This is the first in a series of three posts that will identify important insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book that examines climate change through the lens of sociology. This new book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Bruelle, Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.
This book explains, among other things: (1) why sociological analyses of the causes of climate change as well as the identification of the serious ethical and moral problems with arguments of opponents of climate change policies have largely been missing from most climate change literature, (2) how certain corporations, industry organizations and free-market fundamentalist foundations have successfully prevented governments from adequately responding to climate change, and (3) how the failure to look at the causes of climate change through a sociological lens has partially blinded climate change policy advocates from a deeper understanding of the social causes of climate change and thereby prevented the development of potentially effective strategies to increase government responses to climate change
Before discussing the insights of this new important book, we note that many entries on this blog site have explained that for over 30 years opponents of climate change policies have mostly made two kinds of arguments in opposition to climate change policies. First, they have argued that proposed policies designed to lessen the threat of human-induced climate change should be opposed because there has been inadequate scientific support for the conclusion that human activities are causing climate change harms which are threatening humans and ecological systems on which life depends. Second, opponents of climate change policies have made a variety of economic arguments that proposed climate change policies were too expensive, would destroy jobs, decrease national GDP, or otherwise would impose unacceptable costs on the nation’s economy.
In the United States and in a growing number of countries around the world these scientific uncertainty and unacceptable economic impact arguments have dominated disputes about proposed climate change policies since the mid-1980s. Proponents of climate change policies have almost always responded to these claims by disputing the factual claims about scientific uncertainty or unacceptable cost made by climate change policy opponents. And so, proponents of climate change policies have inadvertently allowed opponents of climate change policies to frame the public policy debate so as to limit the public controversy about climate change to disputes about scientific and economic “facts.” Largely missing from this three decade debate have been analyses of why the arguments of climate change policy opponents are not only factually flawed but ethically and morally bankrupt. Although a climate change ethics and justice literature has been growing for over a decade, the public debate about climate change has largely ignored strong ethical and moral problems with the scientific and economic arguments that have been the consistent focus of the opponents of climate change policies.
Until the last few years, also largely missing from the public debate about climate change has been serious analyses of which organizations and interests have been most responsible for the arguments made by the opponents of climate change, who funded these organizations, what tactics have they used, and how can we understand that success of the climate change policy opposition in undermining serious responses to the growing threat of climate change. In other words, missing from the public discussion about climate change has been serious analyses of how the opponents of climate change policies have successfully blocked government responses to climate change despite increasingly louder and more intense calls from the mainstream scientific community that government urgently must act to prevent catastrophic harms from climate change. That is, largely missing from the climate change debate has been any sophisticated analyses of how self-interested corporations. organizations, and ideological foundations have been able to manipulate a democracy to prevent the government from responding to a huge potential threat, matters which are the domain of the discipline of sociology.
Sociologists often seek to understand how self-interested minority groups within society can frequently hide the ethical and moral problems with their arguments by framing important public controversies in such a way that the ethical and moral problems raised by their arguments are hidden from public scrutiny. This framing works to hide the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by the opponents of government action to solve social and environmental problems by tricking the public to debate “factual” claims, such as those made by scientists or economists, as if there were no moral or ethical problems with these claims. As a result, in the case of climate change, rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for some people to put large numbers of other people at great risk from catastrophic harm on the basis that there’s some scientific uncertainty that the catastrophe will happen, the public is tricked into narrowly debating whether the catastrophe will happen with high levels of scientific certainty even in cases where waiting until all the uncertainties are resolved with high levels of confidence will likely make it too late to prevent the catastrophic harm. Rather than examining wether it is morally acceptable to delay action on climate change when delay will make the problem worse and the people most at risk have no say on whether to delay response action until scientific uncertainties are resolved, the public is tricked into debating the uncertainty. Rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for one government to impose catastrophic harm on hundreds of millions of other people, citizens are tricked into arguing about the magnitude of the economic costs that will be experienced by the country causing the harm if response action is taken.
As a result, in the United States, ethical and moral problems with the scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost arguments made for over three decades by opponents of climate change policies have very rarely appeared in the US public debate about climate change that has been followed by the media. Although there has been a growing literature on the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies and agreement among most ethicists that the arguments of most opponents of climate change are morally bankrupt, the mainstream climate change literature has rarely looked at the arguments of opponents of climate change policies through a moral lens.
And so, one of the reasons why ethical problems with the arguments most frequently made by opponents of climate change policies have neither rarely appeared in the dominant climate change literature nor become part of the public debate about what a country like United States should do in response to the threat of climate change is because economically powerful opponents of climate change policies have successfully narrowly framed the issues that have been discussed in the public debate, a common problem in democracies recognized by sociologists.
Also, largely missing in the public debate about climate change until very recently, has been sociological analyses of how those opposed to climate change have successfully created a social context about climate change, that is a cultural understanding of the problem in which individuals form opinions, Sociologists understand that culture is not fixed and and can change over time often in response to powerful forces that seek to affect widespread cultural understanding of a problem. Because individuals make decisions in light of the information about the problem provided by their culture, individual decisions about problems are often influenced by those who have sought to change the cultural understanding of the problem.
