Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Tragedy of the Atmospheric Commons: Discounting Future Costs and Risks in Pursuit of Immediate Fossil-Fuel Benefits

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Tragedy of the Atmospheric Commons: Discounting Future Costs and Risks in Pursuit of Immediate Fossil-Fuel Benefits

Article excerpt

INDICATIONS ARE THAT the problem of anthropogenic climate change is not being solved. Global greenhouse-gas emissions are increasing (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007) and international meetings such as the Copenhagen 2009 climate change conference failed to produce framework agreements to mitigate global warming. Local initiatives are not making significant reductions in overall emissions either. Most importantly, there are strong vested interests in maintaining and intensifying the carbon economy, not only big oil, coal, and transportation companies but also ordinary citizens who have grown accustomed to cheap gas, inexpensive electricity, and unlimited air conditioning.

There has recently been a trend toward what Buhrs (2008:71) calls "soft and economically attractive" solutions by both researchers and policymakers, that is, away from emphasizing environmental perils toward economic opportunities. These macrolevel proposals are related to findings of microlevel social psychological studies of individuais using focus groups, surveys, and interviews (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, and Braman 201la; Kahan et al. 2011b; O'Neill and Nicholson-Cole 2009). These studies made three distinct but related findings. (1) Although representations of fear attract attention to climate change, they are ineffective devices for motivating personal engagement. Nonthreatening images and proposals work better. (2) Immediate, local, everyday concerns are more motivating than concerns distant intime and far-off in space. (3) Cultural values shape whether scientific findings of risk lead to concern, denial, or apathy, and hence to changes in practices or their continuation. These conclusions make anthropogenic climate change a truly wicked problem (1) because of its character consisting of a threatening potential, (2) because the main consequences are distant intime or far removed from the wealthy societies whose emissions are causing the problem, and (3) because values vary between societies such that if some high emissions societies refuse to mitigate, then the global problem remains unsolved. Where microlevel studies have made proposals, they have not gone beyond vague talk about nonthreatening images and local concerns and have failed to suggest specific practical proposals for mitigation on the scale required for this global danger. Perrow (2010:46) refers to Hulme's (2009) proposals as "whistling in the dark." The translation of social psychological proposals concerning climate change from the microlevel, artificial settings of focus groups, surveys, and interviews to real-world macro settings is problematic.

A major social theorist has presented an analysis that constitutes one of the most significant attempts to develop a positive approach based on the convergence of mitigation with economic opportunities on the real-world macrolevel, namely Anthony Giddens (2009). Rather than a broad discussion of all the emerging sociological literature on climate change (see Beck 2009; Hulme 2009; Lever-Tracy 2010; Szerszynski and Urry 2010; Urry 2009, 2011), this paper examines the possibilities and limitations of emphasizing positive opportunities to mitigate global climate change by critically and empirically assessing Giddens' study. He expresses his analysis in universal terms but it is based only on examples from Northern Europe, (1) which is problematic because the social psychological findings, when inferred to the macrolevel, imply that cultural values of Northern Europe may have shaped science communication and the cognition of the scientific consensus concerning global warming in ways different than in other emitting societies. Furthermore, studies (Dunlap and McCright 2011; McCright and Dunlap 2010) have documented that such communication and cognition are shaped by interests, which may differ in Northern Europe than elsewhere. Hence, it is important to investigate whether positive, opportunity-based solutions like those analyzed by Giddens can be generalized, at least to other wealthy high emissions societies. …

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