Climate Change’s Overlooked Sociological Side

A Q&A with Robert J. Brulle about a new book by members of the American Sociological Association on what they can contribute to the climate debate.

Robert J. Brulle is a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University
Robert J. Brulle is a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University. Credit: Robert J. Brulle

Share this article

The American Sociological Association, like academic bodies from psychology and anthropology before it, is using a publication to urge world leaders to consider the social sciencesand not just the natural onesas they make climate change policy.

The ASA wants groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Group, which produces the National Climate Assessment, to consider its contributions to tackling the global threat as it extends far beyond physical circumstances.

The book, “Climate Change and Society” (Oxford University Press), is a series of academic essays by ASA members on issues they believe are critical to climate change policy,  including climate justice, consumption, mitigation and adaptation, public opinion and the social movements both for and against climate change action.

Robert J. Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University, co-edited the book along with Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University. Brulle is already a familiar name among policymakers for his research into the dark money flowing into climate change denial groups.

In an interview with InsideClimate News, Brulle discusses the book and sociology’s role in the climate change debate.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

InsideClimate News: The premise of the book is that sociology in particular and the social sciences in general should be components in discussing and dealing with climate change. Why isn’t that happening already?

Robert J. Brulle: What our concern was as sociologists is that you see what goes on in the discussions and it just sort of leaves out a lot of material that the social sciences can speak directly to.

What they have is partial and limited and misses a lot of more controversial aspects such as the battle over climate science, the role of social movements, the role of capitalism, the role of ideology. Things like that just aren’t included in the discussion and by bringing those into fore, it certainly makes the picture of the social origins and the social resolution of climate change much clearer.

It’s not that what’s there is wrongit’s just that it’s partial and we think we can add to it a lot more.

ICN: What would be some of the ways you can add to it?

RJB: We identify two things that sociology has unique competence to do. One is we can talk about large scale institutional processes and dynamics of institutions at a world systems level, at a corporate level, at an institutional level, which we think could add a lot of material and we have a lot of specific instances in the book. For example we have a whole section about climate skepticism, climate denialhow that is formulated, developed and promulgated through the media.

We talk about the driving forces of climate change, which go to the dynamics of large-scale capitalist enterprise and corporations and their role in it. So those are things that we think that we have unique ability to speak to.

ICN: So you’re saying, ‘If you bring us into this discussion, we’re the guys best suited to getting to the forces behind these issues in terms of societal pressures and societal institutions?’

RJB: I’m not going to say we’re best suited to doing that. It’s what we specialize in doing. I’m sure psychologists can talk to these issues; anthropologists can talk to these issues; political scientists can talk to these issues. And my point would bebut an atmospheric modeler can’t.

ICN: In the book you say, “Sociology can play a valuable role by asking questions that typically are ignored in climate change research.” What are some of those questions?

RJB: Let’s focus on one of the big perspectives that sociology has always grappled with: capitalism. Can capitalism accommodate addressing climate change in a meaningful way?

There are many capitalisms. Capitalism in Norway is very different from capitalism in Russia, vs. very different than capitalism in the United States, but they all still hinge on the idea that you have to maximize return on investment on a constant basis as the dominating infrastructure investment cost. The question is, can you modify that kind of system enough to make it amenable to actually reduce our carbon emissions quickly enough?

Now this is a debate. Sociology can contribute to that question. I don’t see that question being debated in the mainstream media or in the IPCC or even brought up. And in fact when you look at the National Research Council report, which I think we quote in there, they say ‘Well sure, if you reduce economic growth or you change population, that would certainly have an impact on climate change, but we’re not going to talk about that because we don’t think that that’s practical.’ So they just say ‘we’re not going to go here.’ Why? Well probably politically they’re actually correct. But if you don’t talk about it then it’s never going to become possible to even think about it. So sociology brings those kinds of issues to the fore.

Let me give you another one: consumption. The chapter on consumption details how people are socialized into what we call status consumption. That the fancier car you drive or the bigger house you live in somehow reflects on you as a person and your worth. Of course increased consumption drives carbon emissions. So the question is, how is that cultural belief system developed and maintained over time?

ICN: Why isn’t consumption embedded in the conversation now, even without sociologists at the table?