Although sociologists have begun in the last decade to explain how a climate change countermovement, a sociological term which will be discussed in the next entry in this series, has successfully influenced the cultural understanding of climate change in the United States, very little of the sociological explanation of how this countermovement has succeeded in influencing the public’s understanding of climate change has appeared in the mainstream literature about climate change nor in media coverage of human-induced warming because the media also has largely reported on issues raised by opponents of climate change, namely, claims about scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs of taking action.
The absence of sociological insights on how economic power has distorted the public’s understanding of climate change is most striking in the work of organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that study climate change primarily through a scientific lens although they also have responsibility for making policy recommendations to decision-makers and in so doing have obligations to synthesize the relevant socioeconomic literature that should be considered by decision-makers.
In its first four assessments in 1990 (IPCC, AR1), 1995 (IPCC, AR2) , 2001(IPCC, AR4), and 2007 (IPCC, AR4), IPCC in its summary of relevant socioeconomic literature relevant to climate change relied almost exclusively on economic analyses of policy issues, rather than on the ethics and justice and justice literature. In fact, in this regard, in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report in 2014 (IPCC, AR5), in a new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admitted expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2.” (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10) Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, was hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy given that the vast majority of text in this report was focused on traditional economic analyses which assumed that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change or pay for harm to those poor most vulnerable countries that have done little to cause climate change on the basis of justice. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995, AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses. Yet, as we have explained many times on this website. cost-benefit analysis used as a prescriptive tool for policy-making on climate change raise many serious ethical problems. (See, for example, Brown, 2008, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs )
Why has economics and psychological literature dominated the work of IPCC whose mission includes synthesizing the relevant socioeconomic literature for policy-makers? The new Dunlap/Brulle book attributes the dominance of economics and psychology literature in the work of IPCC to the fact that the major focus of IPCC is science. Organizations like IPCC which are dominated by scientists after determining what needs to be done scientifically to reduce the environmental harm look to disciplines that offer advice on how to motivate individuals including economics and psychology to enact the responses to the problems that scientists have described need to be implemented (Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 8-9). And so the discipline of economics, which often assumes that individuals can be motivated to act by appealing to their economic self-interest, and psychology, which also focuses on how individuals can be motivated to change their individual behavior by appropriate messaging, have dominated the social science literature on climate change because scientific organizations like IPCC have turned to disciplines that offer potential strategies for motivating individual behavioral change after the scientific organizations explore precisely what needs to be done. These disciplines do not examine how powerful groups in society frame public policy issues in a way that hides ethical problems with status quo approaches to societal problems nor how economically dominant groups shape government’s and civil society’s potential responses to societal problems by changing the cultural understanding of the problem, concerns which in the social sciences are the domain of sociology. Because the vast majority of climate change social science literature is focused on motivating individual behavioral change, ethical criticisms of economic rationality and analyses of how “value-neutral” discourses including economics have come to dominate approaches to solving climate change have played a very small role in the social science literature that IPCC has attempted to synthesize.. Explaining this phenomenon Brulle, R. & Dunlap, R. (2015), p. 8 conclude that:
An analysis of the social science literature finds that economics is the most widely represented social science discipline in climate research. Fundamental to economic analysis of climate change is the “rational actor” model embedded in the discipline. The object of the analysis is the individual and the decisions and principles that each individual brings to the marketplace. Given the widespread societal influence of economics, it comes as no surprise that it has been highly influential in climate change research.
For these reasons it is not surprising why IPCC has allowed economic considerations to dominate much of its analyses of to reduce climate change’s great threat in its first four assessments.
IPCC’s work initially defines what needs to be done scientifically to prevent climate change’s jharm and it should be expected that it would turn to the two disciplines that claim they understand how to motivate individuals to do what needs to be done, namely economics and psychology. Yet these disciplines have little to offer about how the cultural understanding of climate change has been deeply influenced by those with strong economic interests in maintaining the status quo nor invite citizens around the world to examine responses to climate change from the lens of ethics and morality.
Although, IPCC has made some improvement in covering ethics and justice in its 5th Assessment, much improvement is still needed (Brown, 2014).
The next entry in this series will examine the insights from the Dunlap/ Brulle book about how the climate change denial countermovement influenced the cultural understanding of climate change initially in the United States and later in other parts of the world.
Brown, 2014, IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified? https://ethicsandclimate.org/2014/05/02/ipcc-ethics-and-climate-change-will-ipccs-latest-report-transform-how-national-climate-change-policies-are-jusified/
Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., (2015) Sociology and Climate Change, Introduction, 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
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR!), (1990), IPCC, First Assessment Report. AR1, The IPCC Response Strategies, retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_ipcc_first_asasssessment_1990_wg3.shtml
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR2), (1995), Second Assessment Report, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#1
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR3) (2001) IPCC, Third Assessment Report. The IPCC Response Strategies, retrieved from http://www.grida.no/publications/other/ipcc_tar/
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR4) (2007) IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group III,, retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg3/en/contents.html
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR5) (2014), 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor,
Widener University Commonwealth Law School