<![CDATA[RC 24 Environment & Society - Blog ]]>Tue, 07 Apr 2020 23:42:59 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[ When is it not ok to talk about climate change? ]]>Mon, 06 Jun 2016 08:10:00 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-when-is-it-not-ok-to-talk-about-climate-changeDebra Davidson
June 2016

In northern Alberta, the burgeoning city of Fort MacMurray houses a lively main street of coffee shops and bars, and many families, most of which have at least one member working in the oilsands. At the beginning of May this year, a fire broke out in the dense, dry boreal forests nearby, and rapidly headed straight for the Town.

Source: http://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/fort-mcmurray-wildfire-pushed-back-even-as-temperatures-climb
 
No one should have been too surprised: the boreal forest within which the city sits is a fire-adaptive ecosystem and large-scale fires have been part of this landscape throughout the entire history of human settlement here. Moreover, the previous Winter and Spring had been exceptionally dry, with a snow pack between 60 and 90% below normal.  Within a day the flames evoked the largest evacuation in Canadian history, including all 88,000 residents of Fort Mac—as it is known here in Alberta— all squeezed into a single 2-lane highway like a thick milkshake through an entirely inadequate straw. A later wave of evacuees included many who remained stranded in work camps further to the north in the oilsands fields themselves, and other small communities as well. Many of those evacuees swelled the population of Edmonton for nearly a month, before receiving the green light to return a few days ago when the fire, reaching 600,000 hectares, headed east toward Saskatchewan.
Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/05/04/fort-mcmurray-fire_n_9838912.html
 
Amidst the social and mass media coverage of fleeing families, the multiple acts of heroism and charity, and the calls for disaster relief, many stories emerged featuring climate change as the main actor, although some disagreement existed as to whether this actor was an antagonist in a ‘Nature bats last’ docu-drama, or a protagonist, in a saga about divine retribution accorded against the dark powers of our oil-addicted society.
 
First, the protagonist story: a rather insidious collection of comments that have lit up the more informal channels of social media, all referring to the fires in one ay or another as ‘climate karma.’ As most informed citizens including those living here in Alberta are fully aware, fossil fuels are the primary players in our greenhouse gas emission portfolio. Non-conventional fuels like the oilsands are frequently blamed, and their human associates shamed, due to their particularly high emissions intensity (among a host of other social and environmental impacts we do not need to belabour here). Quipped ‘Mordor’ in times past—which, the gory pictures of oilsands mining operations would suggest is apropos—new images of towering infernos engulfing the landscape might appear to have arrived on cue. Perhaps they were, as some commentators have asserted, even karmic. Or they would be, if, say, the oilsands mines themselves were suddenly destroyed. But they were not. It was the homes and community of labourers and their families that were alight—losing around 2,000 structures in total—along with thousands of hectares of forest, not the oilsands themselves.
 
As rural sociologists have highlighted many times, the identities of natural resourced-based labourers, who live primarily in rural communities, and embrace conservative cultures, could not be more distinct from their urban, highly educated, environmentalist counterparts. These rather polarized caricatures belie a more complicated picture, however: repeated case studies have shown that many members of rural communities express a deep respect and value for nature; and it so happens, in this case in particular, the community demographics look anything like a rural backwater: according to the last Census conducted in 2011 by Statistics Canada, Fort Mac residents are young (median age 32), 20% of adults hold a university degree, and another 20% of community members identify a primary language other than English. Indeed, discourse rather than demographics would appear to have played a much greater role in the inability of one group to associate with the other. This divide had been previously nurtured by industry-supported ‘jobs vs. environment’ rhetoric, and now, with the crass of implication that workers are somehow accountable for our fossil fuel dependency. Even though this association may not have been intentional, even though such utterances were far outnumbered by the vehement reactions to them, they served to further fuel anti-environmentalist sentiments among Alberta’s energy industry supporters.
 
The second thread in this story, more often expressed by mass media organizations, is the attribution question. Did climate change cause the Fort Mac fire? Would the fire not have occurred in the absence of climate change? The short answer, and one environmental sociologists should know already, is that a single event cannot with any degree of confidence be attributed to climate change. Read: the fire constitutes an N of 1. Even an N of 10 would not increase our confidence by much in a place like Alberta, famous for its variable weather and extreme events, and in an El Niño year to boot. But all too many media sources did not pose the question; rather, they stated the answer: of course the fire was caused by climate change. Or, of course it was not. Indeed, the media were heavily embroiled in a debate—and we know how journalists love debates—about whether or not climate change was to blame. The message to readers in what is already a skeptical population: climate science is (still) filled with uncertainties, and therefore, let’s ignore it. Ill-measured attribution comments can be a problem in that they only add to the confusion regarding climate science among the public. On the other hand, a number of media critics have associated any attempts to use this and other disasters as a launching pad for a discussion of any form on climate as ‘politicizing the issue.’ In other words, climate change is just politics, not a real threat—to lives, livelihoods, ecosystems—but a political one.
 
Should we then not talk about climate change at all in the aftermath of disaster? I could not disagree more. Disasters offer an opportunity for learning, manifest in new connections, dialogues, across these many divides: scientist and community resident, energy industry worker and environmentalist. Yet, while some enlightened story threads can no doubt be uncovered, the larger media story was unfortunately a missed opportunity for a healthy dialogue about our general vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, and the particular state and economic powers within the petrochemical industrial complex with responsibility for creating that vulnerability. In an ideal digital world—and as many among the climate-concerned hope—one redeeming feature of such disasters is the potential for renewed attention to our inevitable relationship with nature, and our inability to avoid the consequences of our ecological folly. And, equally ideally, the elevation of climate change on political agendas.
 
The reality so far has been far less redeeming. The questions for environmental sociologists are not so new, but no less urgent. How to support discourses that serve to critique our fossil-fuel-dependent society, and in particular the state and corporate elite who not only are disproportionately responsible for our climate mess, but also for exploiting the workers who are now refugees, without assigning blame toward, and inspiring the defenses of, those same workers, and consumers for that matter?
 
