Sociology Facing Climate Change

by John Urry
Lancaster University

Sociological Research Online, 15 (3) 1

Received: 13 Jul 2010     Accepted: 19 July 2010    Published: 31 Aug 2010


This paper is based on a talk given at the BSA Presidential Event, held on 8 February 2010 at the British Library London, on ‘How to put “Society” into Climate Change’, chaired by John URRY.


Rajendra Pachauri (IPCC Chair):
‘The reality is that our lifestyles are unsustainable’
1.1 In a 2009 BBC news programme a major item showed how by 2030 the world may be confronted by a catastrophic ‘perfect storm’. This perfect storm would comprise runaway climate change, huge water, good and energy shortages and enormous population growth. It was striking to have the analysis of such a potential perfect storm in a mainstream news programme. It was illustrated by various reports on developments occurring worldwide that showed how such a possible perfect storm was already being formed. The storm we might say was already out to sea.

1.2 This BBC report went on to suggest that without the massive reversal of various high carbon systems, the world is racing headlong into multiple interlocking catastrophes. In other words, the storm will soon come onshore. And these interlocking catastrophes would leave much of the world’s population poorer, less mobile, hungrier and more likely to be fighting for increasingly scarce resources. It is this possible future that provides the context for this brief paper.

1.3 The understanding of these processes has been dominated by two groups of analysts. First, there are many climate change scientists working in and across a wide range of different scientific disciplines. Much of their work comes to be synthesised every few years in the authoritative and extensive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), massive Reports endorsed by most governments around the world. The IPCC first reported on the scale and impact of global climate change in 1990 and its fourth report appeared in 2007. Drawing upon this science are many scientific journalists and popularisers who play a key role in interpreting and disseminating the sciences of climate change for a much wider public. The sciences of climate change are preeminent here, a ‘science first’ model with relatively little understanding of the ways in which ‘societies’ are organised and indeed might be re-organised.

1.4 Second, however, it is clear in many ways that climate change is not a purely ‘scientific’ problem and that human actions are complicit within the apparent warming of the planet. Also such warming will only be slowed down or reduced if ‘humans’ around the world were to behave differently. There are thus human causes and responses to climate change as well as to various other resource shortages. And it is economists who are typically viewed as being able to examine these ‘human’ dimensions of such global climate change, both in terms of the causes and in terms of what are known as adaptations to, or mitigations of, climate change. This central role of economics was reflected in the very influential Stern Review, republished in 2007 as the seven hundred page The Economics of Climate Change. Stern states that economics has much to say about the assessing and managing the risks of climate change.

1.5 So in terms of disciplines the sciences and economics have got there first and totally dominate climate change analyses and much of the literature on resource shortages, such as those of oil, gas, water and food which all interconnect with changing climates.

1.6 By contrast this paper seeks to engender a sociology of climate change, to put sociology central to this set of issues. I elaborate the following ten ‘commandments’ which seek to place sociology within these urgent academic and policy debates.

