March 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 3

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Sociological Lens Is Applied to
Global Climate Change

by Lee Herring, ASA Public Affairs Office

The disciplines of the social and behavioral sciences are well-positioned to play a central role in helping to attenuate global climate changes’ promised economic and physical threats to contemporary human societies. The technological innovations, easing of nuclear power and oil/gas drilling constraints, energy-saving machines and processes, and alternative fuel sources go only so far to ameliorate and counteract the ever-escalating man-made carbon emissions caused by fossil fuel usage around the globe. Rather, the behavior of millions of individuals in both rapidly developing and energy-hogging developed nations, as well as the structures of their social institutions—as they impact economic, political, legal, and governing policy—are far more important to the near-term future rate of change of our planet’s relatively thin, life-supporting biosphere.

The clarity of this fact has generally not been obvious in most corporate and government proposals to address global climate change. But, as public consciousness and scientific discovery have pushed our political institutions, marketplaces, and national security leadership to often serious debate and some action, the social science community has an opportunity to become a more visible player in national and international efforts to attack this global threat to humans and other species.

New ASA Task Force

Recognizing the opportunity, the ASA Council in February approved a proposal by the ASA Environment and Technology Section to establish a Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change. The Task Force is charged to produce a report applying sociological analysis to the issue of climate change. The Task Force will make a series of public policy recommendations based on that analysis. Council approved Riley E. Dunlap, Oklahoma State University, as Task Force Chair, and John Logan, Brown University, as ASA Council Liaison to the Task Force. (See sidebar calling for nominations of volunteers to serve on this task force.)

"Recognizing the opportunity, the
ASA Council in February approved
a proposal by the ASA Environment
and Technology Section to establish
a Task Force on Sociology
and Global Climate Change.

Mapping a Research Roadmap

In its 2009 Ecological Impacts of Climate Change report, The National Academy of Sciences said, "Climate Change is one of the defining issues of the 21st century . . . Humans are challenged to find . . . policies, practices, and standards of behavior to provide long-term economic opportunities and improved quality of life around the world while maintaining sustainable climate and viable eco-systems." The social sciences are key to meeting these challenges, and sociology is especially central to understanding the social structural dimensions of climate change and the necessary strategies for mitigating and adapting these factors.

Early this year, and perhaps evidence of the latest significant public engagement of sociology at the national level, the ASA and National Science Foundation (NSF) jointly published a summary of an important workshop on the issue of climate change research. It examines a critically important dimension of earth’s climate variation: Basic research on social determinants affecting global climate change. This report, Workshop on Sociological Perspectives on Global Climate Change, focuses on human sociology and behavior as it relates to the precipitous changes in the chemical and physical consistency and stability of the earth’s biosphere.

To advance research on global climate change, NSF convened faculty, graduate students, and policy experts at a two-day workshop to address two questions: What do we know and what do we need to know about the social dimensions of global climate change? The workshop was the basis for this report, which serves as a roadmap to reduce gaps and produce a more empirically valid advancement of scientific information and knowledge for policymakers to focus on the key elements in climate change: Social determinants of human behavior and the human participant in climate change.

Geological, atmospheric, terrestrial, biological, oceanographic, and chemical processes come to mind with reflexive speed when the public contemplates the scientific fields pivotal in solving these problems. But as policymakers have explored our planet’s faster-than-geologically-normal climate change, some have come to understand that a scientifically robust and complete approach requires research evidence on social mechanisms underlying our society’s institutional and individual behaviors, beliefs, and incentives regarding energy use and efficiency. Understanding the consequences of human sources of carbon emissions and environmental change are critical to designing and implementing sound policies and regulations to address adverse human impacts.

Sociology’s Long Engagement in Climate

Sociologists have long taken special interest in being engaged in climate and environmental issues and Footnotes has documented much of this engagement over the years by covering, for example, topics such as the Global Carbon Project (January 2005 and November 2005), global climate change (February 2008 and November 2007), green initiatives (April 2008), and environmental complexity (February 2003). This does not include work by disaster-focused sociologists such as Eric Klinenberg (author of the best-selling book Heat Wave) and others whose sociological research is directly relevant to myriad consequences of climate change such as local near-term destabilization of weather, including drought and disruption of food source species’ habitats.

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