Underneath it all are the lives of some 90,000 uprooted workers and families, a big fat natural disaster relief tab imposed on a Petro-Province that was already near to buckling from the weight of low oil prices and thus tumbling revenues, and an emissions portfolio that just keeps growing. We are often told that doing is more important than saying, but in this instance, changing the course of our future may have just as much to do with what we say as what we do.

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<![CDATA[ Environmental Injustice in Flint: Old Story in New Bottles ]]>Mon, 14 Mar 2016 18:38:21 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-environmental-injustice-in-flint-old-story-in-new-bottlesDebra Davidson
March 2016

Photo source: http://edgeeffects.net/flint-water-crisis/
 
Sociologists have been drawing attention to environmental injustices on the basis of race, ethnicity, income, and gender for 30 years, yet the forces enabling such injustices to occur persist. One need look no further than Flint, Michigan, in the centre of the ailing midwestern industrial belt in the U.S. While all lenses of international media are focused on Donald Trump, a classic case of environmental injustice is unfolding in Flint today. At the centre of the story are a major corporation, a conservative Governor, a polluted river, and three outspoken women.
                      The birthplace of General Motors, Flint was once a bustling middle class city, but today, after the closure of many of GM’s facilities, it is more famous for its high crime rates. The population has dwindled, and among those who stay, 40 percent are living in poverty, and 57% are Black. While things are especially bad in Flint, the entire state of Michigan has been struggling financially for years, giving the State’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder, all the justification he needed to support a number of rather austere, and some could say short-sighted, cost-cutting measures.
                      One cost-cutting measure in particular seemed inconsequential enough, except that it had to do with the ability of the City to supply safe water to its residents. In the Spring of 2014, the Governor supported a switch in Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron, to the much closer Flint River. Shortly after the switch, residents noticed a brown colour and foul odour in their water, complaints that were met with assurances from government officials that all was well. In the ensuing months, growing evidence of hazard was met with alarm among residents.
                      One such resident, the first of the three women at the centre of this story, is LeeAnne Walters, a 37 year-old mother of four children ranging in age from 3 to 18 yrs. After many complaints about her water, including a laundry list of maladies experienced by her children—like rashes, hair loss and severe abdominal pains—the City sent an employee to conduct some tests in her home. The results showed a level of lead 27 times above the acceptable limit. The City’s first response was to blame the pipes in her home. Unsatisfied with this response, she embarked on her own research on lead, and the City’s management of its water supply. Pouring over the city’s water quality reports, she discovered not only that the Flint River had been used as an industrial dumping ground for decades. She also learned that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed to require Flint to treat the river water with anti-corrosion agents, which allowed lead to leach off pipes and into residents’ water supply, and brought this to the attention of a U.S. EPA official. Meanwhile, she became active, attending public meetings and organizing protests in Flint, effectively sparking an organized response from residents.
                      The first organized sources of warning came from the American Civil Liberties Union in the Summer of 2015, about the same time a team of researchers from Virginia Technical Institute, having been informed of the situation by the same U.S. EPA official contacted by Walters, felt compelled to begin water testing, and handed out 271 testing kits to Flint residents. Growing public outcry led to an initial phase of water testing by state officials too, but although those tests indicated a doubling of lead content since the switch in water supplies, the new level was still below the safety threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and thus further assurances were offered. Meanwhile, however, a paediatrician at a nearby Medical Centre, upon hearing news of water contamination concerns, took it upon herself to review blood levels in children, producing alarming results—the second of the three outspoken women mentioned above. This coincided with the release of another study indicating a 10-fold spike in in cases of Legionnaires Disease, a potentially fatal form of pneumonia.
                      The efforts of these two women may have had something to do with the emergence of the third woman who would define this story. Local child psychologist Karen Weaver launched a campaign in Fall 2015 for the office of Mayor, and her top campaign pledge was to fix the water contamination issue. She won, becoming the first female mayor of Flint, and has spent her months in office following through on that pledge, starting with a declaration of State-of-Emergency, which finally brought the national attention this story deserved.


Photo source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/flint-water-federal-appeal-1.3404996
                     
                      Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder claimed he was unaware of the crisis until October, 2015, but evidence to the contrary has emerged. Emails exchanged with close advisors indicate he had been receiving warnings of the crisis in various forms for at least a year prior the Fall of 2015. Moreover, as was uncovered by Michael Moore, shortly after the switch in water supplies, General Motors approached the Governor, claiming that the water was affecting their car parts, to which Snyder responded immediately by offering them their own water hookup back to Lake Huron, a clean supply. Also from Moore, Snyder was apparently informed at the time of the switch that the cost of applying anti-corrosion measures for the City’s water supply would have cost a total of $9,000—he decided it wasn’t worth the expense.
                      Shortly after his concession in October, Flint’s water supply was switched back to Lake Huron, and pipe corrosion control measures were implemented, but that may have been too little too late for Snyder. If there is one thing a large number of the cast of characters currently running for U.S. President have agreed upon, it is a call for Snyder’s resignation, and Congressional hearings on the Flint crisis and the Governor’s potential culpability have begun. Meanwhile, the Virginia Tech research team has initiated a second round of water tests to determine whether the measures taken were effective. Exposure to the tainted water supply lasted for a total of 17 months, long enough to cause permanent damage from lead poisoning among thousands of children.
                      What is new and different here? Sadly, nothing much. A neoliberal conservative government seeking to minimize public expenditures caters to corporate interests—even struggling ones—at the expense of citizens who have no value in a neoliberal worldview, and thus no voice in decision-making either. On the other hand, the capacity of those citizens to undermine the diversionary tactics of state interests, has, as is so often the case, been under-estimated. Environmental sociologist Robert Bullard has spoken out about the environmental injustice underpinnings of this story, exemplifying the important role we can play in articulating the structural commonalities across so many similar cases.
 
