Friday, September 16, 2011

Climate Change and Society / John Urry -- Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2011

The discussion of climate change has largely been carried on among Earth scientists, economists, and political activists. John Urry, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, believes that as long as our discourse is limited to these domains, we will not be able to adequately address the threats of climate change. Instead, we must make sociology central to the discussion and we must understand the social forces and institutions behind our "high carbon lives." Climate Change and Society is his attempt to do just this.

Early on, Urry describes three major "discourses" contesting how people commonly think about climate change: skepticism, gradualism, and catastrophism. There are three main strands within the skeptical discourse: one denies that the planet is warming, one denies that human beings are significantly responsible for the warming, and one asserts that the effects of climate change will be either beneficial, benign, or mild enough that we can adapt to the changes. Over the past twenty years, the first two strands have become less prominent. As the evidence for anthropogenic climate change has mounted, it has become harder and harder to persuade anyone that we are not changing our climate.

The third strand of skepticism, however, still manages to maintain some support. Bjorn Lomborg is among its most prominent proponents. Lomborg has argued that resources invested now in economic growth will accumulate value faster than the harms of climate change will develop. Consequently, future generations will be better protected from climate change if we do nothing about it now and instead concentrate on economic growth. Urry does not bother to refute this claim. The recent uncertainty about the future of economic growth, the peaking of world oil production, and the mounting evidence that climate change will cause significant problems makes doing nothing seem irresponsible.

The gradualist view of climate change argues that a dire future lies ahead if we continue with business as usual, but it will come about in a smooth, incremental transformation. This is the view expressed in reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Two facts about these reports make Urry believe they may be too conservative. First, the reports are the product of numerous scientists, many of whom are reluctant to accept anything but the most clearly established claims. Furthermore, the reports must be approved by political delegations from numerous countries around the world, including nations that are reluctant to accept the facts and dangers of climate change, e.g., OPEC countries, China, and the United States among others. These structural forces within the IPCC mean that the reports will understate the facts and dangers.

Second, feedback loops are not considered in the conclusions coming out of the IPCC. Since the feedback loops that exacerbate climate change are more numerous and significant than the feedback loops that mitigate climate change, reports that don't include feedback loops will likely show less warming and fewer bad consequences.

As opposed to the gradualist view, the catastrophic view holds that changes to the climate can occur suddenly and drastically when a "tipping point" is reached, causing the climate to shift to a new stable condition. As life has become adapted to current condition over eon's of evolution, a sudden dramatic shift in climate conditions will threaten the fabric of the ecosystem. The result will be significant and irreversible changes that will wipe out species and make civilization as we know it difficult, if not impossible. A number of prominent scientists accept this view. James Hansen, in particular, warns that a "Venus syndrome" might be our future, where greenhouse gases create an entirely uninhabitable planet.

Urry takes both the gradualist and catastrophic views seriously and argues that to escape our fate we first must understand that we live "high carbon lives" and understand how our social institutions lock us into these lives. Second, we must seek ways to transform our social institutions to relieve us from our dependency on fossil fuels. This is Urry's most important observation. Many authors write about how we must abandon "business as usual" if we are to avoid disaster, but while this is certainly a metaphor for many things other than business, it unintentionally implicates our economic institutions. Much more needs to be changed than business and commerce. We must abandon not "business as usual," but "life as usual." This is a far taller order. Without doing so, no legal regulation likely will be sufficient to make the profound changes that are needed. In a chapter on politics, Urry warns that without quickly changing our social institutions, only an authoritarian state may be capable of mitigating disaster. Urry calls on us to find numerous ways to lead "low carbon lives," which could create opportunities to transform fundamentally our suicidal institutions.

Urry's book ends by projecting four different possible futures. The first is the "Star Trek" future in which technological developments make it possible find low carbon energy sources in time to avoid disaster and continue and expand our current lifestyles. The second is the "warlords" future in which global and national community breaks down and regions are dominated by petty warlords competing for the remnants of a collapsing society. The third is the "local sustainability" future in which a transition takes place from a neo-liberal global society to self-sufficient local economies that establish sustainable social institutions. The fourth is the "Futurama III" future in which social needs are met virtually. Urry makes no unambiguous prediction about which of these futures will come about, but argues that the more preferable future is the local sustainability future and that we ought to examine how we can transform our current institutions to support a transition to it.

The primary value of Climate Change and Society is that it underscores how, over the course of the twentieth century, we have "locked in" a high carbon lifestyle. Everything from our energy production systems, housing patterns, HVAC infrastructure, transportation systems, food production systems, etc., relies on fossil fuels. "Addiction" is probably not the right word to describe our relationship to oil in that addiction is a pathology that usually deviates from the norm. A more apt metaphor might be that we have constructed a skyscraper on a faulty foundation and we must rebuild it in place.

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