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Global warming is the increase of average temperatures in the lower atmosphere (near the Earth’s surface and oceans). Global warming is not the same thing as climate change, which refers to a change in climate lasting for an extended period of time. The effects of global warming are numerous, from the melting of Arctic ice sheets, the loss of biodiversity, species extinction and changes in flora and fauna, rainfall amounts, ocean salinity and wind patterns and increases in extreme weather, such as droughts, flooding, heatwaves, and the intensification of tropical storms (e.g. Hurricane Katrina).
Global warming has been the subject of much debate and controversy. Much of the controversy deals with whether human actions and behaviors cause global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes the case that human activity is a major contributor primarily because of fossil fuel use and changes in land use (especially related to methane and nitrous oxide use in agriculture). Pre-industrial levels (determined from ice core samples) suggest that increases in carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased significantly as a result of human activities since 1750.
Scientists, politicians, economists, and policymakers have all weighed in on global warming, its causes, effects and possible solutions. Even though global warming deniers and skeptics still make headlines, much of the scientific community accepts its actuality. The year 2005 has been identified as the point when conversations about global warming and climate change tipped towards certainty (Lever-Tracey 2008). The 2007 IPCC Report asserted that global warming is evident and uncontestable. Global temperatures have risen over 0.74°C in the last century as a consequence of greenhouses gases trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Along with threats to the environment, there is also a threat to social organization and patterns of human life. The 2007 IPCC Report identifies changes to agriculture, increased forest fires and increased health-related mortality due to malnutrition, respiratory diseases and infectious diseases. Human settlements are at risk due to deleterious effects on food and water supplies, desertification as well as flooding, thereby making areas increasingly uninhabitable and forcing community relocation. Poor areas and marginalized communities are especially vulnerable to these effects (often lying in flood-prone regions, for example).
The twentieth century has seen an increase in energy dependent patterns of living, especially transportation, electricity generation and the rise in mass production and consumption. Increased mobility, excess capitalism, and neoliberalism are explanatory factors underpinning these actions and behaviors. And while sociology takes these tenets as central to many analyses, sociology has been late to the conversation on global warming and its impact on society. Why? (1) Sociology privileges views of society as socially constructed and addressing global warming requires taking natural determinism seriously; and (2) thinking about global warming and its effects requires projecting into the future. Thinking about the future, about linear streams of progress, has become outdated as thinkers move away from narratives embedded in modernity.
Literature within sociology, especially within environmental sociology, examines how and why people negatively impact the environment and how these actions get institutionalized. Two schools of thought have emerged addressing these questions. First, the Ecological Modernization School posits that capitalism will provide solutions to global warming by merging capitalist production with ecological principles. Along with this idea is the search for alternative sources of energy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Second, eco-Marxists deem that capitalism will create the conditions of its own downfall because capitalist production cannot keep expanding on a planet with finite resources.
Global warming is an international problem. A 1°C increase is projected to cause 300,000 climate-related deaths from disease. A 2°C change will increase coastal flooding and affect up to 10 million people. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement among already-industrialized nations to cut emissions a few percentage points lower than their 1990 levels, is one such attempt to combat the problem across nation-states. However, not all countries have agreed to the Protocol, most notably the USA, claiming it is unfair to penalize the US economy when India and China are unregulated.
The Kyoto Protocol introduced the idea of market-related measures, which have been touted as the solution to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. One such proposal is emissions trading, also known as cap and trade. This approach has companies or other organizations purchase licenses to emit a certain, specified amount of pollutants. Companies that need to emit more have to buy licenses from companies that pollute less. Although this is one of many proposed solutions, the debate in the years ahead will concern how, and in what ways, global warming and the projected effects can be mitigated and if possible, reversed.
- Lever-Tracy, C. (2008) Global warming and sociology. Current Sociology 56: 445-66.
- IPCC (2007) Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/contents.html.
- McCright, A. M. & Dunlap, R. E. (2000) Challenging global warming as a social problem: an analysis of the conservative movement’s counter-claims. Social Problems 47 (4): 499-522.
- Urry, J. (2009) Sociology and climate change. Sociological Review 2 (57): 84-100.