 
Selected sources and Additional Reading:
 
Moore, M. 2016. 10 Things They Won’t Tell You About the Flint Water tragedy. Accessed March 7, 2016, http://michaelmoore.com/10FactsOnFlint/
 
Lurie, Julia. 2016. Meet the Mom who helped expose Flint’s water nightmare. Mother Jones, Jan. 21. Accessed March 7, 2016. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/01/mother-exposed-flint-lead-contamination-water-crisis
 
Bullard, Robert D. 2016. Flint’s water crisis is a blatant example of environmental injustice. The Conversation, Jan. 22. Accessed March 14, 2016. http://theconversation.com/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice-53553

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<![CDATA[ Emotions are Everywhere, Except in Sociology ]]>Mon, 23 Nov 2015 17:50:55 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-emotions-are-everywhere-except-in-sociologyDebra J. Davidson
November 2015
 
As I pack my bags for the upcoming climate change Summit in Paris, I am reminded how much emotion drives my actions everyday. My visions and intentions for my participation in the Summit run the gamut alongside my swinging emotional state, from hope, to despair, to fear for my safety, and back to hope again. In the midst of widely swinging reports on the projected outcomes of the meeting itself, the Summit takes place a mere weeks after one of a growing number of violent tragedies in that same city, in which 120 people were killed. And, to be mundane but honest, my participation will be strongly affected by whether I get some shut-eye on the plane.
 
With another pair of glasses on, I reflect upon the extensive reading I have done in the area of institutional analysis over the years, and I just can’t recall any conceptual frameworks of institutional process that acknowledge the role of emotions—and more potently, that semi- or un-conscious emotional baggage we all carry with us, the stuff of psychoanalysis—in those processes. Yet we each have extensive personal experience in that precise interaction. You know what I’m talking about: remember the last meeting you attended, in which you sat back in your chair and silently fingered those participants with control issues, those who are insecure, those who love to think out loud to everyone else’s chagrin, those who were pre-occupied by a conversation with their spouse earlier that morning, and in the midst of this pondering you very much wanted to bring the meeting to a close as soon as possible so you could grab a snack, since you skipped breakfast? Did the aggregation of those emotional states affect the outcome of that meeting? Of course it did. I know from personal experience how my emotion-driven actions can affect others, how those of others affect me, and indeed, how such emotions affect the outcomes of those collective events in which I participate. You know it too. Step away from the council meeting and pick up a newspaper, and we find blatant examples of the aggregate effect of emotions—namely fear, in the form of Islamophobia—on political decision-making. Fear has had profound impacts on politics throughout history. Individually, fear wakes up a part of our brain called the amygdala, which bypasses those parts of our brain that enable intellectual processing, and induces “fight or flight” responses to perceived threats—not exactly a state of mind conducive to diplomacy, much less collaborative problem-solving. Socially, fear establishes distance and distrust between groups, and spreads like wildfire with the smallest of sparks. While fear is a biological mechanism, many forms of fear are learned: fear of failure, fear of being disliked, fear of Muslims.
 
Well, I did some poking around (a luxury only sabbatical allows), and it turns out there actually has been some interesting work done on emotions, although it appears we still have a long way to go to bring emotions into the folds of mainstream institutional theory. But the work that has been done is certainly enticing. All in all, there is far more work focused on the impacts of organizational structures and processes on the emotional states of actors, rather than the reverse. Among my all-time favourite works in the social sciences is Edelman’s Symbolic Politics, which speaks extensively of the manipulation of emotions by nation-states in order to secure political support. Other work has been done, for example, on the use of shame by those in positions of power (e.g. employers) to assert control over the powerless (employees) (See for example Sennett, R. 1980, Authority), and organizational control over personal expressions of emotion generally (Stephen Fineman, in several works).
 
Ahmed (2004, Social Text 22:2) offers an insightful treatment, one of few I was able to locate that explores emotion not as an individualized response to social context, but as an entity that flows through that context, to significant affect. She postulates emotions as a form of capital in a sense, circulating through social systems, creating affect by means of its circulation, in the same way that Marx described surplus value not as being embodied in commodities, but rather as being generated by the circulation of those commodities. Cremin (2010, Organization 17:2) offers a strikingly complementary analysis, highlighting the extent to which capitalism is not a self-sustaining structure, but in effect is supported by the mad (emotional) desire for profit among capitalists. When not held in check, the aggregate outcome of the pursuit of those desires can lead to events like the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. On the other hand, as Ashforth and Humphrey (1995, Human Relations, 48:2) emphasize, although emotion is often wrongly treated as the antithesis of rationality and hence should be systematically eradicated, emotions are not only unavoidable but can have positive functional effects. Simpson et al. (2015, Organization, 22:1) provide a clear example, showing how passion induces entrepreneurialism. In short, as stated by Ahmed, “rather than seeing emotions as psychological dispositions, we need to consider how they work, in concrete and particular ways, to mediate the relationship between the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective” (p. 119).
 
How does all this pertain to environmental sociology? Environmental sociologists have been contemplating emotions for some time now, in our measurements of environmental concern, for example, or the factors that drive consumption. But we have spent relatively less of our intellectual energy exploring how emotional responses to environmental (and other) phenomena have organizational effects: how they affect environmental policy-making, for example. It stands to deductive reason that negotiators in the upcoming COP21 meetings who have no hope that the outcomes of the meeting will have an effect on the future climate will engage in ways notably different than those who retain such hope. The eventual outcomes of the meeting, in turn, will be affected by such emotional states; to what extent is a question for research. Consideration for emotions brings forth many other questions: under what emotional conditions does the prospect of apocalypse inspire action? Will current states of heightened fear on the international stage impinge on the levels of international aid after the next natural disaster? What are the long-term outcomes for social capital of experiences of collective trauma, as induced by the rising tide of climate-related extreme events? To what extent is climate skepticism an emotional response to the unraveling of worldviews?
 
