What Advocates of Strong Government Action on Climate Change Should Learn from Sociology


sociology and climate

This is the 3rd entry in a series that has been examining the practical significance for climate change policy formation of insights of sociologists about the failure of governments to respond to the enormous threat of climate change.

This series is reviewing a new book about the social causes of climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

In the first entry in the series, we described why sociological explanations for the success of the opponents of climate change policies and identification of deep ethical and moral problems with arguments made by climate change policy opponents largely have been missing from mainstream climate change literature and the media coverage of human-induced warming issues.

In the second entry in this series, we looked at the insights from sociology about the morally reprehensible climate change disinformation countermovement.

We now review what advocates of strong government action on climate change should learn from sociologists.  We note that the Dunlap/ Brulle book contains many other issues about the sociology of climate change than those discussed in this series. However, advocates of climate change policy should:

1. Pay attention to and educate others on  how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful forces, that is, help citizens see the wizard behind the curtain who has been projecting a false understanding of climate change matters.


In the first entry in this series, we reviewed the conclusions of sociologists summarized in the Dunlap/Brulle book about why most of the climate change literature relevant to relevant to changing the dangerous path the world was on assumed that the primary challenge was to motivate individuals to respond to the danger of climate change described by scientists. Therefore, many of not  most climate policy advocates focused on how to improve messaging about climate change policies or how to we incentivize individual behavioral change through the use of economic incentives.

We also explained that for over 30 years, proponents of action on climate change mostly focused on responding to the arguments made by opponents of climate change that government action on climate change was unjustifiable due to scientific uncertainty and high costs of proposed climate policies.

Because motivating individual behavior to engage in activities that don’t produce GHGs was assumed to be the major challenge to improve government responses to climate change, proponents of climate change policies have largely relied on the disciplines of economics and psychology, two disciplines which claim expertise on how to motivate individual behavior, to make policy recommendations on how to change individual responses to climate change. Yet sociologists warn that individuals almost always make decisions in response to the cultural understanding of the problem of concern. Therefore, large scale individual behavioral change on climate change is not likely as long as many people are influenced by the cultural narrative pushed by the opponents of climate change that climate change science is uncertain and that proposed responses to climate change will create great unacceptable damage to a nation’s economy.

Therefore, those working to improve government and individual responses to climate change should adjust their tactics to respond to the insights of sociologists that have concluded that citizens need to understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been shaped by powerful actors who have used sophisticated tactics to achieve support for their position that climate change policies should be opposed on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs to the economy. It is not enough for proponents of climate change policies to simply make counter scientific and economic “factual” arguments to the scientific and economic claims of  the climate change policy opponents,  advocates for climate policies need to help citizens understand what interests are responsible for the disinformation that is the basis for the  false arguments made by opponents of climate change policies, why the tactics used the opponents of climate change policies are morally reprehensible, and why the arguments of those opposing climate change policies will continue to create huge injustices and immense suffering in the world.

As we explained in on this website many times, although skepticism in science is a good thing, opponents of climate change participating in the denial countermovement have engaged in a variety of morally reprehensible tactics that have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,

(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of well-settled climate change science,

(c) using think tanks and front groups to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty about climate science which have not been submitted to peer-review,

(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science,

(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science,

(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies, and

(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.

These tactics do not constitute responsible scientific skepticism, but morally reprehensible disinformation (For a discussion of these tactics and why they are morally reprehensibility, see, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

The United States and some other countries are nations where a culture of individualism dominates, cultural understanding which often hides the role that politically powerful actors play in formulating  public policy. On this issue, the new book on sociology and climate change states:

Psychological and economic perspectives on climate change can easily be misused to reinforce the societal tendency to focus on individuals as both the primary cause of, and solution to climate change. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015. p. 10 ) …..These disciplines  assume that addressing the human dimensions of climate change is in essence a matter of incentivizing, persuading and encouraging individuals to do their bit and to quit the habit of excessive resource consumption. This approach leads to an emphasis on addressing climate change by changing individual behavior via financial incentives or disincentives or through various communications efforts aimed at promoting lifestyle changes that reduce carbon emissions. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 10 )

The notion of autonomous individuals responsible for their personal choices is widely held among US policymakers, the media and the general public and is of course quite compatible with the assumptions of economics and psychology. But simply pursuing strategies to motivate individual behavioral change without helping citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change was manufactured by morally indefensible strategies, does little to change the cultural understanding of the problem held by many.

