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Islam, M. Climate Change and Society. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 22 June 2024).
Islam M. Climate Change and Society. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 22, 2024.
Islam, Md. "Climate Change and Society" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 22, 2024).
Islam, M. (2021, January 22). Climate Change and Society. In Encyclopedia.
Islam, Md. "Climate Change and Society." Encyclopedia. Web. 22 January, 2021.
Climate Change and Society

Society is at an important intersection in dealing with the challenges of climate change, while the natural sciences are insufficient to deal with these challenges. Critical aspects of sociological perspectives related to climate change research are brought together in this review in the hope of fostering greater interdisciplinary collaboration between the natural and social sciences.

Climate Change Society

1. Introduction

Climate change is a critical problem, spanning across national boundaries and socioeconomic-political spheres. Due to the wide-ranging and deep-seated nature of its causes, researchers and policymakers face a massive task coordinating and developing effective policies to mitigate its impacts. To complicate matters, the worsening conditions and ineffective strategies developed to deal with the problems have become another pressing concern. Thus, although incremental steps have been taken to acknowledge and address climate change, a more all-encompassing strategy is needed to deal with its spectrum of issues. Framing and coordinating a research agenda and policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change is the cornerstone to achieving substantive progress. There have been critical contributions to climate change research from various disciplines. However, each has viewed it through its own lens, without making a concerted effort to integrate the disconnected parts. We contend the problem must be approached in a coordinated fashion, which can only be attained by integrating the current knowledge and avoiding the intra-disciplinary tunnel vision currently attached to the topic. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach and undertaking collaborative efforts, we intend to advance and widen our perspective on the relationship between climate change and society.

Sociological research on global climate change has been extensive but loosely connected, and exchanges with the other social sciences and natural sciences have been limited. Ironically, until now the social sciences have played only a minor role in climate change reports and discussions [1][2][3][4] because scientific research has been deeply entrenched in the natural sciences. While the scientific community has made good progress in developing our ecological imagination related to, for example, climate change, further progress is needed to develop a sociological imagination on it. “The application of a sociological imagination allows us to powerfully reframe four central questions in the current interdisciplinary conversation on climate change: why climate change is happening, how we are being impacted, why we have failed to successfully respond so far, and how we might be able to effectively do so”[4].

However, due to a growing view that the natural sciences are insufficient to deal with the complex dynamics and challenges of climate change, the need to incorporate social science research and analyses has become increasingly acknowledged [5]. In fact, the primary driver behind global climate change is socio-structural in nature. Its issues are embedded within institutions, cultural beliefs, values, and social practices. Thus, climate change is undoubtedly a sociological concern. Dunlap and Brulle [5] claim that sociology brings two distinct and advantageous approaches to climate change research by examining its social dimensions. First, they contend sociology is equipped with the tools to examine and provide insight into the causes, consequences, and solutions attached to climate change. Efforts to ameliorate or adapt to its impacts require a deeper understanding of the social dynamics at varied scales, from the global to the local level. Sociology can contribute to interdisciplinary engagement and discipline-specific matters related to socio-structural processes.

Second, sociology provides a form of social critique by examining and questioning the belief systems that reinforce current socioeconomic institutions and practices. This is vital because critiquing the dominant ideologies illuminates the constructed nature of these belief systems. In turn, these elucidate how such hegemonic notions sustain particular interests and therefore restrict policy options. Sociological research highlights the notion that the anthropogenic forces of climate change cannot simply be rectified by technical fixes but must take effect in concert with other influences on human behavior such as social, political, and economic structures [6].

2. Impacts of Climate Change: Strategies for Equitable Mitigation and Adaptation

Consumption patterns have had direct and indirect impacts on climate change when they have been primarily driven by the desire for social status, conspicuous consumption, and leisure that secure one’s position in society [7][8]. This pattern of consumption has created a notion of climate injustice, with three underlying assumptions. First, social inequalities have driven overconsumption. Second, the impacts of climate change have been experienced unequally by the rich and poor, which may extend to future generations. Third, policies that have been designed to deal with climate change have had unequal consequences for the unrepresented and the poor [9]. Harlan et al. [9] posited that to attain a level of understanding of climate disruption, researchers and policymakers must be sensitive to the inequalities of wealth, power, and privilege. The notion of inequality has been extended to the rich-poor dichotomy not only within but also between nations. Within nations, toxic and polluting industries have been located in the poorer districts, because properties in such locations have been considered less valuable [10]. Likewise, between nations, ecologically unequal exchanges have occurred due to resource plundering and pollution from the externalities of production [11][12]. A plethora of studies has extended beyond the inequalities of wealth to racial, class, and age inequalities to show both economic and environmental impacts [13][14][15][16][17].