Emotions are unquestionably messy, entangled in our biology, and call for interdisciplinary team work. This may well explain why they remain at the margins of sociology. But we environmental sociologists are quite accustomed to messy, biology, and interdisciplinarity, so let’s set aside our emotional baggage and get to work.
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<![CDATA[Environmental Sociologists Make Important Contributions Outside the Ivory Tower]]>Wed, 28 Oct 2015 10:47:16 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-environmental-sociologists-make-important-contributions-outside-the-ivory-towerDebra J. Davidson
October 2015
 
Not long ago, the presumption was that all who were pursuing Ph.D. studies were headed for tenure track positions. Not so today. The estimates of the percentage of Ph.D.-holders who land tenure track positions are literally all over the map, suggesting the difficulties in coming up with such a statistic, but what we do know is it is far lower than 100%. The number of Ph.D. graduates has increased over time, and the level of institutional resources supporting post-secondary education—including the hiring of new faculty—has declined, for some regions more than others, and for some disciplines more than others.
 
While the decline in financial support for post-secondary education is a topic worthy of discussion in its own right, the prospect of highly educated individuals entering other career streams is not necessarily a bad thing. Those individuals can play important roles in knowledge-based economies and progressive civil societies, and they already have been. This is particularly true of environmental sociologists, who offer perspectives, knowledge and skills that are critical to not only studying but directly addressing the formidable ecological crises we face today.
 
It turns out, many student pursuing doctoral studies in environmental sociology agree. A large number of these students, after all, entered this field of study because of their concern for the environment, and some of those students recognize that academia is not the only route to facilitating social change, and may well feel their energy and skills are better-suited to fostering change elsewhere.
 
I had the opportunity recently to sit down in a cafe with one such former student, who is now employed in a government natural resource agency. Dr. Wayne Crosby completed his Ph.D. in environmental sociology at the University of Alberta in 2013, and has been working for government since 2012, before he completed his degree. In our conversation I learned much about all that environmental sociologists can offer to society beyond the Ivory Tower, and how important it is for members of graduate programs in environmental sociology to provide better support for students like Wayne. Here, in barely abbreviated form, is our conversation:
 
 
Debra: When you were in school what did your future look like to you?
 
Wayne: Well, my intention was to work in academia, pursue the tenure track path, to be able to do research and teaching. That was the plan.
 
Debra: At what point did you start to see a change in those plans?
 
Wayne: I guess it would have been about halfway through, during the comprehensive exam process. Given the nature of that process, it really forces you to think about, what do you know, why are you doing this? As well, after participating on a number of committees, that sort of gave me a sense of how academia works, that started to raise some concerns for me about, ‘is this the place where I’m best suited to focus my energy, give my skills?’ And I started to think that academia maybe wasn’t the place that I wanted to expend my energy in seeking environmental change. Partly because the tenure track position, it’s a difficult path, even if you’re lucky enough to get on that path, and I found that academia still remains rather insular, the material that’s generated, the way we write, we are essentially speaking to our peers. I started to question, ‘am I really going to influence the kind of change I hope to influence within an academic institution?’ I felt that wasn’t right for me, so now I’m in a government context.
 
Debra: How did you make that happen?
 
Wayne: I started to network, and chat. I’m a believer in putting one’s intentions out there, so I did, to key people who I see as mentors, or people I respect, I voiced what my interests are. And another professor knew of someone in government who was going on maternity leave, and he connected us, and so we met for coffee to chat about it. And I was pretty honest in that meeting, I said that government was never my intention, and I have a pretty critical lens on government, but she convinced me to throw my hat in the ring. That was before I finished my PhD, and I got the job.
 
Debra: So, the satisfaction you didn't find in academia, are you finding that now?
 
Wayne: I do in the sense that I’m closer to the decision-makers, the people who at the end of the day decide what’s going to happen. And that’s important to me for two reasons. One is to be able to influence those decision makers at a high level, but also to learn how decisions are actually made. The latter was what really motivated me to stay in government. It’s a very different process than how I understood it before I went into government.
 
Debra: Do you perceive that environmental sociologists have roles to play in government and elsewhere?
 
Wayne: The lens, perspectives, and information they bring to issues is absolutely needed, and requested, at least where I work. But then, my co-workers often don’t want to hear what I’m telling them. So I’ve been spending some time trying to figure out that disconnect. They know they need to understand the ‘people’ stuff, but then they say ‘no no no, that’s too complicated,’ or ‘it’s not government’s responsibility to deal with that stuff.’ We [environmental sociologists] shed light on aspects of society that are very politically sensitive at times; it’s not always politically advantageous to pursue some of these issues because they are controversial, sensitive. They impact people’s lives; they’re meaningful. And people working in government bureaucracies often steer away from issues that can get them into too much hot water from the point of view of the public. There’s also a lack of understanding of what environmental sociologists can actually bring to the table [and what they can’t] in terms of the type of information we provide. So, I don’t even call myself an environmental sociologist at work, it’s not in my title.
 
Debra: And yet someone hired you…
 
Wayne: Someone hired me specifically for that skill, yes. But there’s a disconnect between who’s hiring you, and management, where they are less comfortable with what you are bringing to the table. Or there’s just a limited level of understanding, and that’s a legacy of the fact that this bureaucracy has traditionally only dealt with natural scientists, engineers and technocrats. So there’s a specific, entrenched way of thinking, and coming in with a social science perspective really challenges that dominant discourse. A lot of it is, they’re just not exposed to that kind of thinking, and haven’t had a need to be exposed to it until recently.
 
Debra: Do you think your presence at the table has contributed to a shift in the discourse?
 