  1. Climates have been typically thought of as fixed and unchanging; weather changes but climate does not. But over the past two or three decades, science and societies have come to accept that climates can change and that how societies are organised contributes to ‘strange’ changing climates.
  2. During the last few centuries and especially in the twentieth century various high carbon systems were established within various societies of the ‘west’, so much so that some refer to this as a new geological era of the ‘anthropocene’. Societal changes brought about high carbon forms of life, as well as high population growth and growing greenhouse gas emissions. Especially important in this patterning from the twentieth century were interlocking carbon interests, what we might call the ‘carbon military-industrial complex’ in many societies and around the globe. This seeks to extend major carbon-based systems including electric power and national grids; the steel-and-petroleum car system; suburban housing filled with household consumption goods; technologies for networking; distant, specialized leisure sites; and aeromobility.
  3. And in order to overcome the problems of this high carbon world it is necessary to bring about a wholesale shift to an interlocking set of low carbon systems – this involves establishing and examining the sociological characteristics of such a low carbon ‘economy-and-society’. It is necessary to develop not post-modern but what we could call ‘post-carbon’ thinking and practice. Thus the utterly crucial need is for social science analysis of how to move to interlocking low carbon systems which on the face of it will provide lower levels of measured income, economic wellbeing and population. This is not at all simply a matter of policy prescription or of transformed economic incentives, but of transformed patterns of social life within most domains that especially counter the power and embedded interests of the ‘carbon-military-industrial complex’.
  4. Within a single society such a low carbon shift is more likely, the more equal the society in question, the greater the scale of local social experimentation, the more that decisions can be taken locally or at least nationally, and the greater the finance, human capital and social capital that can be put into post-carbon programmes, initiatives and experimentation. Especially important is developing vanguardism in ‘low carbon’.
  5. If there is no move to a low carbon economy-and-society within most of the current high carbon countries and cities within a couple of decades, then most places through changing climates and the relative or absolute decline in oil and gas supply (with resulting consequences for food and water) will develop highly negative system effects. These include greater levels of ungovernability through regional warlordism (cf oil producing states); major losses of income and population; and large increases in personal and system surveillance through a kind of ‘green Orwellism’. And this move to low carbon economy-and-society is fundamentally difficult to bring about because it involves ‘reversing’ most of the systems set in motion in the twentieth century. Such a reversal comes up against systemic carbon interests; the long term path dependencies of existing systems including the nature of routines; the need to change multiple systems simultaneously; and the difficulty of orchestrating and generalising a global polity to reset global agendas when there are many other contending global agendas. Societies are generally slow to change and states are rarely able to bring about change from the top partly because of how resistance and opposition is engendered. Given especially the power of carbon interests, is there in fact time to make such a seismic shift or reversal?
  6. Change from the ‘top’ is possible through a ‘shock doctrine’ and a ‘global war’ that short-circuits normal procedures and protocols (as after September 11). A massive collapse of oil supply or oil price increase or dramatic flooding or drought in a global city could be the event that provokes such a ‘climate change chock treatment’. This also presupposes that global science, politics and media all successfully frame this array of complex issues as bound up with and contributing to ‘changing climates’. Such a shock doctrine normally involves either or both the loss of rights, representation and democracy (as with Pinochet) or the support and encouragement of regimes that less deeply protect rights, representation and democracy. Shock doctrines and many kinds of ‘war’ are generally bad for any enduring democratic practices. So developing a low carbon ‘economy-and-society’ might result through a shock, a bit like neo-liberalism got imposed more or less worldwide during the 1980s. But this would be a corporatist, top-down surveillance low carbonism as opposed to a more localist, decentralised self-organising low carbonism. But both seem hard to realise so they have only a low-to-medium probability of being realised.
  7. Changing climates, rising world population (from 6+ to 9+ billion), and declining oil will transform the resources underlying societal formation and reproduction even in the rich North. This could transform future societies although we can anticipate variations in the significance attached to climate changes, in the degree of acceptability of different kinds of change, and in the willingness to seek to regulate and govern such uncertain futures. Indeed climate future and societal future seem similarly beset by huge ‘uncertainty’ (unknown unknowns) as opposed to calculable risks.
  8. The sciences of climate change have various characteristics: they are expected to deliver predictions for policy makers although the ‘science’ is still being formed; there are different ‘sciences’ involved in determining the possibly changing climates and they pursue different theories, methods and types of result; most of the science is not laboratory-based with the earth formed into a laboratory and this involves known and unknown unknowns; and most of the predictions of future temperature increases through General Circulation Models are unable to factor in multiple physical and social feedback mechanisms which render these models gradualist in their predictions.
  9. Central to climate futures is human behaviour. This is now reasonably well-understood but so far the discipline that has captured, represented and modelled such behaviour is economics, as in the 2006 Stern Review. But to the extent that economics is dominant in investigating changing climates, the less likely policy-makers will be able to engender the social-and-physical preconditions for a low carbon economy-and-society. We know that economics is partly performative especially of markets including that for emissions. And it performs a model of human behaviour that is individualistic and utility-maximising. But if it is systems that have to change, then the social sciences need to displace economics because of its undesirable performative nature. And this has to happen fast since systems need to change speedily so as to create positive feedbacks upon each other taking them away from existing patterns being performed by utility-maximising individuals as modelled by economics.
  10. Sociology has spent much time examining the nature of modern societies, of modernity, but mostly failed to analyse the carbon resource base of such societies. And in particular it did not examine how movement within that society (cf Simmel, Bauman) has been overwhelmingly based upon oil which we might say makes the world go round. Oil provides at least 95% of transportation energy, but oil is no longer in such cheap and plentiful supply or comes to be priced or rationed so as to minimise use because of its climate change emissions, then the world may slow down. This would be true of people, objects, food, water indeed science itself. Preparing or even planning for a less mobile future is another challenge of a post-carbon sociology of the sort I am advocating here.

1.7 Overall we can note in conclusion that there are three main approaches with regard to climate change: scepticism, gradualism and catastrophism. Each has something to give to the debate here.

1.8 From scepticism we should acknowledge the huge levels of uncertainty (the unknown unknowns) with regard to economics, political, social and physical processes especially in medium to long term futures. And we should be especially way of scientists, corporations or policy makers who seek to provide a single magical technological fix that could deal with what appears to be changing weather patterns which may be evidence of changing climates. Almost certainly there are no such single fixes and no killer techniques in and of themselves.

1.9 From gradualism we should appreciate the way in which the IPCC has been effective at bringing about a global mobilisation – which has significantly demonstrated especially since around 2005 how climates have changed and that greenhouse gas emissions are in part the likely past and future cause of such changes. Hence gradualism has helped to transform the global context.

1.10 From catastrophism we should accept especially from ice core research that climates have in the past not been stable and have see-sawed around, as Richard Alley expresses it. And there are good reasons to believe that we are in another period of abrupt and rapid change. Fred Pearce says that planet Earth does not generally engage in gradual change but is far cruder and nastier. So like many other catastrophist thinkers, including Anthony Giddens, I would argue that if climate change goes unchecked, the consequences are likely to be ‘catastrophic’ for human life on earth in the medium to long term.

1.11 Thus all societies around the world need to effect a huge shift to avoid or at least mitigate such catastrophes, a shift that would be unparalleled in human history, from a growing high carbon economy-and-society to a dramatically lower carbon economy-and-society. And this has to be effected according to Nicholas Stern within a decade or two. The new trajectory has to be in place within this very short period.

1.12 And the problem about this is that this is not a question of changing what individuals do or do not do but changing whole systems of economic, technological and social practice. Systems are crucial here and not individual behaviour. And systems are not just economic or technological but also presuppose patterns of social life which come to be embedded and relatively unchanging for long periods, such as the ‘steel-and-petroleum’ based automobility system for all of the twentieth century as it spread across the world. Such high carbon systems have got into social life. And that is why I refer to the need to reverse ‘economy-and-society’. Systems form habits and these habits are the stuff of social life and are not easily changeable certainly not by states, in which people have low trust, instructing people to change. The sociological agenda is thus we might say long, complex and urgent. It is especially concerned with changing systems that will appear to populations as more desirable, fashionable and necessary.

UniS: University of Surrey logo University of Stirling logo British Sociological Association logo Sage Publications logo Electronic Libraries Programme logo Epress logo