The role of Sociology in the Climate Crisis: Our Teaching Dr katie dow, prof jennifer gabrys, dr ella mcpherson, Dr monica moreno figeroa & dr marieke zobel

Environmental change is now occurring at an unprecedented rate and scale throughout the world. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, diminishing biodiversity, and increasing land rights claims are all events that raise pressing concerns about social justice in relation to environmental change. While there are now many established approaches to these urgent problems within the areas of science, technology and policy, sociologically oriented analyses of environmental change are still emerging. This initiative within the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge proposes to address and systematically incorporate attention to environmental change within the curriculum, research, public engagement, impact, administrative projects and working practices.

We see news every day alerting us to the irreversible damage to our planet as well as to the difficulties for governments to commit to quick change and for communities to really take it on that our capitalist society ways of life are unsustainable. We have seen also calls to think of this as an emergency, a crisis, a catastrophe. In the face of this, we think there is an urgent need for us as a Department, and as a University, to think of our role and contribution to this huge and terribly challenging social problem - maybe the most pervasive problem of all societies, since it threatens the very existence of our social world. Without an environment, we can’t function as humans, groups and societies. It seems clear the option of not thinking about this doesn’t exist: there is no planet B. ‘Our house is on fire’ as Greta Thunberg has repeatedly said, and she wants us to panic and act .

The climate crisis calls for immediate critical thinking and effective action. Unless our society can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the next several years and then begin removing large amounts of GHG from the atmosphere, dangerously destructive global climate change will escalate. Climate change is already having a damaging effect on every continent. While other problems facing humanity are extremely harmful, none (other than the possibility of nuclear war) pose such an immediate and large-scale threat to humans and all other forms of life.

We contend that an approach that emphasizes that environmental change is social change is needed in order to study and robustly address the complex and multiple challenges that environmental change creates for diverse social worlds. This approach also underscores the importance of moving beyond the more individualistic, neoliberal and behaviourally-oriented techniques to addressing environmental change that have been emphasized in recent decades, to instead focus on the diverse collectives and solidarities that are emerging to tackle environmental problems. Furthermore, we see an urgent need to clear the haze around the causes, nature, and future of environmental change; without denying the complexity of the issue, we recognise that sociological concepts and approaches – such as discourse, political economy, and intersectionality – can shed light on what is at stake, for whom, and correspondingly informs us all in our response to this crisis.

It is essential that we all quickly become aware of the situation and act to stop emitting green house gases in every way possible. Many, many people are studying the problem and working for change. We have just enough time to turn this situation around, if we act quickly. The upcoming decade will be critical.

As we well know, our economic systems, with their embedded drives for profit regardless of the damage done, have shown themselves to be incompatible with an ecologically sustainable society. To save the environment, we must fundamentally change these systems and end the oppression and exploitation they are built on. How can we make space to imagine what would a good life for everyone might mean?

We have the privilege to be teaching at an important and influential university with students that already have and will have an immense potential to intervene in the necessary coordinated global effort to reduce inequities and create a rational economy—one that allows everyone the possibility to have a good life. How are we preparing our students to explore and experiment with their creativity and leadership to engage in this social challenge?

The populations most vulnerable to climate extremes are the ones that have been targeted with genocide, oppression, exploitation, and war. Therefore, solutions to climate change must include the thinking and perspectives of these people – how can we enable this?

We are at a crucial moment to think through these questions as what we do in the next decade will have big effects on all future generations and all species. We can play a significant role. What do we need to discuss to be open to this? What support do we need to be able to think this through?

What does all of the above mean for our discipline and how we teach it?

In the face of this, we would like to propose that the Department of Sociology takes this challenge seriously, and that all of its members think about how we are preparing our students to engage with the climate crisis from the myriad of perspectives and areas that we work on. This doesn’t mean that we change our focus of research and expertise but that we incorporate this urgent social problem we are facing into what we do and know.

Some starting points for discussion:

1. Incorporate the issue of climate crisis in our individual teaching across the curricula. This might take the form of new sections in existing lectures or new lectures in existing papers (e.g. How does Social Theory relate to the climate crisis? How does reproduction relate to the climate crisis? How does the labour market relate to the climate crisis? etc.)

2. Incorporate the issue of climate crisis collectively in our supervision structure across the curricula, this might take the form of:

  • Including a supervision essay on the issue of climate crisis in relation to the paper’s main topics.
  • A research-based blog post instead of an essay for one of the two more flexible supervisions. This will mean asking students to produce a small piece of research that links the climate crisis with the paper’s main topics through their own empirical investigations. This would feed into broader visibility of the climate crisis as a theme and could be published on the Department’s websites.
  • Including one exam question per paper addressing the issue of climate crisis in relation to the paper’s main topics.

3. Incorporate a three-tiered approach to climate crisis in the curricula, this might mean:

  • Including one or two lectures in SOC1 around climate crisis or add a reflection on the issue in some of the existing lectures.
  • Redesigning SOC3 (which is already underway), which is a compulsory paper, to include transversally the issue of climate crisis with a dedicated module specifically to this issue.
  • Develop a paper in PartIIB on the Sociology of the Environment.

4. Start a process of knowledge and sharing of information throughout the department to develop our understanding on climate change from the perspective of each of our fields and areas of expertise. This effort can be integrated as part of the Decolonising Sociology work. This might take the form of:

  • A reading group that meets once a term, three times a year, to share knowledge and help each other find out about readings and materials and discuss some common issues.
  • Incorporate the theme as a priority in the seminar series and make sure one speaker per term talks about this to help us know and understand more about the issue.

5. Raise the visibility of the problem of climate change and what sociology can bring to solutions through a thematic focus on the website, bringing together student blog posts, speaker podcasts, staff reflections, etc.

6. Support and broaden the debate about the working practices of our Department (and academia in general) which the Green Team has started. This could mean looking into the environmental impact of academic practices including publication, the carbon footprint of academic travel (especially flying), etc.

The more people who join these conversations, the more voices we'll have for change. And there is no time to lose.

Preventing runaway global warming is the single most important task in all of human history, and it has fallen to us to do it.


Created with images by Markus Spiske - "Fridays for future - global climate strike on the European elections (May 24 2019)"