Sociology and Global Warming
While the science of global warming becomes more widely accepted, thoughts of how to approach the issue have been the subject of much debate. In the past five years, global warming has become the hot topic, so to speak, in the United States. Throughout the country people are becoming aware that the climate is changing. The public is beginning to realize that humans are responsible, and must start to take action to protect the environment. Once the issue had been introduced into the public conscious, pathways to change have been paved. Now these new roads to implementation have intersected into a mess of opinion and bureaucracy. “A vast array of human behaviors and institutions can be said to be affected by, or have impacts on, the natural world” (Buttell, 3). "We don't have a horse in the race about what policies make sense," Rutter said. "But we have an interest in putting it on the table so that as a community we can think about it” (Drake, 3).
The first step in addressing Global Warming is to understand the concept. This involves positivism, the acceptance of science. Al Gore presented a large amount of scientific evidence for the change in climate in his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (2006). This film did an excellent job reaching audiences across the world in a way that entertains while informing the audience. “50,000 copies of the film were given away to teachers in the United States via the participate.net website between 18 December 2006 and 18 January 2007” (imdb.com). Gore presented the viewpoints of a structural-functional approach to the situation. On one hand, he pointed out that each country of the world act together in putting out greenhouse gases and failing to take care of the environment. He acknowledged that each individual must act together to help reduce emissions and curb the effects of global warming. He expressed the importance of a unified front against the problem on a worldwide scale. Gore also stressed the importance of statewide leadership exemplified by Governor Schwarzenegger’s initiatives in California to set hard deadlines for making improvements. Most recently the mayor of San Francisco has announced that the city will begin phasing out bottled water and plastic bags (NPR: Environment, 2/28/07).
The film presented factual information about the subject. As a sub point to the film discussion, some people disapproved of the film because of political opinions about Al Gore. This is one example of the Social Conflict theory in terms of rejecting contrary opinions. The increasing number of environmental documentaries and research has reduced the amount of people who doubt the environment is actually happening. Gore points out in the film that no scientific journal has ever doubted that global warming exists, most of those notions come from the popular press.
During the NCFA team debate semifinals in April of this year, my partner and I set a case for the reduction of gasoline reliance in the United States. We stressed the importance of our domestic economy, intertwined with protection of the environment. Sometimes opponents of climate change theory stress that fixing the environment will somehow cripple the economy. This is a fallacy of thought. If the United States can invest in research and development of alternative fuel and energy sources and reduce imports of oil, the country could once again flourish as a main producer of goods in the world. This would create thousands and thousands of new jobs and new industries. The jump into the next generation could be a fantastic opportunity for the country as a whole. I see climate change as the issue that defines my generation. The social functions that could spring up from new industry would greatly benefit the country, and the image of the United States as stewards of the earth would also help our public relations.
Social conflict theorists also have a lot to say on the issue. I think we are seeing great evidence of these theorists in the lack of progress towards correcting climate change. It wasn’t until this year that the White House finally recognized Global Warming as a real factor. Car manufacturers are just now starting to realize that there is a market for economic vehicles. For now, some companies will continue to pollute because their methods are cheap and can pull profit.
Lobbyists and activists are now taking to the streets to spread the word about companies that introduce waste into the environment. “Environmental activists have been at the forefront of recognizing that anchoring social movement claims and strategies in scientific knowledge is an effective strategy in the highly rationalized social structure and political economy of the late 20th century” (Buttell, 7). Social awareness can act as a catalyst for change. Word of mouth can be a grassroots method of informing the public.
Industries that still emit metric tons of carbon dioxide have not yet caught on to the concept. All of the examples of places to change are examples of managers and CEOs who are not yet willing to cooperate on the issue. I think in 2007 we are at a point where those companies that have not yet responded will have to start yielding soon. Increasing pressure will placed on those who refuse to cooperate. I think a domino effect will take place, and more people will start to realize the potential for capital in the world of energy-friendly producers and consumers. High income nations like the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and China must all cooperate to set limits and curb emissions by setting up alternate energy and fuel sources. Low income nations must be helped to develop these technologies, so their growing populations can also start to help rather than hurt the problem. The interdependence of the world countries will play a huge role in the effects of future climate change.
The manifest functions of reducing emissions all come down to reducing global warming. Helping out on an individual basis is the first step to helping out on the large scale. If every American household changed out one incandescent light bulb for a long lasting fluorescent light, the saved emissions would be equivalent to taking one million cars off the road (www.climatecrisis.net). This would save an estimated 150 pounds of carbon dioxide per bulb per year. The efforts to help do not even have to be difficult or intrusive on your daily lifestyle. Doing something productive could be healthy and even save you money. Driving less can be beneficial for the environment, save gas, and be a good exercise. Recycling just half of your household’s waste can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per year (www.climatecrisis.net). Other ways to contribute on the small scale include using less hot water, sparing the thermostat, and avoiding products with a lot of packaging.
Another aspect of the structural functionalist view would find that this type of grassroots effort would ultimately make even greater change. The latent functions would reduce the amount of business garnered by companies that don’t follow environmental guidelines in favor of their financial margins. If consumers got involved and educated about the makers of their favorite products, eventually the less environmental friendly producers would suffer a reduction of business. This lack of business would spark either the rise of a new greener producer, or spark the current maker to become more energy efficient. These businesses might also want to improve their public image and might choose to spend a yearly amount to zero out their carbon footprint. Recently the DVD release of the film Evan Almighty was announced to be the first carbon-neutral DVD. Scripts were printed double-sided, recycle bins were placed all over the set, and the marketing aspects were controlled to use recycle products. “The idea is to minimize the hypocrisy”, said the film’s director, Tom Shadiac. “Once the intent is there, at least the ship is steering in the right direction, and we can solve these problems.” Usually the emissions of such a production would be massive, and the film’s producers chose to plant trees to offset all the productions of the set and release of the film (NPR Environment, 6/21/07).
Climate change is a real issue that needs to be addressed. Correcting emissions problems and protecting the environment requires positive participation from the major world contributors. The science of the issue is proven and demonstrated. The next half century is a crucial period to take action to ensure the habitats of the world we know. Society clearly has an impact on what gets done, and how long the processes take to get started. In order to handle new problems, new support is necessary. Those that continue to ignore the problem will soon find themselves standing alone in the marketplace. I believe society will adapt to this issue through time and the continued spread of information and availability of alternate resources.
Buttel, Frederic. "Environmental and Resource Sociology: Theoretical issues and Opportunities for Synthesis." In Rural Sociology, 1996, vol. 61(1), pp. 56-75.
Drake, John. “College to host climate 'teach-in'”. The Boston Globe. 4/19/07.
NPR. National Public Radio. “Talk of the Nation”. Neil Conan. 6/27/07
NPR. National Public Radio. “NPR: Environment”. 6/21/07, 6/28/07.
“Ten Things to Do”. www.climatecrisis.net. Filename: 10things.pdf.
PG&E. Pacific Gas and Electric Company. www.pgande.com.