The most urgent long term risk to the current planetary biosphere, humans included, comes from human-induced global warming. If we continue our “business as usual” pathway of increasing carbon emissions into the planetary atmosphere, the atmosphere will retain increasing amounts of solar heat. The best science predicts this warming will cause increasing levels of disruption from changing temperature zones, more violent and destructive weather-related disasters, and sea level rises. We may face “tipping points” in the global ecology that cause runaway warming, for example from massive methane releases from warming permafrost tundra and frozen subsea methane. The potential disasters for humans and other species have already been well-catalogued in many studies and publications and need not be repeated here. The potential for famine, forced migration and resulting conflict will grow over time. Needless to say, this is a future we do not want.
How can we convert this bleak scenario into a future that we do want? “We” represents the reflective element of the biosphere that has a degree of future-regarding, goal-setting and self-directive capacity—the human species. In this climate change situation, triage—letting the weakest die—is not a possible solution. This is because, compassion aside, the weak can eventually get powerful military weapons to press their case. The crisis in Syria started with long-term drought. Therefore, the only feasible goal is the seemingly most idealistic one, that proposed by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “Zero Carbon, Zero Poverty.” In this pathway, while the developed countries would radically reduce their own use of fossil fuels and substitute green energy, they would also offer massive assistance to the developing countries to build their growth on green and not dirty energy. To attain this vision would require great cleverness in getting the support from the wealthy countries but also in getting the renewables to the ordinary people without falling into the pockets of kleptocratic states and power-holders. It is the irony of our age, the Anthropocene, that global geochemical necessity enforces a new collective logic upon humanity, wherein the most idealistic pathway becomes the only realistic one.
But humanity is notorious for thinking in short-term, self-centered logic and denying longer-term discomforting realities. Industrial and post-industrial civilizations have developed through and remain largely dependent upon cheap energy from fossil fuels and developing societies have been following in their paths. Despite severe inequalities and a continued expansion of population in some developing societies, this form of growth has produced great overall advances in human welfare around the planet. In so doing, though, this growth has ravaged the spaces for other forms of life, producing massive declines in biodiversity. And now, this growth is facing the longer-term negative feedback of climate change. As long as we equate growth and prosperity with the carbon economy, we are faced with a perilous dilemma of choice between prosperity and environmental protection. Solar and wind energy sources have reached general price parity with fossil fuels, and so have the economic and technical capacity to replace them in producing prosperity. But for fossil fuel companies and countries, their habitualized dependence upon the existing institutions of the fossil fuel energy economy, in production, delivery, sales and usage, binds them to it with an addict’s passion. Currently, they are flooding the global market with cheap fossil fuels, which stymies the market for renewables. Despite the looming icebergs, many fossil fuel companies and the countries where they exercise political dominance remain, like the Titanic, staunchly determined to continue full speed ahead on their current course.
Struck by the growing risks of climate change, global institutions and NGOs have issued increasingly urgent calls for carbon emissions reduction and forest preservation. However, international negotiations have been hampered by disagreements over what to do. These tensions are based in different national perceptions of the reality, risk, responsibility and priority of climate change as filtered through the political process. Negotiators and other actors lack not only a nuanced grasp of other countries’ perceptions, practices and policies, but also of the domestic social and political processes behind them.
Given this momentous global situation, what helpful roles can best be played by the social sciences, and by sociology in particular? Of course, active pursuit of the “Zero Zero” goal is necessary at all levels of society, from the personal to civil society to the national and the global. But as an intellectual discipline dedicated to the explanation of events and processes in human society, sociology can best contribute to the solution of our “clear and present” climate change danger through the application of its craft. Sociological research should do its best to pinpoint and clearly reveal, through empirical study at the many levels, the mechanisms in society that keep it on a carbon track or divert it to a greener future. This can be our best piece of the puzzle of solution. In order to attain the clearest understanding of social processes, sociologists require an objectivity and even an empathy and respect for all the actors in this all-too-human game, even the most egregious fossil fuel pushers. Otherwise we risk creating straw demons as our driving forces.
Research on the global energy transition is a world-wide effort that requires sociologists from many countries and regions to join forces to conduct global analyses. It is also a trans-disciplinary effort wherein sociologists will as appropriate want to collaborate with other social scientists, the natural sciences and the humanities and those who can convey such findings in more accessible format. One useful recent compendium of work on this problem by American sociologists is Climate Change and Society-Sociological Perspectives (Oxford 2015). I have been using chapters from this in my undergraduate course on climate change with considerable success.
International agreements on sharing the burden to mitigate climate change have been stymied by the diversity of national responses to the problem. The international research project Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks (Compon) devised by many colleagues and me is designed to contribute to this bottleneck. Since inception in 2007, the Compon project has developed three thrusts of research to develop systematic and explanatory knowledge about the cross-national differences that bear upon global cooperation for climate change mitigation. The first thrust concerns the detailed analysis of how the major newspapers in 17 cases (16 countries plus Taiwan) frame climate change. The cases include both major emitters and those significant for other reasons such as their mitigation policies or special circumstances. For this we developed a set of over 130 frames that largely capture the cross-case variation in framing. In additional use of the newspaper articles, the second research thrust uses the Discourse Network analyzer software to examine clusters of stances on climate change and their cited supporters and antagonists. As a third thrust, the one most directly connected to the political process, we developed a common policy network survey instrument for use across multiple cases. The policy network survey captures networks of influence that are acted out around climate change policy issues among engaged organizations (from state and society). This data enables the research teams to study and compare, for instance, the flow of scientific knowledge, how it gets framed, and the advocacy coalitions that bear it into the policy-formation process. We currently have about 12 cases (and growing) participating in this policy network survey data collection.
In addition, Cifor (the Center for International Forestry Research) has applied parts or adaptations of the Compon method to 8 developing countries to study the implementation of the REDD+ program of subsidies for forest preservation. Up to this point, Compon and Cifor case teams have produced over 50 publications from their data (see www.compon.org under publications). The Compon project now has teams in over 25 societies and invites the participation of new researchers, new cases and new methods.
Jeffrey Broadbent holds a BA in Religious Studies-Buddhism from U.C. Berkeley (high honors) (1974), M.A. in Regional Studies-Japan from Harvard University (1975) and the Ph.D. in Sociology (1982) from Harvard University. He was a Junior Fellow at the Michigan Society of Fellows, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1983-86) under the mentorship of Charles Tilly, and is currently Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota. His book, Environmental Politics in Japan: Networks of Power and Protest (Cambridge University Press, 1998) won the Masayoshi Ohira Prize (2001) and the “Best Book Award” Environment, Technology and Society section, American Sociological Association (2000). He is the co-author of Comparing Policy Networks: Labor Politics in the US, Germany and Japan (Cambridge 1996), and co-edtor of East Asian Social Movements: Power, Protest and Change in a Dynamic Region (Springer 2011). The author has received Fulbright, National Science Foundation and SSRC/Abe Fellowships, and is the founder of the Compon project, Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks.
Banner Image: Smokestacks, image based on photograph by Alfred T. Palmer, 1941 (public domain; original at the Library of Congress, United States).
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