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Fossil Fuels to Finally be Fixed? Sociology and the UN COP28 Climate Change Conference

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Climate change is one of the biggest problems facing our world. Greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and methane trap heat from the sun, leading to a rise in global average temperature that then leads to all sorts of changes on the planet: increased frequency and severity of storms, rising sea levels, crop failure, and more.

Sociologists are interested in climate change not only because these outcomes impact people, but also because we are experiencing anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. In other words, the large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are there in large part due to human activity.

The United Nations just concluded its COP28 climate conference, where leaders from countries around the world came together to discuss the climate issue and what to do about it. This year was a momentous occasion because the conference “called on countries to transition away from the chief cause of climate change—fossil fuels—for the first time” (Rott et al. 2023).

Scientists have known about climate change for decades, so why are governments just now agreeing that we need to stem our use of fossil fuels? And, perhaps more importantly, will they do anything to reduce fossil fuel usage in time to avoid catastrophic climatic warming?

Sociologists have puzzled over these questions since environmental sociology emerged as a subdiscipline in the 1970s. Although there is nuance, their theories on how societies will deal with climate change and other environmental issues tend to fall into two camps: the optimistic and the critical.

The optimistic camp, which sociologists call “ecological modernization,” argues that as societies become more affluent, they will begin to think more about the environment, dedicate resources to protecting it, and change behaviors and policies to be more environmentally friendly (Spaargaren and Mol 1992). We can see some evidence of this, for example, as companies voluntarily take steps to reduce their negative impact on the environment. Look up almost any company with the word “sustainability,” and you will be taken to a company webpage detailing what the company is doing to be more environmentally friendly. The COP28 conference calling for a transition away from fossil fuels is also evidence of environmentally friendly change.

However, some environmental sociologists are more critical. This viewpoint is captured by the “treadmill of production” theory, which says that our modern economy relies on environmental destruction to function and grow (Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2008). According to the critical perspective, although corporations and governments may take some small steps toward being environmentally friendly, these are mostly symbolic and not enough to make the changes necessary to address climate change. Although it is a positive step that COP28 has acknowledged the necessity of a transition away from fossil fuels, the critical perspective would point out the reluctance world leaders have had to call for this transition even after decades of overwhelming scientific evidence that a transition was necessary.

Sociologists often test ecological modernization and treadmill of production theories at broad scales, comparing countries’ greenhouse gas emissions, economic growth, and climate policies. However, they are also interested in individual and smaller group behavior and attitudes toward climate and the environment. At both the broad and narrow scales, what environmental sociologists are often looking for is what social theorist Anthony Giddens called “reflexivity” (Thorpe and Jacobson 2013).

Reflexivity is the ability to look at oneself or social structures and see how they influence the larger world. In many ways, it is similar to the sociological imagination. In terms of climate change, reflexivity means recognizing that the things that we do as individuals and as societies, from smaller choices, like the car we drive or our diet, to broader structural issues, like how we produce energy (e.g., renewable energy versus fossil fuels) and what types of regulation we adopt (e.g., carbon tax). The critical perspective in sociology goes beyond tweaks to our current system and argues for a fundamental change to our treadmill of production economy through degrowth.

Degrowth entails producing and consuming less to keep ourselves within planetary boundaries. In terms of policy and societal changes, degrowth can take the form of a reduction in working hours, which has been shown to increase both human and environmental well-being (Fitzgerald, Schor, and Jorgenson 2018).

While the optimistic perspective in environmental sociology argues that we will become more reflexive as society modernizes, the critical perspective points out that there are powerful social forces that prevent us from being reflexive. Sociologists call this the “anti-reflexivity thesis” (McCright 2016). At the global level, you can imagine why many world leaders and governments would be reluctant to be reflexive about climate change—their countries’ economies depend on burning fossil fuels and on constant expansion of production and consumption for both profits and taxes. [AW3] Sociologists have also tested and found support for the anti-reflexivity thesis at smaller scales through surveys. Givens et al. (2020) found that stronger support for a “free market economy” and more conservative political ideology are associated with higher levels of climate change denialism and lower levels of support for renewable (non–fossil fuel) energies.

It is good that the United Nations has called for a transition away from fossil fuels. Now, the questions that sociologists will continue to study are whether this transition will happen in time to avoid the most negative impacts of climate change and how much responsibility for this transition will fall on individuals compared to larger organizations.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much responsibility do you feel you have as an individual to reduce your carbon footprint?

  2. When you think of the future and climate change, do you fall more in the optimistic camp (ecological modernization) or the critical camp (treadmill of production)? Why?

  3. How do you think we could increase reflexivity about climate change among organizations that have structural incentives to not be reflexive (e.g., profits)?


References

Fitzgerald, Jared B., Juliet B. Schor, and Andrew K. Jorgenson. 2018. “Working Hours and Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the United States, 2007-2013.” Social Forces 96(4):1851-1874.

Givens, Jennifer E., Shawn Olson Hazboun, Michael D. Briscoe, and Richard S. Krannich. 2020. “Climate Change Views, Energy Policy Support, and Personal Action in the Intermountain West: The Anti-Reflexivity Effect.” Society & Natural Resources 34(1): 99-121.

Gould, Kenneth A., David N. Pellow, Allan Schnaiberg. 2008. Treadmill of Production: Injustice and Unsustainability in the Global Economy. Paradigm Publishers.

McCright, Aaron M. 2016. “Anti-Reflexivity and Climate Change Skepticism in the US General Public.” Human Ecology Review 22(2): 77-107.

Rott, Nathan, Rebecca Hersher, Jeff Brady, Lauren Sommer, Alejandra Borunda, Julia Simon. 2023. “Climate Talks End on a First-Ever Call for the World to Move Away from Fossil Fuels.” NPR. Retrieved on December 18, 2023 from https://www.npr.org/2023/12/13/1218125835/climate-talks-end-on-a-first-ever-call-for-the-world-to-move-away-from-fossil-fu

Spaargaren, Gert, and Arthur PJ Mol. 1992. “Sociology, Environment, and Modernity: Ecological Modernization as a Theory of Social Change.” Society & Natural Resources. 5(4): 323-344.

Thorpe, Charles, and Brynna Jacobson. 2013. “Life Politics, Nature and the State: Giddens’ Sociological Theory and The Politics of Climate Change”. The British Journal of Sociology 64(1): 99-122.

Carrington, Damian, and Ben Stockton. 2023. “Cop28 President Says There is ‘No Science’ Behind Demands for Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels.” The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/dec/03/back-into-caves-cop28-president-dismisses-phase-out-of-fossil-fuels

About the Author

Michael D. Briscoe is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University Pueblo. He earned his PhD in sociology from Utah State University, with an emphasis on environment and community. His research is on the intersections of human, animal, and environmental wellbeing, and has been published in journals including Environmental Sociology, Society & Animals, and Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy.