Sociology’s contribution to saving the planet: the politics of climate change and Giddens’ missed opportunity

Sociology’s contribution to saving the planet?: the politics of climate change and Giddens’ missed opportunity

Two planets meet up for a chat. Planet A says: “How are you?”
Planet B says, “Not so well, I’ve got a bad case of Homo Sapiens”
“Don’t worry,” says Planet A, “I had the same once. They won’t last long.”

This joke was told by Anthony Giddens during his talk on the politics of climate change at the University of Leicester in October 2012. Giddens has, of course, written an influential book about the politics of climate change, and has spoken many times on this theme (see for example, one of his lectures on You Tube). My comments in this blog relate only to the lecture I heard Giddens give at the University of Leicester, at the invitation of the Department of Sociology.

Giddens focused his talk on three themes: the unprecedented threat contemporary civilization faces from global warming/climate change; the compelling nature of the scientific evidence for climate change, despite the views of climate change sceptics; (some aspects of) the politics of climate change, particularly the indifference of the populace to the issue and the ineffectiveness of governance in developing and implementing political and technological strategies to address climate change.

For me, Giddens’ lecture was a useful review of the evidence for climate change, a necessary corrective to the disproportionate attention given to the view of the climate change sceptics and, ultimately, a rather depressing hour of my life: basically, we are all DOOMED, and very little is being done about it. Above all else, though, my response to Giddens’ lecture was one of disappointment. I had expected Giddens to provide a more sociologically informed discussion of the politics of climate change itself, ideally linking this focus with his earlier works, say, on structuration, in elaboration of strategies to make the governance of global warming more effective, or how to engage with the populace. I agree with another commentator on an earlier speech on climate change by Giddens: what was missing from Giddens’ lecture was what he thinks we can do about the politics of climate change, and specifically for me, how sociology can contribute to this process.

Here are some examples from Giddens’ lecture where I think he missed an opportunity to show the importance of sociology for tackling the problematical politics of climate change.

During the course of his lecture, Giddens identified both good and bad nations in terms of the politics of climate change. The baddies are especially the USA and China (though closely followed by Russia) who between them account for nearly half of the world’s climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. The goodies are especially Germany and Denmark who have done the most to reduce their reliance on environmentally damaging energy and to develop renewable sources of energy on a large scale. In his lecture at Leicester, Giddens did not attempt to address the issue of why there are such significant differences in national responses to energy policy and to the climate change issue more generally. A sociological response here would be to ask, for example, what is it about the political, social and economic structures and cultures of Germany and Denmark that explains their progressive action with regard to tackling climate change? What is it about the political, social and economic structures and cultural processes of (very different from each other) China and the USA that makes their climate change politics so conservative? What is the relationship between neo-liberalism/capitalism/consumerism and the politics of climate change?

Giddens’ lecture at Leicester discussed ‘politics’ especially in terms of national and supra-national governance, and mainly in terms of their ineffectiveness at developing and implementing solutions to climate change. He had little to say about civil society and social movements and even less to say about the agency of individuals. Giddens’ account of climate change stressed its uniqueness as a problem; for him, no other civilization has ever faced such a threat, on a global apocalyptic scale. But that’s not to say, in my view, that we cannot learn from how social and political change has been achieved in the past and present in the face of apparently insurmountable countervailing forces. Here, too, sociology can make a contribution.

Giddens’ spoke about ‘tipping points’ in terms of key and potentially devastating events of climate change (such as the melting of the permafrost, which will in turn release even more greenhouse gases). What he didn’t talk about was ‘tipping points’ in term of the politics of achieving social change, including the idea of achieving ‘critical mass’ – relevant to the understanding of how the cumulative behavioural changes of countless individuals can make a profound difference to social change including climate change (the personal is the political).

In short, in his Leicester lecture, Giddens downplayed forms of politics other than supranational and national governance as a route to saving the planet. Yet, Giddens stood before his Leicester audience as an individual (albeit a Lord, and a public intellectual) and delivered an almost evangelical speech appealing to us as individuals in his audience to wake up and smell the coffee when it comes to climate change and the disasters we face. Presumably he wouldn’t have bothered if he believed the personal isn’t political. But in response to a question from a member of the audience, Giddens was rather dismissive of ‘nudge theory‘, which assumes that individuals can be encouraged into desired behaviours by (amongst other things) highlighting social norms.

Giddens’ lecture was engaging and his ideas make an important contribution to the politics of climate change. But in my view, Giddens (apparently the most quoted sociologist in the world) did not stand before his Leicester audience as a sociologist who was concerned to proselytise the significant contributions his discipline can make to solving the very real and imminent threat represented by global climate change.