Climate Change and Society

June 16, 2011

Given the scale of the possible - indeed likely - societal impacts of climate change, it is striking how few books there are on the sociology of the climate issue. John Urry, unquestionably one of the best-known sociologists in Britain, is now set to make a big splash with his overview. Along the way he gently chides Anthony Giddens for the extent to which his book The Politics of Climate Change (2009) focused on the behaviour of conventional political actors (governments and states) and was not very sociological. Urry wants his book to be deeply rooted in the social dimension and to make a case for sociology's role in understanding and addressing changing climates.

Of course, one cannot do this simply by stressing that altered climates, fiercer storms and sea-level rise will have big consequences for society. Every geologist and climatologist, geographer and meteorologist knows this already, and there have been numerous books from these perspectives - and from associated science writers and journalists - on what the human consequences of climate change will be. Many of these have been jolly good.

Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change already gets the point that there needs to be a human dimension, so much so that two of its three panels work on societal aspects of the climate issue (one on impacts and the other on policy responses). The challenge facing the sociologist therefore is to conduct this analysis of the social dimensions in a way that is distinctive and in some clear sense better than other commentators.

Urry is surely right that the social aspects of climate change have to date been dominated by economic thinking. The leading question often seems to be: how can the market be adapted to minimise climate change at least cost? And he is also on to something when he points out that economists' hegemonic position has led citizens and their leaders to think of themselves increasingly in economistic terms, subtly shaping their view of the possible options for action.

However, Urry is less clear in setting out how things would be different if sociology were put centre stage.

Some elements of his account work well. As one would expect, the chapter linking "mobilities" (the ways in which the ability to travel around and the expectation that others can travel, too, are built into the fabric of society) with oil dependency and high-carbon livelihoods coheres effectively.

The section on the social organisation of the science of climate change is also reasonably good, even if I'm not confident that many sociologists will appreciate in detail what he means when he says that "General Circulation Models cannot deal adequately with non-linear dynamics and thermodynamics".

Elsewhere, the book is less successful. Sometimes this is because the proposed role for sociology turns out to be rather limited, that it (for example) should "engage with...and contribute to" epochalist thinking. On other occasions it is because big names from the world of social theory - such as Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Zizek - are called on to make points that turn out to be rather straightforward and could probably have been made on a far simpler basis.

Finally, there are some key sociological matters about which the reader learns little. For example, Urry discusses the role of so-called climate sceptics but there is little analysis of how important such sceptic views are. Do they fuel genuine public uncertainty or simply provide a convenient excuse for business as usual?

The text is also less attractive than it could have been; there are too many lists and sets of bullet points, and one whole, long paragraph is made up almost entirely of others' book titles. For the sociologist who needs a book on climate change this is not a bad start, but it's no game-changer for climate-change studies.

Climate Change and Society

By John Urry.Polity, 200pp, £55.00 and £15.99.ISBN 9780745650364 and 0371.Published 13 May 2011

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