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Climate Change and Society
by Jeff Broadbent
The space probe Cassini, passing the rings of Saturn, turned its camera on the earth. The photo captured a barely visible pale blue dot floating in inky blackness. As Carl Sagan says in Pale Blue Dot (1997), all the heroes and villains, saints and sinners, warriors and peace-makers, of our global human history have played out on this dot. This tiny ball of stone, wrapped in land, water and air, graced by a thin mantle of life. In the near-infinite expanse of the universe, many other living worlds no doubt exist (New York Times, May 30, 2021). But they are so far away that even the light of their stars takes many years to reach us. Faster-than-light travel and worm-holes in space allowing rapid transport to other worlds will always remain in the realm of science fiction. In reality, we are stuck here on our lonely planet and need to make the best of it.
Over the past billions of years, our planet has nurtured the evolution of a marvelous array of plants and animals, including humans. Since 10,000 years ago, in the stable climate of the Holocene, humans have gradually prospered. In the last 200 years, though, our inventive genius, expressed in science and technology, has vastly accelerated the pace of improvement. Despite all the evils--wars, colonialism, exploitation, dictatorship, inequality, discrimination, genocide, paranoia—the benefits have become increasingly available around the globe, as Steven Pinker points out in Enlightenment Now (2018). As a result, average global life expectancy has grown rapidly-- from 32 years in 1900 to 71.4 years in 2014. Average education increased greatly. For instance, China went from 1.4% primary school enrollment in 1900 to 100% in 2015. In the same period, India went from 7% to 100%. Average global UN Human Development Index (varies from 0 to 1, based on longevity, education and standard of living) increased greatly. For instance, India went from HDI 0.04 in 1900 to 0.38 in 2015. In the same period, China went from HDI 0.04 to 0.54. The US went from HDI 0.28 to 0.78. Electronic communications are weaving a more unified world. So, on balance, the general human condition has improved dramatically. With intelligent cooperation, we can do much more.
Unfortunately, the light of progress has cast a lengthening shadow. We thought the earth’s bounty to be endless, created by God for human use, with human impact negligible. However, we are discovering that our planet has limits. Our planet is a closed ecological system. Under normal conditions, in its ecological metabolism, the wastes produced by one species become the food for another in an endless loop. However, humans have messed with this natural equilibrium. Our scientific and technological genius lets us dump natural chemicals like carbon dioxide in quantities so vast as to overload the natural absorptive capacity. And to dump invented chemicals like plastics that don’t break down, in amounts so huge as to degrade the oceans and trap fish and birds. We are fishing out the seas and cutting down the rainforests to make way for giant cattle pastures and palm oil plantations. In sum, we are overshooting the carrying capacity and exceeding the safe operating limits of the planetary ecosystem.
Among our transgressions of planetary limits, we are driving vast numbers of plant and animal species into extinction, depleting the stratospheric ozone layer that protects our planet from harsh solar radiation, and disrupting the stability of the climate, as Jon Foley points out in his Scientific American article (April 2010). In short, we are destroying the very ecological systems that gave us birth and continue to be vital for our existence. In his book, Storms of my Grandchildren (2009), James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, worries that we could eventually render our planet too hot to support human and other biotic life (like Venus). Thus, climate change is an “existential” problem for humanity in that it threatens our very existence. But the situation is also existential in the philosophical sense—its solution demands that we rethink our very identities and purposes in being alive.
How can we get out of this trap? Can human society, like Houdini, miraculously extricate itself from intensifying ecological destruction? Like Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times, can we reverse the grinding gears to spit us back out into safety? Can we go back to a pre-industrial village life living without electricity on locally-grown organic food? I did this at times in the 1960s and 1970s, but got bored and wanted to feel the joy of joining the larger social currents. Nor did I want to spend my life doing manual labor. So I completed my Ph.D. and became a professor of sociology. Such yearning is common around the world. As the old song goes, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris?” In the developed world, most people are embedded in an electrified, commodified, globalized lifestyle. Throughout the developing world, at the first chance, young people flock to cities, watch Western sitcoms on TV, grab smartphones, and surf the internet. They hope for something new and different. So on the mass scale, we have little hope of going backward.
We must, then, plunge forward. If we are to survive and thrive in the long run, we must comprehend our present global realities and apply our genius to create a sustainable global society in a sustainable global ecosystem. Just comprehending our current global reality, not to speak of transforming it, presents a daunting task.
We can understand our global material reality by studying the material flows of its socio-ecological systems through extraction, production, consumption and waste. These flows impact on and degrade the physical environment.
