Following publication last month of the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report on the evidence of climate change, what are we to make of their case for human-induced (‘anthropogenic’) global warming against the arguments of sceptics? Over recent years the sceptics have clearly become more numerous, vocal and persistent, and their arguments have been widely publicized in the mass media. The feeling has grown that the sceptics are now ‘winning the argument’ about global warming, especially as some of the dire forecasts of the IPCC have not materialized and there has been a very well-publicized ‘scandal’ involving leaked private email exchanges amongst climate scientists. In short, despite the vast, diverse body of evidence collected from across the planet and by experts in many different disciplines which show global warming to be real, public trust in climate science and their impartiality has taken a series of knocks allowing sceptical arguments to gain ground.
The most basic positions in the global warming debate, such as it is, are something like this. The IPCC argues that the global climate is warming and much of this is caused by human activity since industrialization began around 1750, with observed changes since the 1950s described as ‘unprecedented’. Thus there will be significant, if not dramatic, consequences for humanity and everything else on the planet as mean surface temperatures rise somewhere between 1.5°C and 4.5°C by 2100. Some sceptics argue that the global climate is not warming, and in fact there has been a ‘warming pause’ with no significant global warming since 1998. The warming thesis has been overblown.
Others say the global climate is warming, but this is just part of a natural cycle and has nothing to do with human activity so there’s nothing to be concerned about. Yet others argue that the global climate is warming and it is partly due to human activity but it is not possible to do much about it, so we would be better advised to focus on tackling global poverty instead.
Phew, you have to feel for members of the public who just want to weigh the arguments and evidence to make sense of the ‘debate’. In truth, though, this is not really a ‘debate’ at all. Rather it amounts to the on-going collection and assessment of evidence by the IPCC along with a series of relatively unconnected critical points and rejoinders from a variety of standpoints. That does not mean that all sceptical arguments are invariably wrong, but it does mean there is no comparable alternative body of data which seriously challenges the findings of the IPCC’s evidence and measurements collated over twenty-five years.
The IPCC was created in 1988 as an umbrella body that would gather and collate all the evidence on climate change in order to inform the public and advise governments and international organizations on policy. Since then there have been five IPCC Assessment Reports (in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2013) with each successive assessment becoming more certain that global warming is continuing and human activity is the main driver. However, the extent of warming and its likely consequences for different regions of the world have varied across the reports. This is not unusual nor is it suspicious as forecasting and climate modelling are subject to change based on the available data and the increasing complexity of the models themselves. The Fifth Report insists that ‘warming of the climate system is unequivocal’, the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, snow and ice have diminished and sea level has risen. It is‘extremely likely’ that, since the 1950s, this is primarily due to human influence on the environment, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, which has increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere (particularly CO2). The ‘warming pause’ (1998-2012) noted by sceptics may well be correct, but this is over a very short period and nothing significant can be inferred from it that would challenge the long-term process of global warming since 1750, nor does it alter the forecast of continuing warming into the future.
Of course, criticism comes naturally to sociologists and social constructionism – with its agnostic position towards the reality of social and environmental problems such as global warming – is probably the dominant approach. It might be said that sociology is inherently a critical discipline which approaches social life from the standpoint that things are rarely as they appear on the surface. For instance, the sociology of scientific knowledge has shown many times that the practice of science itself is a social activity (how could it not be?) and must therefore be studied as such. Scientific findings,however widely shared or apparently established, are the product of social processes of consensus-building and we should be cautious about taking them as ‘hard facts’. Sociology appears to be a ‘natural ally’ to climate change sceptics. Not so. So far, most sociologists writing on the matter have accepted the IPCC’s assessment and theorized what consequences global warming may have on societies and social groups in the future. Indeed, even in the work of social theorists such as Ulrich Beck (1992, 2000, 2009), Anthony Giddens (1991, 2002, 2011) and John Urry (2011; Dennis and Urry 2009), their theoretical ideas and policy prescriptions are premised on the reality of anthropogenic global warming.
Andrew Abbott (2001: 60-1) once observed that although an agnostic form of constructionism has been theoretically dominant in sociology, when sociologists get down to doing empirical research they ‘ignore it entirely, taking social reality as utterly given’. So has sociology now lost its critical edge? I suggest not. It is more likely that underlying the sceptical, cautious and critical stance of most sociologists lies a (heartwarming) commitment to their discipline as a systematic, scientific enterprise rather than an adjunct to the humanities. Indeed, it is reassuring that sociology’s practitioners remain committed to working on the basis of the available evidence. For a discipline that was founded as the ‘science of society’, sociology needs to remain part of the family of sciences if it is to prosper. This will be especially important in the area of environmental sociology and global warming research, which demand interdisciplinary collaboration across the natural and social sciences.
Philip W. Sutton
Abbott, A. (2001) Chaos of Disciplines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London: Sage).
Beck, U. (2002) Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (Cambridge: Polity).
Beck, U. (2009) World at Risk (Cambridge: Polity).
Dennis, K. and Urry, J. (2009) After the Car (Cambridge: Polity).
Giddens, A. (1991) The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity).
Giddens, A. (2002) Runaway World: How Globalisation Is Reshaping Our Lives (London: Profile).
Giddens, A. (2011) The Politics of Climate Change, Second Edition (Cambridge: Polity).
IPCC(2013) Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers
Urry, J. (2011) Climate Change and Society (Cambridge: Polity).
Chapter 5 The Environment covers the global warming debate in detail, especially pp.175-185. See also the discussions of risk theory on pp.101-4, 192-3. The discussion of sociology’s relationship to other sciences on pp.38-48 and the history and development of sociological theorizing contained in Chapter 3 Theories and Perspectives also provide the necessary backdrop to understanding why many sociologists maintain a critical, even sceptical stance towards the natural sciences.
In Sociology: Introductory Readings, Reading 17 on the ‘New Ecological Paradigm’ and Anthony Giddens’s critique of the existing politics of global warming in Reading 18 will also be useful.