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What Sociology Has To Do With Climate Change

Scenes from a protest: Fight Today For A Better Tomorrow

Now more than ever, climate action is necessary to protect our planet and secure the future of the next generations. The global conception of climate change has evolved throughout the years, from being defined in strictly environmental terms like the increase in greenhouse gas emissions to its current framing as an issue of human rights and social justice. This has led to discussions of how climate change issues intensify existing inequalities across lines of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class. Thus, pushing for effective climate action contributes to a fairer and more resilient world.

Viewing climate change as intertwined with patterns of inequality necessitates the inclusion of social sciences in conversations about climate. Sociology is one of many disciplines that have contributed significantly to the climate movement, and here’s why and how.

Unpacking the driving forces of climate change

While shifts in the planet’s temperature and weather patterns are natural processes, the accelerated changes can be attributed to anthropogenic activities like mining and burning fossil fuels. Sociology helps us better understand the scale and complexity of these human-induced activities through systemic and structural approaches.

Mainstream discourse often overlooks the role of capitalism in exacerbating the effects of climate change, but sociological perspectives argue that corporations tend to maximize profit at the expense of the environment. Instead of reducing and simplifying overconsumption as mere rational behavior, sociology also unpacks how people are socialized by culture and media into consuming and increasing their carbon footprint to boost their social status.

Addressing the impact on people and communities

Sociology also contributes to recognizing the impact of climate change in more humanized and concrete ways. The prevailing sociological findings shed light on how certain social groups like farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples depend on the natural environment for their food, livelihood security, cultural identity, and overall ways of life. But these populations are disproportionately hit and burdened when climate change leads to extreme weather events and scarcity of resources.

This is why climate activism involves protecting the people who are the most vulnerable to climate change yet do not have the means and capacity to brace themselves against its devastating effects. With its deep connection with climate justice movements, sociology raises critical questions on how rich and industrialized countries can be held accountable for their increased emissions and the associated climate impacts on marginalized groups.

Training the next generation to recognize context-based responses to climate change

Climate action includes not just the analysis of the causes and consequences of climate change, but, even more importantly, the development of mitigation and adaptation strategies. And much of this analysis is being achieved at higher education institutions that are training the generation of climate sociologists. Sociology degrees cover a range of topics and skills in their curricula, focusing on critical areas of power dynamics, socioeconomic inequality, and community responsibility. Both theoretical and real-world knowledge in these areas equips sociologists with the ability to align climate change solutions with the aim of social justice and development. Some graduates gather and analyze community-based data for empirical climate research projects. At the same time, some sociologists lend their expertise to governments so climate policy agendas and targets can be grounded on poverty alleviation and overall inequality reduction.

Opening the paths for interdisciplinary collaboration

Despite sociology’s wide range of contributions to advancing climate justice and action, it cannot stand alone. Together with other fields of study under the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities, the interdisciplinary collaboration in climate research can be improved. Without sociology, climate solutions that solely rely on technology and economics become devoid of social context and fall short of actually reducing emissions and improving the lives of communities and societies. Reciprocally, without the quantitative data and hard evidence from natural sciences, sociologists will otherwise succumb to analysis paralysis and fail to actualize the change they envision.

Written by Adelyn Grace Conway
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