Comprehending our global social reality, though, is far more complex. This requires studying the many factors that drive our increasing material throughput and produce the barriers that divide us into unequal and hostile groupings around the planet.
The better we can comprehend both the material flows and the social driving factors, the greater chance we will have of transforming them and learning to cooperate for the greater long-term good. In fostering this double comprehension and in finding ways to change, the physical and socio-psychological sciences, along with practitioners, inventors, entrepreneurs, politicians, activists, artists, and others, can make crucial contributions.
Population ecology, for example, connects the social and physical sciences. Among its practitioners, Ehrlich and Holdren, in dialogue with Commoner, first introduced the IPAT formula (also known as the Kaya Identity) (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1972). This formula tells us that our material impact on the physical environment (I) is a function of the size of the population (P), how much stuff each person can buy and consume per capita (A for affluence), and the amount of pollution emitted by the technology (T) used to make the stuff.
On the global scale, over the last 100 years, the factors of the IPAT formula have seen rapid, enormous growth. The global human population (P) grew 400 percent, from 1.85 billion in 1900 to 7.8 billion in 2020. Now the global growth rate is leveling off, with estimates for 2100 from 9 to 11 billion. During the same period, the global average Gross Domestic Product per capita (A) increased 700 percent--from $2,212 in 1900 to $15,212 in 2018. That’s four times as many people each consuming 7 times as much stuff—a 28-fold increase in environmental impact if technology (T) stayed the same. However, polluting technologies, such as burning coal to run electrical-generating plants, spread around the world. And new productive technologies based on burning oil, and new inventions of synthetic chemicals for innumerable uses, entered after World War Two. Electrical generation by fossil fuel combustion increased from 40,000 Terawatt hours (Twh) in 1965 to 137,000 Twh in 2019. Metals production went up about 50-fold from 9 million metric tonnes in 1900 to 438 MMT in 2013.
This growth has had massive impact (I) on the global environment. In terms of the global ecological footprint, in 1970, the planet as a whole passed into ecological deficit. This has resulted in a progressive worsening of the environment (footprintnetwork.org). The human effect on the planetary ecosystem has become so large as to earn the present era a new label, the Anthropocene. However, the planetary ecosystem can only sustainably support a global population of about 500 million (P) (1/14th of the present population) at a North American lifestyle level. This fact alone, unless human society takes strong, intentional transformative measures, augurs a grim and violent future.
Let's just consider the impact on the climate. The human burning of fossil fuels is rapidly increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the world atmosphere (from 270 ppm before the Industrial Age to over 414 ppm now). This increasing concentration retains more of the sun’s warmth, heating the atmosphere and changing the climate. Since 1800, this rapid, anthropogenic climate change (ACC) has warmed the earth’s surface temperature by almost 1 degree C (near 1.5 degrees F). Suppose nations rapidly reduce their carbon emissions, getting to global net zero by 2050. In that case, we might limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees C by 2100. The 2015 Paris Accords secured NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) for emissions reductions from most countries. Unfortunately, most countries are not progressing rapidly enough to meet their own NDCs. But even if these NDCs were attained, they would not produce enough reductions to keep global warming below 2 degrees C. According to United Nations projections, if we continue “business as usual” emissions, the planet will warm four or more degrees by 2100. Rapid (anthropogenic) climate change (ACC) multiplies and intensifies floods, droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves, and coastal inundations. The more fossil fuels we burn, the worse the disasters. Coping with these disasters will require more and more of the developed countries’ resources while overwhelming the coping capacities of poorer countries.
The only way to avoid this intensifying climate catastrophe is to stop burning fossil fuels and get to net zero carbon emissions. The alternative is collective disaster. Doing so will, of course, solve only one of our multiple environmental transgressions. Still, this one is connected to many others. Thus, how to solve climate change is now the central, pressing problem for human society.
This admission raises the second subject, comprehending the socio-psychological factors driving increasing extraction, consumption, and waste and the factors setting up barriers to our global cooperation to solve this collective problem. Grasping this second subject matter will allow proceeding to the third topic, the practical method of solution. This short essay can only begin to broach these subjects.
We can investigate the drivers and barriers at two levels, the social (forms of collective action and meaning including institutions, economics, politics, and culture) and the psychological (forms of individual information-processing, evaluation, and decision-making including rationality and risk assessment). These two levels are intertwined and affect each other in much-debated and still uncertain ways.
