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Sociology translates to public action . . .

This occasional column highlights sociologists who successfully engage sociology in the civic arena in service to organizations and communities. Over the years, members of ASA and sociologists as individual professionals and citizens have sought to make the knowledge we generate directly relevant to our communities, countries, and the world community. Many sociologists within the academy and in other sectors practice the translation of expert knowledge to numerous critical issues through consultation, advisement, testimony, commentary, writing, and participation in a variety of activities and venues. Readers are invited to submit contributions, but consult with Managing Editor Lee Herring (, 202-383-9005 x320) prior to submitting your draft (1,000 to 1,200 words maximum).

The Global Carbon Project

An environmental sociologist researches the junction between carbon load and civilization

by Penelope Canan, National Institute for Environmental Studies, Tsukuba, Japan

I have a great job. I have the privilege during a two-year leave of absence (from the University of Denver) to work on fostering the inclusion of the social sciences into the earth system science partnership at the Global Carbon Project (GCP), located at the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Japan. There, until the end of this exciting opportunity in April 2006, I will be working on projects sponsoring collaboration across disciplinary boundaries both within and among the social and natural sciences, and, I do this on a topic of global significance: global warming and climate change.

Below I: describe the Global Carbon Project; outline how I got to this position; and invite your contribution to public environmental sociology.

Global Carbon Project

The GCP was created by the International Human Dimensions of Global Change, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, the World Climate Research Program, and DIVERSITAS, an international program of biodiversity science. There are two GCP offices: one in Canberra, Australia, which coordinates the natural science observations and analyses, and one in Tsukuba, Japan, which is dedicated to bridging the social and natural sciences. The overall aim is to develop a complete picture of the global carbon cycle including its biophysical and human elements together with the interactions and feedback between them. This goal requires investigation of the spatial and temporal patterns and variability in carbon pools and fluxes as well as a search for determinants of carbon cycle dynamics and identification of opportunities for intervention. The key questions for sociologists are related to what drive fossil fuel emissions and land use changes (e.g., deforestation, urbanization).

To integrate the physical and social dimensions of the global carbon cycle for the purposes of effective carbon cycle management, the GCP-Tsukuba conceives of the “global” as the collection of and interaction among local(e)s where social processes interact with the carbon cycle in real places, as well as in social space. Geographic places vary in terms of their natural endowments; climate patterns; development histories; cultural traditions; social and environmental values; socio-economic conditions; spatio-temporal patterns of land use and land cover; industrialization; and location in regional, national, and global systems of place stratification. These variables directly impact the carbon cycle.

The questions for science include how these variations are reflected in the carbon footprints of human settlements—from village to city, from mountain slope to coastal zone, from the tropics to the deserts? Are there regional constellations of communities of varying size, location, natural characteristics, and social organization that are more promising for a decarbonized future.

Planning for Carbon

The GCP is developing an Earth Systems Science framework for place-based carbon cycle research to support future regional development decisions. We call this effort the RC6 Initiative of the GCP. RC6 stands for “Regions, Carbon, Culture, Cities, Climate, Change and Consequences.” The scope of the RC6 Initiative can be understood to include the following:

1. Typologies of development legacies/political economies and current carbon footprints,
2. Dynamic, historical, comparative, contemporary, and future orientations,
3. Three spatial “shells”:
  • The city as entity (e.g., administrative boarders) with a continuous array of cities with populations greater than 500,000,
  • “Hinterland” or region (e.g., where most food, products, and labor exchanges occur),
  • Global footprint of embodied carbon fluxes;
4. Likely future carbon trajectories (i.e., footprints)—local, regional and global—and the effects of alternative development paths;
5. The relationship of urban and regional carbon cultures, consumption/lifestyle patterns, risk perceptions, and environmental values to the carbon cycle; and
6. An analytical framework and methodological approaches that best suit the goal of integrated place-based carbon cycle research, including an evaluation of existing models and scenarios regarding the carbon cycle.

RC6 activities underway at the GCP-Tsukuba office include an extensive literature review on urban and regional development typologies and indicators of sustainable development; an inventory of community development and carbon cycle case studies; and a comparison of efforts to model the carbon-human-climate cycle. We also promote locale-based carbon cycle science and decarbonization action networks through didactic seminars, symposia, and workshops. We actively link our activities with the emerging earth system science community in Japan and around the world.