Wayne: Yes, definitely. As much as they jokingly tease me at times—they’ll say things like ‘oh, that’s just the sociologist going off’—they are starting to pay attention. For me it’s a communication challenge. How can I communicate the issues in a way that doesn’t sound too academic or not too left wing. It’s just a different perspective, but it poses more work for them, they need time to think about it and at the end of they day they just want to get stuff done. They often don’t want to hear what I’m bringing to the table, especially in tight timelines, they don’t want to hear it. I’m asking them to stop and think about things, and understand the implications of what they are doing. But when they are open to that, it is an amazing opportunity, and then you have the table. So my strategy is to plant seeds, when the opportunity arises, in a non-confrontational way, and the more of those seeds that I plant, eventually they stick in the minds of leadership. I find there’s about a two to three month lag, and then I’ll see some uptake, and they’re ready.
 
Debra: So what do you wish you learned in grad school, to prepare you for the job you are in now?
 
Wayne: I don't think grad school prepares you well for moving into this kind of role. Governments and corporations, they operate under a different type of process, different expectations and needs. So being able to understand the future of the institution one wishes to work in is important, so if there’s a way of preparing people to understand different institutional cultures and expectations that would be good. Mostly though, students need to take time to think about what skills they bring to the table, to think about what kind of information will be needed. Governments need people who communicate well, in front of executive leaders. If you don’t communicate well, you’re not going to get invited back to the table. And I think getting a taste of project management, day-to-day business cycles, an understanding of where revenues come from, and how that drives the work that takes place, those types skills are really useful. But understanding expectations is number one. It takes new hires from academia about a year to understand how the game is played in government.
 
Debra: So what recommendations would you have for faculty who are supervising PhD students? How can I better prepare my students, especially now, when we understand that not all or even many of them are going to end up in academia?
 
Wayne: I think it starts with having the kind of relationship with the student where the student feels safe and comfortable to admit that they don’t want a tenure track position. I’ve heard many stories of peers in the same boat, who are thinking about a career outside of academia, but say they would never confess that to their supervisor. Some supervisors don’t take that well. There’s this perception that if you say that, then how you are viewed as a student may change, you may not get funded for example; you’re not seen as someone who is in for the long haul. Maybe you’re not going to get as much attention. So after providing students with a sense of comfort discussing alternative careers, in order for a professor to be supportive, he or she should also be able to help the student clarify what their interests are, and what their strengths are, and how can they align those strengths with those interests. And then, try to connect them with intern opportunities, or positions that can give them some exposure, especially if they haven't had any work experience other than academia. I had worked in several positions before coming to grad school, so I had some experience. Giving them hands-on experience as much as possible will give them an idea of what it’s all about. There is still a part of me that likes academia and what it offers. I’ve chosen a different route, because I think my skills are better suited in other areas, but I have a desire to stay connected to that world, and I have been able to do that, just through networking. Ultimately, it’s very important for students to be self-aware, to take the time to think about what they really want to do, and why. If they can’t answer those questions, you may get yourself into some difficult situations.

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<![CDATA[ The Underbelly of Carbon Markets is Candy for the Environmental Sociologist ]]>Tue, 15 Sep 2015 16:48:02 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-the-underbelly-of-carbon-markets-is-candy-for-the-environmental-sociologist Debra Davidson

September, 2015

Why arent more of us sinking our research teeth into carbon markets? They have become the poster child of climate change mitigation policy, and despite the sketchy returns offered by previous experiments such as the EU Emissions Trading System, and the UNFCCCs Clean Development Mechanism, they are being proposed and implemented in numerous other jurisdictions around the world. Just to review, heres how it works in theory: A governing body begins by setting a cap on allowable emissions, then distributes or auctions off emissions allowances up to the cap. Implicated businesses that do not have enough allowances to cover their emissions must either make reductions or buy spare credits on the market. Facilities with extra allowances become the sellers.

Market-based strategies to address environmental degradation is certainly nothing new. The idea has been around since the 1960s, and in practice in various guises for a couple decades. But the carbon market is qualitatively different in a number of respects, including its trans-national origins and global extent, and the multiple sources and sinks incorporated into the market, are just a few features that come immediately to mind. Economists would tell us, nonetheless, that, as with any market, if we can just get the price right carbon markets will take us smoothly down the mitigation path. But the sociologist in me suggests the problems run far deeper than ticket prices.

Indeed, sociologists have already raised valid questions regarding the efficiency, legitimacy, equity and regulatory dimensions of carbon markets. But dig deeper still and we can find certain social dynamics of carbon trading that reveal key insights into the questionable ability for a neoliberal capitalist marketplace to internalize environmental costs. Exploring these dynamics calls for less of looking at carbon markets, and more of looking in them, to the interpretations and practices of the actorsbuyers, sellers, traders and regulators who are negotiating and ultimately legitimating these new institutions, and subsequently shaping their emergent effects. Evaluation of structure-agency dynamics and their effects for socio-ecological relations is, after all, the key unique contribution of environmental sociology to the social-environmental sciences.

Hopes for ecological transformation are often placed in our basic sociological premise that institutions are social constructs and thus defined, and transformed, by the actors operating within them, and thus capitalism is malleable. In which case, as noted by Spaargaren and Mol (2013: 177): once they are up and running carbon markets gain a relative autonomy and their own carbon logic/ rationality and thus, presumably, capitalism can be restructured through such market innovations to reckon with environmental degradation. Alas, this autonomy cuts both ways. There is little evidence that carbon market trading to date has resulted in any notable emission reductions, despite large sums of money exchanging hands. Why?