The response to vulnerability “includes not only how climate change contributes to vulnerability, but also how climate change policy and response measures may magnify the effects of many existing drivers of vulnerability” ([18] p. 21). In the short term, the largest impact on the disadvantaged and vulnerable has resulted less from climate change and more from the adverse consequences of climate change policy and the efforts that have been overlooked by policymakers [18]. This has brought about the need to consider vulnerability in the context of climate change and the implications of policies in addition to the social dimensions of the climate change agenda. In turn, these have related strongly to the impacts of climate change and policies. As climate impacts have been experienced differently across populations, enhancing the adaptive capacities of the most afflicted should offer a way to rethink policy with justice as its focus. As a discipline, sociology has argued for an integrated socio-ecological approach [19], “just sustainability” [20], and “plural environmental governance” [21]. The underlying reasoning has been to forge a new paradigm with a social dimension focused on both the durability of the environment and the equal treatment of people.

Adaptation to climate change requires mitigating its effects, such as the intensity and frequency of extreme weather, the consequences of temperature variations, or the impacts on food security, livelihoods, and human health. It is also vital that attention be paid to three elements: exposure, sensitivity, and the adaptive capacity of populations. Some communities are more vulnerable than others, and in particular, there are people who are socially isolated due to their limited ability to cope with environmental stressors. There are three main pathways to adaptation, which include an array of structural (engineered, technological, ecosystem-based), institutional (laws and regulations, government policies, economic), and societal (educational, informational, behavioral, social services, socio-demographic) options to reduce vulnerability and enhance adaptive capacity [22]. Sociological research and the other social sciences have offered insight into the methods used to attain adaptation goals, featuring the crucial need to understand social institutional dynamics. World-systems theory has highlighted the enduring global division of labor in which the developed or “core” nations have engaged in unequal exchanges of labor and natural resources with the poorer “peripheral” nations. This concept has shown the underlying power dynamics and self-interest inherent in international relations. Fundamental social problems like vulnerabilities and tensions between entities with different self-interests have contributed to and blocked efforts to address climate change. Carmin et al. [22] explained that an understanding of the political economy and developmental trajectories is crucial to the formulation of effective adaptation strategies.

Alternatively, mitigation strategies have been seen as technological hurdles that have ignored the possibility of social and cultural change and have failed to acknowledge the limited effectiveness of the current technologically focused strategies. For example, reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and America’s Climate Choices (ACC) did not consider the importance of social organization and culture, which included a range of issues such as governance, power structures, political activism, labor policies, and consumption [23]. However, there has been value in examining how social psychology and social movements have reshaped policies through individual agency and collective action. Social change has occurred at many levels, including individual, community, national, and international. Ehrhardt-Martinez [23] explained that households can take action by reducing their own emissions and shifting their consumption practices, which can then encourage social movements and changes to political processes. At the meso level, which includes organizations, companies, and local governments, mitigation efforts have been influenced by networks and operating environments, especially in the political and economic contexts. Some environmentally detrimental industrial norms could be challenged by aggregating power and influence to form collective inter-organizational coalitions opposing the status quo of large organizations and setting a precedent for shifting industrial norms. Finally, at the macro level, international policies and implications have also been influenced by global norms and the institutionalization of cultural models. As noted, treaties are more likely to be ratified when strong states engage in collaborative efforts to develop an international culture of environmentalism.

One main obstacle to these efforts has been the resistance from nation states when environmental efforts have been interpreted as having adverse effects on national economic ambitions [24]. If the urgency of climate change fails to supersede political obstacles by ignoring ecological concerns or providing meaningless symbolic responses, there could be dire consequences for the future. A race for power and development could ensue, possibly culminating in the “tragedy of the commons” [25]. Given this scenario, we are unable to deal with environmental issues without addressing the problem of inequality. This matters for three principal reasons: (a) there has been inequality in suffering, with the poor and vulnerable populations suffering more; (b) the poorer and less developed nations have had less bargaining power than the richer and more developed nations; and (c) the lessons from the failures of the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord (see [25][26]) have shown that an effective climate agreement cannot be achieved without addressing global inequality [25].

3. Conclusions

In general, sociological researchers have championed the essential need to examine issues that go beyond direct mitigation and adaptive policies. Although the physical and natural sciences have attained an array of understanding about climate change, the social sciences must do more to complement the issues examined. An interdisciplinary approach that considers the social dimensions of climate change can have a great impact on and wider relevance for policy formulation and mitigation/adaptation strategies, especially when the causal influence of climate change is anthropogenic in nature.

Social science disciplines, especially sociology, can improve the state of climate adaptation policies and their corresponding practices by examining the underlying issues related to social vulnerabilities, inequities, and tensions between and within nations. Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives explained that economic priorities, governance, values, and power differentials are all factors that have contributed to climate change and have also had a critical influence on the attempts to address it. Research on social classes and diversity has created an understanding of risk perception, social vulnerability, and the adaptive capacities of various groups within society. Sociological theories, together with research on social movements and collective actions, have been vital to understanding the origins, dynamics, and impacts that have promoted or resisted adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.

By emphasizing that a diversity of approaches can strengthen our current understanding of climate change, no particular theoretical or methodological approach has been favored [27]. A better integration of sociological research with other research programs can be invaluable to providing insight. In doing so, more attention to the wider field of social science can provide alternative viewpoints, which will expand the scope of policies and the implementation of programs that are sensitive to the intricacies of social dynamism and political conflicts. The assemblage of powerful sociological insights not only sets the stage for sociological input to understand and address climate change but also should make ground-breaking contributions across disciplines for years to come.


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