How Did I Get Here?

My career as an environmental sociologist hardly has been linear since there was not an established track in environmental sociology when I was training. Instead, as I look back, serendipity and biography resulted in this identity. As biographical background, I’ll count an intellectual interest in communities (having lived in very many as the first daughter of a Marine Corps fighter pilot family), an abiding concern over social stratification (Catholic education), a social problem perspective on energy and natural resources (the so-called “first U.S. energy crisis” in the 1970s occurred when I was in graduate school), and a love of the law (the first PhD/JD student at the University of Denver, an emerging leader in socio-legal studies).

After a disastrous, very bruising experience as a faculty member of the University of Virginia and the Middletown Revisit in Muncie, I moved to the University of Hawaii where I found land use and resource extraction conflicts galore. I jumped in. It was there that I conducted a number of “social impact assessments” of geothermal energy, public transportation, airport facility siting, land use change, and public utility rate structures. In a comprehensive project known as the Moloka’i Data Book: Community Values and Energy Development, I worked with Michael Hennessy, graduate students in the university’s Urban and Regional Planning Program, and island residents to define and measure the structure of community values on the island of Moloka’i and how they informed the choice of electricity production options. Later I helped design a Social Impact Management System for the city and county of Honolulu.

SLAPPed into Action

In 1983 I returned to the University of Denver (where I’d received my PhD) for a one-year visiting position that turned into 20 years. There, a conversation over lunch about environmental groups getting sued for participating in public decision making processes led to a 20-year collaboration with law professor George Pring on SLAPPs or “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” that is the use of civil lawsuits to silence political speech. Our book, SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out (Temple University Press 1996), and our testimony before state legislatures helped lead to 23 states enacting anti-SLAPP laws.

Effective Regulation

In 1990 I was invited to serve on the Economic Options Committee of the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP) of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (UNEP). For the next 12 years I tackled practical and theoretical problems contributing to the Montreal Protocol’s extraordinary success in putting in place a global regulatory regime that has been implemented effectively. I served as lead author on chapters that defined the process for developing nations to qualify for phase-out project support under the Multilateral Ozone Layer Fund and established information needs for speedy technology transfer. In addition, with Nancy Reichman, I studied the TEAP as a lawmaking body and as a producer of norms. As our book, Ozone Connections: Expert Networks in Global Environmental Governance (Greenleaf 2002), explains, we combined participant observation with interviews and surveys to dissect the social system of global regulation into three intersecting networks—policies, programs, and projects—and showed how the networks evolved from the happenstance of initial contacts into complex working systems or regimes. Nancy and I received the Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for this public sociology.

For most of the past 25 years when I described myself as an environmental sociologist, people have scratched their heads and said, “What does sociology have to do with the environment? That’s a topic for the natural sciences.” Maybe that’s understandable, given that the Environment and Technology Section of the 100-year-old American Sociological Association is about 25 years old. But one thing is certain; things have changed. Now the demand for environmental sociology has risen dramatically as environmental conditions have deteriorated worldwide.

Surviving the “Anthropocene” Era

There are so many pressing environmental issues that need the insights of sociological thinking. The range is broad. Now, policymakers request sociological insight on values and attitudes, social processes, and institutions that could be used as social change levers regarding land-use decisions and fossil fuel consumption. Business leaders want to learn how to steer their companies to meet the “triple bottom line” of sustainable development (i.e., economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental quality). Natural scientists, including Nobel laureate chemist Paul Crutzen, dub this era the “Anthropocene.” They note that the “human dimensions” of global change are the most powerful forces in global geophysical, biochemical, and atmospheric systems, having moved the earth to an extremely hazardous condition, one without historical analog. Internationally powerful scientific communities have declared that a new Earth System Science—one that equally includes the social sciences—must replace the blinders of disciplinary specialization in earth sciences. (See Amsterdam Declaration 2001.) International treaties on planetary systems aim at social regimes that cover the protection of the stratospheric ozone layer, the warming of the earth, global climate change, and regional climate. Your talents are needed.

One opportunity is to participate in the GCP’s didactic seminar on Sociology and Global Warming the day before the ASA Annual Meeting, on Friday, August 12. Attend the seminar to learn more about this important domain of public sociology. See more information about GCP at