To begin to explore this question, there are a number of peculiarities about this marketplace. Price, as economists point out, is one thing. What price per ton of carbon dioxide actually represents the cost to the climate of emissions, or even more pragmatically, the price that would motivate reductions? But before we even go there (as plenty of others have done already), we need to consider the peculiarities of that thing being traded, the commodity itself. Markets are premised on the creation of commodities exchanged between buyers and sellers at an agreed-upon price. The commodities themselves are scrutinized and thus valued by the potential buyer, as we do when we shop for a new car. The ultimate ability of a particular market to produce social benefits, and maintain legitimacy, is determined by the integrity of the marketplace itself: the buyers knowledge of the commodity and the trust that the agreed price is a fair value of that commodity.

The carbon market, however, represents another entity entirely. The carbon market at its heart involves the construction and trade of an entirely fictitious commodity. A ton of CO2, and even more blatantly, a ton of other gases measured in denominations of CO2-equivalent, is not a thing to be scrutinized and valued by a potential buyer. It is, in effect, a scientific estimate; an unseenindeed undetectablequantity of environmental ill. There have, of course, been previous critiques of the commodification of nature on normative grounds, but a healthy dose of more idiographic inquiries is warranted here: the commodification of nature in this case also raises a number of fundamental pragmatic issues that offer a central landscape within which the transformative potential of capitalism can be analyzed.

How are these scientific estimates generated and monitored for their validity? Scientists have defined the commodities that make up emission permits in the form of tons of CO2 or, for the many other greenhouse gases, CO2-equivalent, on the basis of current scientific understanding of the global warming potential of a ton of CO2, and the comparative global warming potential of other gases. For example, the CO2-eq of methane is 25, meaning the global warming potential of methane on a pound for pound basis, over 100 years, is 25 times greater than for CO2. Nitrous oxides is 298. The estimates provided in the IPCC Assessment Reports have been the standard in many marketplaces, although the estimates generated by other sources have also been used. Not surprisingly given the evolving nature of climate science, these values are re-defined all the time. They were changed after release of the 4th Assessment Report in 2007, and to make things more complicated (and to more accurately reflect the complexity of the scientific estimation business), the 5th Assessment Report released last year provided two sets of values: one that takes into account climatecarbon feedbacks, including measures of the indirect effects of changes in carbon storage due to changes in climate; and one set of values that, like their predecessors in earlier reports, do not incorporate feedbacks.

But there is yet another source of ambiguity in the process. Even assuming the scientific estimates described above were perfectly accurate, how do buyers know that the 1,000 tons CO2 they are prepared to purchase actually represents 1,000 tons of emissions? (Another important sociological question is: Do they care? But I only have so much space) They dont arrive on the back of the truck, to be inventoried in the warehouse. Instead, that 1,000 tons in reality is simply the digital readout of a carbon meter. A carbon meter is a gas measurement instrument, there are several available now, all developed by competitive private firms, all claiming their products have superior accuracy. The meters must be purchased and used by any firm engaged in the carbon market. But who is really responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the measurement instruments?

Third, our largest carbon market, the UNFCCCs Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), is the mother of all futures markets, embodying all of the unknowns, and the unknown unknowns, that the future holds. With the CDM, companies and governments in Annex I countries (basically the developed world) can buy emission reduction credits, called Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs), from the developers of projects in Annex II countries, instead of reducing their own emissions. But CERs dont actually reduce current emissions, and aren't designed to. They are designed to avoid future emissions. Which means every seller on the CDM market needs to determine what its emissions would have been if the project was not implemented. In other words, new projects need to offer additional mitigation than would occur without the project. But confirming additionality' is itself a highly speculative accounting exercise, and many of the approved projects to date have been found to offer no additional mitigation at all.

Fourth, but most likely not finally, enter the middleman, the entirely new financial sector that is The Carbon Broker. While the first three factors discussed are rather unique to the carbon market, this fourth factor is an age-old bane of free markets. Of course busy business people are not able to investigate the integrity of the carbon offsets they need to buy. Fortunately, we now have carbon brokerage firms, an wholly private industry that exists solely to serve carbon markets, representing the inevitable market middleman, to make the lives of businessmen everywhere easier. And it is also that point in the market matrix at which corruption is most likely to rear its head, and it already has.

A ton of CO2 then, that entity upon which we have invested entirely our ability to limit global warming, is ironically the epitome of a social construction. As described by George Monbiot with his typical prosaic acuity, Buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing the food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it. Convincing onlookers that the food was consumed when in actuality is was not would require a masterful dose of magicianship, but doing so is so much easier when the food has become a fiction.

If this isnt a bowl full of tasty analytical candy for the environmental sociologist, I don't know what is.

 

 

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<![CDATA[ Is There a Room for Ethics in International Climate Negotiations? ]]>Wed, 17 Jun 2015 16:03:32 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-is-there-a-room-for-ethics-in-international-climate-negotiations Debra J. Davidson, RC24 Secretary

June 2015

One of the most difficult moments I re-live each teaching term emerges in the context of discussions about the politics of climate change. Once students are made aware of the blatant disproportionalities in attribution of historic emissions of greenhouse gases, combined with the equally stark and yet ironically, almost precisely mirrored disproportionalities in exposure to the impacts (thanks to the many great contributions to critical scholarship offered by many RC24 members
--a number of papers by Timmons Roberts come immediately to mind!), students see before them a clear case of ethical responsibility. Doing the right thingwould surely involve concerted efforts to remedy the problem among those who contributed the most to the problem, and simultaneously face the least exposure to its impacts (relatively speaking), right? Even a kindergartener could agree, this would be the fair response.


And then, in the next class session, students reflect on the myriad of positions taken by negotiators in previous Conferences of the Parties, few of which bear any resemblance to kindergarten fairness, perhaps with the notable exception of those representatives of climate changesmost vivid victims--residents of the low-lying island states. We hear instead of the rightsof developed countries to protect their high-income-driven lifestyles (which are in fact only enjoyed by a minority in these countries); the rightsof rapidly-industrializing nations to follow that same path of fossil-fueled economic growth, and the rightsof the haves to keep their hard-earned capital and expertise to themselves, rather than fritter it away on building adaptive capacity in faraway places.

