July/August 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 6

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Sociologist Plays Key Role
in Academy’s Climate Change Report

New ASA climate task force is beneficiary of Academy’s explicit imprimatur on social component of climate change

Daniel Fowler, ASA Communications Office

When it comes to advancing climate change science, most non-sociologists might be surprised to learn that sociologists have much to contribute. This is largely because the issue of climate change in the media comes from the geologic, atmospheric, oceanographic, and physical sciences.

And, perhaps political expediency and those with vested interests have narrowly framed the issue as well. The result is a scientifically incomplete characterization of an exceptionally complex phenomenon. This framing is devoid of the very real "human equation" and natural dynamism that derives from human societal behavior.

So, it’s no wonder that many non-sociologists might be inclined to say that climate change is strictly informed by the climatologists, the ecologists, and the glaciologists.

But they would be wrong, according to Thomas Dietz, a professor of sociology and environmental science and policy at Michigan State University. Dietz served as vice chair of a National Research Council (NRC) panel, which recently produced a report, Advancing the Science of Climate Change, that promises to gain the attention of policymakers through its unique and comprehensive scientific perspective including social components of global warming. The report, one of five congressionally requested studies known as "America’s Climate Choices," looks at the status of the United States’ climate change research efforts and proposes measures for improving and expanding current understanding. The NRC is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

"I think sociology is critical to the study of climate change because we work from the micro level of individual decision making to the macro level of nation states and global institutions," said Dietz. "We’re comfortable with long-term historical research and multiple empirical methodologies, and we have a growing tradition of interdisciplinary work with collaborators in the ecological and physical sciences."

At the same time the NRC released the report from Dietz’ panel, it also issued two others from the series, Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change and Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. The remaining two reports are scheduled for publication later this year.

Multidisciplinary Approach

The NRC panels responsible for the reports consisted of a multidisciplinary collection of experts in fields ranging from sociology and international affairs to atmospheric sciences and Arctic biology.

"I have been working on the role of social science in global climate change for 20 years, and this is the clearest and strongest integration of social sciences in the scientific agenda that I’ve seen," Dietz said of the NRC’s effort. In fact, Dietz said, the reports are the first on global climate change from the National Academy or a "comparable body where social science is an equal partner to the physical and biological sciences."

Dietz Briefs Obama Administration

As vice chair of this NRC panel, Dietz’ duties extended beyond helping to produce a high-quality report. He was also responsible for briefing John P. Holdren, the Obama Administration’s top science advisor, on the content of his group’s study.

"John [Holdren] was clearly well aware that these reports were coming, very interested in what they were saying, and very engaged in discussing them," Dietz said. "It focuses the mind to brief someone who knows as much about the subject as anyone in the world and who will in turn brief President Obama. So, we found it a pretty intense experience to convey the key points of three substantial reports."

Representatives from the panels, which produced the other two completed reports, also addressed Holdren during the May 18 meeting in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which Holdren heads. Members of the three groups also briefed the House, the Senate, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other federal agencies about the reports, said Dietz, who noted that other briefings are being scheduled.

ASA and Climate Change

As the NRC continues its climate change work, the ASA has a concurrent effort of its own underway.

In February, the ASA Council approved a proposal from the ASA Environment and Technology Section to create a Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change (see March 2010 Footnotes). Task force chair Riley E. Dunlap, Oklahoma State University, and a selection subcommittee are currently reviewing the nearly 40 nominations. Task force members are expected to be named by the end of this summer and will eventually produce a report applying sociological analysis to the climate change issue. The task force will make public policy recommendations based on that analysis.

But, Dietz said it’s important for the task force to extend beyond sociology. "It would be a shame if the task force only looked inward and wrote a report by sociologists for sociologists about sociology exclusively," he said.

"There’s a receptive audience in the federal government and in the larger climate change research community," said Dietz. "A report that engages the issues already in their minds could have substantial impact as well as open a space for discussing emerging issues. I hope the task force can see these [NRC] reports as a foundation on which they can build."

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