

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From the Executive Officer

The Climate Is More than Right
for Sociology

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive
Officer

In August at the Annual Meeting in Atlanta, the ASA Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change held its inaugural working session. Although Task Force members received formal notification of their selection just two weeks prior to the Annual Meeting, nine of the 11 members (plus ASA Council Liaison John Logan) were able to participate physically or via conference call. Further testifying to the high-energy of this new task force, another 23 highly motivated sociologists attended the Task Force meeting. Task Force Chair Riley Dunlap led the meeting and explicitly sought input from all attendees. The enthusiasm in the room was palpable as participants discussed the myriad ways the insights of sociology could be applied to effectively responding to global climate change.

High-energy Group to Foster Low Carbon Footprint

ASA had announced the creation of the task force in March 2010 (Footnotes, p. 1), the members of which were selected from a large pool of stellar nominations. In fact, the selection committee was overwhelmed with so much relevant talent and experience that ASA President Evelyn Nakano Glenn formally approved a task force comprised of a "Steering Committee" of 11 who will meet physically and virtually. In a unique arrangement, the task force will also draw upon the knowledge and experience of approximately 20 additional nominees who will comprise a "Contributors" component but who will not meet face-to-face. When considering the fact that ASA task forces historically average nine members, the structure of the Global Climate Change Task Force speaks to the importance of the topic and the depth of topical knowledge among sociologists. While larger-than-average in size, the task force plans to make its carbon footprint as small as possible by relying on virtual meetings and online collaboration in order to reduce the need for physical meetings.

It’s Cooler in the Shade

In the July/August Footnotes (p. 3), readers learned of a new series of five climate change reports (see americasclimatechoices.org) commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences and produced by the National Research Council (NRC). Although the only sociologist on the National Academy of Science committee, Michigan State University professor Thomas Dietz has provided significant leadership and influence. He acted as the Vice Chair of the panel tasked with writing one of the five reports, titled "Advancing the Science of Climate Change," and he was responsible for briefing White House science advisor John P. Holdren on the report and its implications.

In the shadow of NRC’s attention to social aspects of climate change, ASA’s new task force will benefit from the Academy’s trailblazing and stature. But, there is plenty of room for ASA to provide leadership and formulations for policy development that could help human society alleviate, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. ASA’s task force development is already opening doors and providing additional avenues of influence. For example, flowing directly from ASA’s formation of the task force, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science and Human Rights Coalition invited ASA staff to chair a panel session, "Climate Change: Rights and Responsibilities," at the Coalition’s semi-annual July meeting in Washington, DC. The session was very well received.

Climate change science seems to be evolving and becoming increasingly sophisticated as the research community, federal agencies, and the international community that conducts global assessments increasingly embrace the importance of the social–cultural ingredients underlying contemporary global climate change. The ASA Task Force’s approved focus is timely and worthwhile, given this growing recognition of the importance of research on human and social factors in global warming, especially in relation to possible strategies for amelioration, mitigation, and adaptation.

Seeking Input on Global Climate Change

The leadership of the Section on Environment and Technology should be applauded for proposing that the ASA Council establish the new Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change. Still, the comprehensive nature of the charge to the task force leaves no room for ownership by any particular segment of ASA. Rather, global warming as a scientific problem knocks on the door of virtually all our specialties in terms of ideas, theories, research, and data. In selecting task force members, Council attempted to realize the Association’s diversity policies as well as provide diversity in career stage, institutional affiliation, and areas of expertise/research interests. (Readers can find the task force roster on ASA’s website at www.asanet.org/about/taskforces/sociology_and_global_climate_change.cfm.) In addition, Dunlap is in the process of soliciting comments, ideas, advice, and input from the leadership from across the spectrum of ASA sections and sociological specialties. Moreover, he is enthusiastic about receiving comments and suggestions directly from ASA members. You can send your comments to him at rdunlap@okstate.edu.

While topics are not committed in stone, the task force expects to produce an evidence-based report, or series, tapping the unique expertise and strengths of our discipline. It may address policy issues relevant to cultural and institutional structures. It will be attuned to contributing to fundamental knowledge and to examining the discipline’s possible interface relative to emerging "earth systems science" or "coupled human and natural systems." Very generally, the task force will examine social and cultural forces that drive greenhouse gas emissions and influence possible mechanisms of mitigation.

Other likely topics include adaptation to climate change; climate justice; civil society, and climate change; environmental communication (e.g., mass media) and individual beliefs (including risk perception); and governance in relation to the roles of the market, nation state, and civil society. Additional topics of possible interest focus on the sociological, methodological, and theoretical challenges that flow from the recognition of the anthropogenic origins of climate change and their implications for other human-caused large-scale environmental problems endemic to modern society. A "Sociology of Climate Science" could ensue that has value for organizing, assessing, and general decision support systems employed in environmental policy and elsewhere. Finally, implications for interdisciplinary and international science connections as well as for teaching and learning are also being considered.

A comprehensive scientific approach is urgently needed if policymakers are to craft effective responses to global climate change. That sociological science will be formally weighing in as a discipline on the causes, consequences, and responses to global climate change is something to celebrate. logo

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA.
She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.

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