Students also learn about the relative ineffectiveness of the shaming of individual negotiators often attempted by the social movement organizations involved (such as the annual Fossil of the Year, newly-named Colossal Fossil Award, of which my own country has been a repeated recipient), although such campaigns do make for good media exposure. In short, we as know, the positions taken by negotiators, and the political decisions made subsequently in international arenas have little to do with the moral aptitude of the individual negotiators themselves, and everything to do with political structure: the sovereign status of nations in international arenas, and the formal and informal avenues along which political power is distributed in the home countries of negotiators.

The broader implications for sociology, and society, are clear. As articulated by Gardiner, climate change represents a perfect moral storm(A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Challenge of Climate Change. Oxford, 2011). The ethical transgressions that the emitters of greenhouses gases commit, intentionally or not, and how those transgressions are manifest in harmful ways, are clear as rain. Emissions from a very small number of advanced industrial nations have contributed to the increase in global average surface temperature of 0.9C, leading to a rise in sea levels, decline in agricultural productivity, and acidification of marine ecosystems, to name just a few consequences already being observed.

Thankfully, the discussion has moved beyond the impact of individual Western consumers—who, granted, do consume far more on average than others—and toward the institutions that enable such production and consumption machinery to persist, as well as the concerted organized efforts of a small minority of beneficiaries to perpetuate climate skepticism. Here again, environmental sociologists have played a central role in highlighting these processes.

There remains, nonetheless, an elephant in the room, much less often discussed by scholars or in policy circles, and yet readily identified by undergraduate students, and no doubt many kindergarteners as well. In an era in which universal acknowledgement of the need to protect the human rights of everyone has been expressed repeatedly, How can our leaders assume negotiating positions that are such blatant violations of ethical standards?

Answering this question would certainly be a worthy exercise, albeit one inevitably laden in speculation. The more important question for environmental social scientists is this: How do we go about re-constructing a political process in which ethics are indeed paramount, rather than sidelined, in international negotiations?

I asked my political theorist friend and colleague David Kahane (Department of Political Science, University of Alberta) this question (and by the way, if you don’t already have a political theorist in your friendship network, I highly recommend you find one!) David Kahane’s latest project, called Alberta Climate Dialogue, is worth checking out by anyone who has an interest in democratic deliberations and climate change.

His answer is at one and the same time ironic and compelling, provided here in full:

The work of leaders and parties with direct influence over decisions and agreements at the international level clearly is value-laden and shaped by diverse value commitments. But I suspect that it is rare for processes of meeting, negotiation, and collaboration to dig deeply into values, to seek alignment around values, to iteratively explore the fit of decisions with value commitments, etc. Part of reconstructing a political process in which ethics are paramount would involve changing the cultures and processes of meeting, negotiating, collaborating.

Of course itd be naive to think that the overt negotiations and agreements, and the views of the individuals involved, are the only force in play, or even the most important ones. Structural and systemic forces relating to capitalism, industrialization, development, colonization, money in politics, etc. play crucial roles, constraining the behaviour and also imagination/discourse of leaders. So shifts in power relations and complex systems of power and action are needed if were to reconstruct a political process in which ethics are paramount.

Both of these come back to democratic and grassroots organizing and change. Leadersvalues are importantly constrained by the will of the populations and constituencies they represent. Their ability, and propensity, to articulate values and act on values in their political work on climate change would be much enhanced by processes within their communities that themselves supported the articulation of diverse values around climate and more broadly the kinds of society people want and helped to find convergences or alignments within these that point the way toward climate policies. In other words, a deepening of democratic participation for which there are many interesting recipes and experiments.

Shifting the power relations and systemic forces that dictate or constrain so much of climate politics in ways at odds with any coherent or compelling ethical vision also needs to involve grassroots and community-based organizing, resistance, experimentation, and change. Again a story of deepening democracy.

In short, ensuring the primacy of ethical standards in global environmental politics requires a deepening of democracy, on the ground. This message resonates clearly with our understanding of how change happens in complex systems. As articulated by Margaret Archer, among others, the individual and collective actions that take place through our social networks confront existing social institutions in ways that can lead to structural transformation.

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<![CDATA[ Environmental sociology and doing international research – some reflections ]]>Wed, 22 Apr 2015 15:31:33 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-environmental-sociology-and-doing-international-research-some-reflections By Magnus Boström

April 2015

In Sweden, and I’m sure in many other countries, there is a strong policy push to internationalize our research. What is implied in the message is that scholars should network more, participate in and develop international projects, and – particularly – publish internationally. Indeed, to be an international scientist primarily mean to be someone who publishes high quality books and articles in English.

In this blog I wish to reflect on something far more substantial: to actually do international research. I am thinking primarily of doing such empirical research that includes non-domestic cases.  This is intriguing and fun, but also challenging, costly, and most crucially, it is very important for scholarship.

For sure, this can be done by big international programs/projects in which country teams collaborate with each other through research design, aggregate comparative analysis, and publications; while each team does their empirical research task in their domestic context. An important benefit with big international projects is that scholars with the needed familiarity and understanding of their local context can be aligned in the project. However, the point I wish to make here is the experiential and hermeneutic value of going beyond the domestic sphere in one’s own empirical research.  

Maybe environmental sociologists are already inclined toward doing international research because of the transboundary nature of environmental problems.  Even so, there are many barriers to our reaching beyond national borders in empirical research. These can be external, such as physical distances; lack of funding opportunities (In Europe EU grants offer a good opportunity for international projects, but their bureaucracy threatens to kill the creativity in such projects); and personal barriers, such as lack of linguistic capacities (I am myself limited to Swedish, English and Google translate). In my experience, doing non-domestic empirical research is very challenging, but a challenge worthwhile to take. Here, I will briefly reflect on two projects.