RJB: One easy answer is that it’s just not in their disciplinary competencies. But I think there’s a more subtle reason that explains part of thisthat when you start looking at the social organizational practices of companies, of nation states and start to look at them and say, ‘We really shouldn’t be consuming as much, we need to do steps to rein in consumption to deal with climate change,’ that’s not a particularly palatable political option for some politician to stand up and say ‘I want everybody in America to consume less so that we can give space to the developing world for their carbon emissions.’

ICN: Why is it so important from a sociological standpoint that this be addressed as part of the problem of climate change?

RJB: We know that the world is grossly unequal. And that the idea of climate change and climate justice is that the people who are going to suffer the brunt of this have the least capacity to adapt to climate change and are the poorest of the poor. And that becomes a major issue in who should take action to mitigate their emissions.

And so the question becomes one of real social justice. How can you justify a global system that does this to whole populations, whole continents, whole classes of people throughout the world and maintain this kind of global inequality in the face of climate change in that these people have done nothing or a very marginal contribution to producing the problem of climate change. Yet they’re going to suffer the most. They have the least adaptive capacity of anybody. They can’t move to another state. They can’t build a seawall. They have to stay there and adapt as best they can.

So this really sets up a real battle within the international community that needs to be resolved.

ICN: Much of this also comes up in Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, which came out after the book was written. So it would seem the Pope gets this.

RJB: Yes, very definitely.

ICN: Is this a happy coincidence?

RJB: What the Pope is drawing on is the same thing the sociologists are drawing on. We’re drawing on the same body of literature about climate justice and about the same concerns and it’s not surprising that there’s this confluence. I think that we’re sort of mutually supportive in that we provide a much more grounded, peer-reviewed, substantive foundation to the moral arguments made by the Pope.

ICN: You devote an entire chapter to climate change denial. Why is that coming up in the context of sociology?

RJB: If you want to understand the decision-making process around climate change and what policies come out of it, the policies that come out of it are the result of these political battles or political conflicts or consensus, but it’s a result of the political process. So if you want to look at the political process you look at all sides of all the parties who are engaging in the discussion and debate. And to say, ‘Oh we’re not going to look at the people that are against climate change action, we’re only going to look at the people that are for climate change action,’ is equally one-sided.

ICN: If I were to say to you, give me three of the most important questions that sociologists can ask, what would they be?

RJB: One of the things I look at quite a bitactually I’m doing research on this nowis what really drives public opinion about climate change? We have a great deal of information about the individual factors, but what is the role of media in driving this? A more sociologically embedded notion of what drives and changes the public agenda about climate change.

Another question I think is, can capitalism actually meaningfully address climate change? Can we do it within a capitalist system? So there’s two.

Three: Consumption and how do you address that. What sociology can bring to this is that we know we are creatures of habit. We’re socialized in a certain viewpoint, we’re brought up in a certain lifestyle, we have certain habits and practices that we carry out all the time that are reinforced by institutions and larger kind of cultural belief systems that having a lot of wealth is considered to be really good. The question is how does that system really work and, if you want to alter consumption practices, how can you do that? That’s a uniquely sociological question.

ICN: There’s a line in the book: “Efforts to address climate change either through mitigation or adaptation are unlikely to succeed without greater knowledge of human behavior and societal dynamics supplied by social science.” Is that what sociologists can do?

RJB: Well hopefully we can do it. I think that’s what we try to do. Whether we can actually succeed or notthis is a very, very, very difficult problem. It invades virtually every part of our social order and what we have in this book, isn’t that answer. This is a start.

Is this the end book? Well no, hopefully it will spawn other intellectual efforts and grow. It’s an easy way to bring it forward that we can then give to the IPCC, we can give to the people at the Vatican saying, ‘Here is our disciplinary statement on where we are right now with our sociological understanding of climate change.’

ICN: Practically speaking, what do you want the policy-makers and the climate change research community to take away from this book?

RJB: I think what I want them to take away from it is that there’s a real serious contribution that can be made in the next assessments of the IPCC and in the National Research Council from sociology. And we need to bring this community, this intellectual community, representatives of it, into our discussion and formulation of not only our annual plans but of our research agendas.

There’s going to be an election of a new chair of the IPCC in October I believe. And probably starting this winter they will start making the plans for the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment. And I think sociology ought to be at that table.