Proponents of climate change policies need to help citizens see who is the wizard behind the screen which has over and over again been making false claims about the lack of  scientific grounding for the conclusions that humans are responsible for creating huge climate change threats. Proponents of climate change policies need to achieve greater understanding of and focus on who is funding the false claims of the opponents of climate change policies, and how they are organized and communicate, what tactics they have and continue to use to propagate a false narrative, and how the actions of politicians who resist action on climate change are linked to the the climate change denial countermovement.

web of denial

In the last month,19 US Senators led by Senator Sheldon Whitehorse have begun to publicize the role of fossil fuel coal companies in misleading citizens on climate change (See Web of Denial).  This political effort has been made possible by the sociological work of Dunlap, Brulle, and McCritte, among others.  And so there is a growing body of sociological work that is now available to help citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been manipulated at the federal level in the United States and in several other countries.  However, additional sociological analysis is needed to better understand how opponents of climate change policies have  successfully manipulated the government response to climate change at the State and local level in the United States and other countries, matters which the Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges.

Simply improving messaging in accordance with recommendations of psychologists  or following the recommendations of economists to create economic incentives to engage in less GHG producing behavior will not likely create strong citizen support for climate change policies unless citizens better understand that the narrative created by opponents of climate change policies about high levels of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable harm to the economy from the adoption of climate policies is not only false but has been manufactured by fossil fuel companies and other entities which have economic interests in continuing high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Advocates of climate policies need to help citizens understand that the wizard behind the curtain has been the fossil fuel industry, their industry organizations, free-market fundamentalists foundations, and the politicians who represent the interests of and are often funded by these groups.

As we have seen, in the first two entries in this series, the new book edited by sociologists  Dunlap and Brulle includes information  on how participants in the denial countermovement have prevented governments from responding to climate change by undermining the scientific basis on which claims about the urgent need to take action. The participants in the countermovement have attacked climate models, paleoclimatic data on which warming trends are based, modern temperature records, mainstream scientists who have claimed there is an urgent need to act, and manufactured bogus non-peer-reviewed climate science claims which they have then widely publicized in books and pamphlets, and then widely circulated the publications to journalists and politicians, tactics which have succeeded in getting the disinformation propaganda  widely distributed by friendly media. (Dunlap, R., and McCright, 2015, p. 306–307).

The climate denial countermovement has also blocked critical reflection on and  serious debate about climate change through other strategies which seek to promote the idea that civil society will be better off if climate change policies are not adopted. These strategies have included funding politicians that will promote the interests of participants in the climate change denial countermovement, placing people sympathetic to the interests of the fossil fuel industry in positions of authority in government institutions with regulatory authority, limiting the budgets of government environmental agencies in ways that prevent government action on climate change, orchestrating political opposition to climate change legislation through funding campaigns and lobbying efforts, and stroking the fear of individuals about adverse economic effects of climate change legislation (Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., 2015, p. 306–307).

As we have seen in the first entry in this series, opponents of climate change policies have also successively tricked proponents of climate change policies and the media covering climate change issues to focus on “factual” scientific and economic arguments while ignoring the deep moral and ethical problems with these arguments.

Advocates of climate change policies need to better educate civil society about how opponents of climate change policies are actually preventing government action on climate change. On these issues. sociological research can be helpful in explaining what has happened to prevent government action on climate change..

Sociologists can help citizens understand how the concentrated wealth of the opponents of climate change policies  have created an enormous inequality in the ability of different groups to participate in public decisions about climate change. For this reason, advocates of climate change policies need to publicize the details of how the opponents of climate change use the political processes open them to achieve their goals and why the opportunity for citizen involvement in climate change policy formation is often hindered by institutional structure and processes.

 2. Help civil society better understand the ethical and moral limits of the economic narrative discourses which are dominating civil society’s understanding of the acceptability of climate change policies.

The Dunlap/Brulle book explains how the discourse of neoliberal economic ideology has dominated political approaches to society’s problems.(Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 304) This ideology holds that civil society is better off if market capitalism is left alone and unimpeded by regulations that interfere with the generate of wealth. Advocates of  neoliberal ideology value individual rights. private property, laissez-faire capitalism, and free enterprise (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 302). Because neoliberal ideology has dominated political life in many countries including the United  States, many if not most proponents of climate change policies have advocated for “market” based solutions to climate change such as carbon taxes or cap and trade programs. Yet market ideology often ignores moral and ethical questions such as on what justice and fairness considerations should the burdens of reducing GHG emission be allocated. Yet questions of distributive justice about which nations should bear the major responsibility for most GHG reductions at the international level have and continue to block agreement in international climate negotiations, as well as questions about which countries should be financially responsible for adaptation costs and damages in poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest climate impacts and who have done little to cause the problem.

The failure of nations to consider act on what equity and justice requires of them to reduce the threat of climate change has been at the very center of the most contentious disputes in international climate negotiations (See, Brown, 2013, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity).

Many proponents of strong climate change policies that advocate for market based solutions have largely ignored the many obvious ethical and equity questions raised by climate change and as result the mainstream press has largely ignored these issues despite the fact that these issues are at the center of international disputes over climate change.  Also despite the fact that the positions that the United States and several other countries have frequently taken in Internationale climate negotiations have clearly flunked minimum ethical scrutiny, the US media has largely ignored the ethical and justice issues raised by the US response to climate change. (See Brown, 2012, A Video: Even Monkeys Get Climate Change Justice. Why Don’t Governments and the Press?)

The Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges that the dominant scientific and economic discourses framing the climate debate “reinforces the existing socio-politico-economic status quo” and “removes moral and political considerations from the discussion” (Brulle. R., and Dunlap. R. 2015, p.12). Yet, unless the ethical and justice issues raised by climate change are seriously considered by nations when they formulate their international emissions reductions commitments under the UNFCCC, the international community is not likely to find a global solution to prevent potential enormous damages from human-induced warming (See, On The Practical Need To Examine Climate Change Policy Issues Through An Ethical Lens)

For these reasons, proponents of strong climate change policies should expressly integrate ethical and moral considerations into their analyses of climate change policies. Ignoring these issues will likely continue to be responsible for the lack of media coverage of these issues, despite the fact that there is an enormous need  at the international level for nations to respond to climate change at levels consistent with what justice requires of them if a global solution to climate is become viable.

In addition, every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, nations must face the question of what does fairness and justice require of it when formulating national climate policy, yet issues of justice and fairness are virtually absent from US media coverage of US climate policy. Also, the magnitude of GHG emissions reductions committed to by a nation is implicitly a position on how much warming damage a nation is willing to inflict on others around the world, a matter which is a moral issue at its core.

The failure to identify the ethical and moral dimensions of a nation, state, or regional governments GHG reduction target an invitation to hide profound moral and ethical issues behind scientific “factual” matters thus preventing public debate about what justice and morality require of governments.

3. Educate civil society about climate change issues in ways that will promote and sustain a social movement about climate change. 

Sociology studies how large scale social change is produced by social movements (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, 2015, p. 235). Given the civilization challenging nature of climate change, many observers of the failure of governments to respond to the threat of climate change have concluded that creating a strong social movement on climate change is the best hope of preventing catastrophic harm from human-induced warming given the enormity of the challenge facing the world. For this reason, proponents of strong climate change policies should work consciously to build and sustain a social movement to aggressively reduce GHG emissions mindful of what works to make social movements arise, become effective, and be sustained..

Sociology has developed an extensive and robust literature on the process of social change driven by citizen mobilization, including the development and advocacy of alternative policy perspectives, the creation of new organizations, how these organizations can affect both corporate actions and public policy (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S.. 2015, p. 235).

The most basic way that social movements change the social landscape is by framing grievances in ways that resonate with members of civil society (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz,S., 2015, p.237).  Because a high percentage of the arguments made by most proponents of climate change policy have been focused on adverse climate impacts that citizens will experience where they live, while ignoring the harms to hundreds of millions of vulnerable poor people around the world that are being affected by GHG emissions from all-high emitting nations, along with claims that mainstream climate science is credible and has been undermined by morally reprehensible tactics, there is a need to make more people aware of:

(a) the catastrophic harm that their GHG producing activities are imposing on others around the world;

(b) that government action to reduce the threat of climate change has been consistently blocked by the disinformation created by the fossil fuel industry;

(c) that the campaigns of politicians who support the fossil fuel industry have often been funded significantly by fossil fuel money;

(d) that the fossil fuel industry funded disinformation campaign has resulted in almost a 30 year delay which has now made it much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm; and,

(e)  and that every day that action is not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the problem more difficult to solve.

Proponents of climate change policies need to stress the enormous damages that the fossil fuel industry is inflicting on poor people around the world and the gross unfairness of high-emitting nations such as the United States on international climate issues because  an understanding of basic unfairness will help build and sustain a social movement on  climate change

Social movements focus members of civil society on particular dimensions of social problems of concern and provide their publics with clear definitions of those problems, along with arguments regarding who is at fault and what options exist for solving their social grievances. (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S., 2015, p.237)  For this reason,  proponents of climate change policies should seek to widely educate civil society about who has funded the numerous participants in the climate change countermovement and the morally reprehensible tactics that they have used.

Although sociologists have now documented which corporations, corporate industry groups, and free-market fundamentalists foundations and institutions have been most responsible for the spread of climate change disinformation at the national level in the United States and a few other countries, knowledge about who  is blocking climate change action at the state and local level has not yet widely been developed. Proponents of climate change policies should seek to assure that civil society understands what corporations, institutions, and foundations have been responsible for climate change disinformation and which politicians have advanced the interests of these groups at the national level and seek to better understand, perhaps working with sociologists, entities and politicians most responsible for resistance to climate change policies at the state and regional level.

To create and sustain a social movement on climate change, it is not enough for advocates of climate change policies to counter the false scientific and economic claims of climate change policy opponents, they must constantly seek to educate civil society about the causes of the grave injustices that climate change is causing if they seek to build and sustain a social movement on climate change.


Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Caniglia, B., S., Bruelle, R., Szasz,A., (2015). Civil Society, Social Movements, and Climate Change, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainable Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School


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