Climate Change and Society

Date: 1 Nov 2011
Speaker(s): John Urry
Venue: University of Leeds

Public lecture: part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science

The various sciences of climate change have made it utterly clear that ‘human behaviour’ is essential to understanding the causes and impacts of so-called ‘global warming’.

However, the discipline that so far mainly represents and models human behaviour is economics. But this is a problem because its account of ‘humans’ is partial and unlikely to produce appropriate policy recommendations.

People should be rather seen as creatures of social routine and habit, but also of fashion and fad. These patterns of routine and fashion stem from how people are much of the time locked into and reproduce different social practices and institutions. Purchases of goods and services and especially their uses help to constitute these social practices and it is such practices that are the very stuff of life.

Thus Professor John Urry examined how the ‘social’ should be positioned at the heart of the analysis of why climates are changing and of assessing and developing alternative futures. He especially considered the importance of social practices that over time are organised into powerful ‘socio-technical’ systems.

In the fateful twentieth century, a cluster of interlocking high-carbon systems were established and sedimented. And in this new century it is systems that have to change, to move from growing high-carbon systems to a cluster of those that are low carbon.

Various scenarios of differing futures for the middle of this century contain significant costs for the scale, extent and richness of social life. And this is because there are indeed huge limits to developing low-carbon systems.

The low-carbon cluster of interdependent systems needs to be put in place now in order to slow down the scale of changing climates and energy descent, which together contain many dangers for future societies.

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