On the psychological level, it would seem rational for individuals and groups to clearly recognize the looming risks posed by climate change and try to take effective actions to remove the cause of the problem. However, people are not always so rational. For one thing, climate change poses a global force so massive that many people, feeling helpless, would rather not think about it. They might even deny that climate change exists to avoid cognitive dissonance, as Norgaard shows in Living in Denial (2011). Short of outright denial, other psychological processes could interfere with constructive responses. For instance, people may use decision-making rules that prioritize a single present issue at a time, not seeing things in their multiple or future interactions. Such rules highlight more immediate personal concerns, pushing away concerns about climate change. It leaves people more likely to leave the status quo as it is, rather than expending energy on future problems and uncertain outcomes (Weber 2015).
When dealing with problems requiring collective, coordinated group action, such as global reductions in carbon emissions, issues often arise. An individual focus on the rational pursuit of immediate personal benefits leads to the group overuse and destruction of free, common-property goods like clean air and water. Hardin initiated this perspective in his “Tragedy of the Commons” (Science, 1968). In her book Governing the Commons (1990), Ostrom pursued solutions to the tragedy in the strengthening of collective norms, receiving a Nobel Prize for her discoveries. The need for collective norms to restrain ecological overshoot segues the discussion to the social level.
On the social level, solutions to global climate change will require strong collective norms that cut consumption by the wealthy while promoting green technology, reducing global population and meeting basic needs. Such norms exist in various forms. They range from formal, legal strictures enforced by coercive sanctions to informal, socially-reinforced folkways and habitual or voluntary enactments. Their successful implementation will require a systematic reorganization of everyday social roles. The results should make a green lifestyle easy and attractive, taking no more effort than “falling off a log,” as Tim Jackson indicates in Prosperity without Growth (2011).
Many scholars argue that such a social reorganization will not be possible. They argue that contemporary capitalism necessarily imposes a demand for high return on investment. Such demands force companies to cut wages and ignore environmental protection. The capitalist system funnels money to owners, increasing economic inequality. The system simultaneously inculcates widespread status-signifying consumption, as modeled in Schnaiberg’s Treadmill of Production. The wealthy elites push politicians to enact policies that enhance these problems rather than reduce them. In particular, in the US, fossil fuel industries fund think tanks to produce propaganda. These organs deny climate change and accuse governmental policies that foster environmental protection of being socialistic and anti-freedom.
Some scholars conclude that the only answer is the elimination of capitalism. However, the modern non-capitalist, state-socialist economies such as the Soviet Union and China have even more severely polluted their environments. Moreover, except for Cuba and North Korea (two highly different versions), these state socialist economies have collapsed and slid into forms of oligarchic capitalism, no longer posing viable alternatives.
At the same time, on the positive side, genuine competitive capitalism allows entrepreneurs to invent new products and means of production that respond to or even create new societal demands. This destruction of old industries and creation of new ones mean that capitalism has some capacity to transform itself. This process can introduce and spread win-win green technology, as the school of Ecological Modernization contends. Moreover, the variation in emissions reductions across contemporary developed capitalist economies, such as England, Germany, the US, and Japan, show that some greening of capitalism is possible.
Once they attain sufficient public support for this green transformation, national government policy-making and governance processes carry considerable weight. The weakness of global UN governance institutions means that the real action happens at the national and sometimes sub-national levels. The international project on Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks (Compon), operating since 2007, studies and compares the state-society relationships that facilitate or inhibit the green transformation (www.compon.org). For instance, the relative political strength of the fossil fuel industry may be a determining factor in the energy transition. Another factor may be the average understanding and approval of science among the population. Many hypotheses along these lines are being developed and tested in the Compon project. The recently formed Climate Social Science Network (cssn.org) pursues much the same goals.
One big question concerns the pace of change. Current rates of green transformation are not sufficient to avoid crossing the 2 degree C warming threshold, with terrifying consequences. To enact the needed solutions, citizens need both awareness and concern and the means and power to carry out such changes. Intensifying climate change-induced disasters are gradually transforming global awareness. For instance, the Yale Six Americas Project shows that the percent of Americans expressing alarm about global warming (the highest category) has risen from 11 percent in 2014 to 31 percent in 2020 (climatecommunication.yale.edu). At some point, enough people must demand green governmental leadership to transform society in ways that prevent rapid ACC. Someday, around the world, we must clearly realize that we are all in the same boat—Spaceship Earth.
How bad will the climate disasters have to get before this realization happens? Or will it not happen? Will we continue to emit carbon gasses down to the “last ton of fossilized coal,” as Max Weber said? This species-suicidal outcome is quite possible. As Jared Diamond recounts in Collapse (2005), clan competition drove the isolated Easter Islanders to cut down their last tree to build giant stone statues. The loss of all trees cast their society into permanent poverty and severe decline. Will we eventually do the same with our whole isolated planet? The future is in our collective hands.