How does our brain respond to climate change?

To move the needle on climate change we will have to fundamentally change the way societies and economies are organised.
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Beach clouds, pxhere, CC0

How can humanity adapt to a world which is heading towards self-destruction? This is a question that Dr Rebecca Elliott of the Department of Sociology contends with in her essay, The Sociology of Climate Change as a Sociology of Loss.

In 2018, the year carbon dioxide emissions reached their highest recorded level, the world’s temperature was 1C higher compared to the preindustrial era. At current rates of carbon emissions, temperatures are projected to increase by a further 3C by the end of the 21st century.

Such a rise would significantly increase the risks of drought, floods and extreme heat waves for hundreds of millions of people. Although 97% of the world’s scientists are united in the view that human activity is causing climate change, many leading politicians contend that the changes could be a natural occurrence.   

In her latest essay, Dr Elliott writes that the focus on establishing the causes of climate change neglects an important set of questions about environmental changes that are already taking place, and about how societies might transform in order to deal with loss, depletion, and disappearance.

For Dr Elliott, this aspect of the climate change debate was highlighted during her research when she interviewed victims of the 2012 Hurricane Sandy floods in New York City. When Dr Elliott raised climate change as a likely cause, many interviewees weren’t prepared to make the link between human activity and environmental destruction.

She says: “The victims of the floods had experienced an emotional problem, which had affected their families and how they saw their futures. But for them to make the connection with climate change forces them to wrap their heads around the whole set of issues they said they couldn’t deal with.”

This prompted questions on what climate change will mean when it directly impacts everyone’s lives. Dr Elliott says: “We will have to use the resources we already have to deal with loss and change in ways that allow us to adapt to climate change without having to talk about climate change.”

Dr Elliott writes that humanity has a long history of adapting to changes in the natural world, such as coastline erosion and extreme weather. These experiences have developed a repertoire of skills that will be vital as our environment transforms.

“We should be interested in maintaining as much of the ice caps and biodiversity as possible. But climate change is already transforming the ecologies and the present we inhabit; accepting that parts of our ecology are lost and won’t return is something humans have been doing for centuries,” she says.

Humanity’s internal ability to change will also enable the sacrifices necessary to avert environmental disaster. Sustainability is usually understood as a way of preserving contemporary lifestyles and reducing resource-consumption. But focusing on sustainability could also be viewed as a way of avoiding the kinds of social changes that will have the most significant impact on climate change.

Dr Elliott says: “Thinking about what we can maintain, and whether we can reproduce our lifestyles in a more sustainable way prevents us from getting real about everything that is disappearing. To move the needle on climate change we will have to fundamentally change the way societies and economies are organised.”

Such a change may have additional benefits; Dr Elliott points to research which shows wealthy, consumerist societies haven’t made people more satisfied. She says: “The work-to-consume-to-throw-away society doesn’t actually make us happy. Spending our time caring for other people, and friends and family, does.”

Societies that make it possible to work less will reduce their ecological footprints and allow their members to live richer lives in the process. Dr Elliott says: “Organisational social life is where we’ll find the kind of transformative potential to address climate change.”

Because of the way we typically think about these problems, changing our practices might feel like a loss. But we have to ask whether we would be sacrificing something worth having in the first place?”

There is momentum in Dr Elliott’s native United States for more transformational climate change politics motivated by this. She says: “There’s lots of energy behind ideas like the Green New Deal. Central to these projects is an acceptance that you can’t deal with climate change without simultaneously thinking in broader systemic terms about how we live.”

“I’m optimistic about how these ideas might be turned into workable programs by governments to address these issues in a more holistic way. Supporting the political change is the fact that humans have the capacity to make the changes already.”

Behind the article

The Sociology of Climate Change as a Sociology of Loss by Rebecca Elliott was published in the European Journal of Sociology in December 2018.