One project I managed concerned the social dimensions of sustainable development, and focused on the challenges to incorporating the social pillar of sustainable development in a selection of transnational sustainability projects. My empirical role in the project concerned how the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC is a system for certification of sustainable forestry and labelling of forest products) made efforts to achieve social sustainability and how social sustainability competed or aligned with economic and environmental sustainability. I will not report on the results here, but can briefly say the publications (see examples below) reported challenges; and these challenges were reflected in the very research process itself. For example, “social actors” (e.g. trade unions, representatives of local communities and indigenous peoples) representing “social sustainability “ interests and concerns were much more difficult to reach for conducting interviews compared with “economic actors” and “environmental actors”. As our focus was the FSC on the transnational level we found it essential to include actors from different regions in the world and people who could talk about issues such as marginalization, worker’s rights, injustice, the role of indigenous people, local communities, and so on, including actors in developing countries. But how is this accomplished with limited project funding? Here, a big limit was language: we had to use English with telephone interviews. It was impossible to make field trips everywhere, although we did participant observations in one global meeting, as well as some face-to-face interviews and conversations. Obviously, practical circumstances meant that we faced the risk of failing to achieve a balanced and comprehensive perspective, including the views of the weakest actors. However, we decided it is better to make a try than not. Despite many challenges, I am happy we continued (more reflections on the advantages below).

I was (am) involved in another project, concerning transnational capacity building among local and national environmental NGOs. In this project we had project money to conduct field trips, so the project team did face-to-face interviews and document analysis in six countries: Sweden, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy. And we used seven languages (those mentioned + English). Lots of time, project money and energy was required to: 

  • Recruiting a multi-lingual project team so that we could do field trips in all countries, including staff with awareness of the local context

  • Establish contact with ENGO-interviewees

  • Establishing contacts with experts in each country with local expertise

  • Planning the field trips

  • Travelling to the interviewees (field trips to six countries, and the ENGO offices)

  • Transcription and in some cases translation

What are the drawbacks?

First, quite naturally, the relative time and cost spent on one interview is much more than if we would have done our research only in Sweden and with Swedish informants. If the latter, the internationalization effort would only be on writing up the paper in English for an international publication. We would also look for researchers in other countries to conduct “comparative” analysis and write papers.

Second, in qualitative research the researchers strive for depth rather than breadth. However, the language barriers can be significant: it is not easy if you, as an interviewer (having English as a second language), try to get all the nuances regarding what’s told and untold from interviewees from very different cultures;  and this when English is the second, third, or even fourth language of the interviewee. Interviewees may also speak of local issues that you don’t really understand in depth, because you have an insufficient understanding of the political, economic, cultural, and historical context. So collecting information is hard, and interpreting the information is perhaps even harder.  Having researchers enrolled in the project with expertise and familiarity of the local situation is invaluable.

Are then the efforts, extra costs, energy, and time worthwhile? From my experience: yes! I don’t think it is possible to overstate how much more you learn both about your own “lifeworld” and the others’ – including the similarities of experiences, emotions, and motivations despite different context. I think it becomes part of one’s explicit as well as tacit knowledge about how it can be to experience, perceive and respond to environmental problems and many other issues in other countries. And even if it is easier to interpret someone from one’s own political culture, speaking one’s own language, isn’t it essential that we as environmental sociologists (and other sociologists and scientists) make a concerted effort to interpret and understand the lifeworld’s of others?

For many researchers in Sweden and elsewhere, travelling to international conferences and publishing internationally is, if not easy, clearly doable. Many researchers know English quite well, and with some extra effort, language editing, training, experiences and so on, one can gradually develop as an international researcher.

However, doing international research is unquestionably much more challenging than domestic research. Hard work is required. But this hard work has to be done. I think the benefits are invaluable. Even if one is embedded in a particular political culture, environmental sociologists have much to gain to develop a kind of “rooted cosmopolitan” perspective. Sidney Tarrow uses the term ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ in his book The New Transnational Activism, to denote people and groups who draw on both domestic and international resources and frames for their agency.  Such experiences and perspectives are helpful not just to understand environmental problems better. And not just to understand better the geographically varied understandings, social constructions, and responses to environmental problems. But also to be able to study all processes of globalization, transnationalization and glocalisation by actually being a reflective part of these processes. And not the least to confront the kind of Xenophobia that is frighteningly increasing in Europe.

Referred work:

Boström, M. (2012) The Problematic Social Dimension of Sustainable Development. The Case of the Forest Stewardship Council. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology. 19(1):3-15.

Boström, M.; Casula Vifell, Å.; Klintman, M.; Soneryd, L.; Tamm Hallström, K.; Thedvall, R. (2015). Social Sustainability Requires Social Sustainability: Procedural Prerequisites for Reaching Substantive Goals” Forthcoming, summer issue 2015, in Nature + Culture.

Boström, M.; Rabe, L. & Rodela, R. (2015). Environmental non-governmental organizations and transnational collaboration in two macro-regional contexts: The Baltic Sea and Adriatic-Ionian Sea regions. Environmental Politics. doi=10.1080/09644016.2015.1027057

Tarrow, S. 2005. The New Transnational Activism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

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<![CDATA[The Complex Relationship between natural resource prices and the environment]]>Wed, 18 Feb 2015 10:37:33 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/the-complex-relationship-between-natural-resource-prices-and-the-environment Debra Davidson, RC24 Secretary

Feb 2015

Way back in 1980, Paul Ehrlich famously took up cornucopian Paul Simon’s bet that the prices of five natural resources would decline over the next 10 years…and lost. Ehrlich found himself $10,000 in the hole, but it turns out Ehrlich would have won, and lost, and won again, had the time frame been extended by a couple more decades.

For those of you too young to recall, Ehrlich was betting on the Limits to Growth Theorem that natural resources would continue to become evermore scarce, while Simon was betting that the innovation induced by scarcity would perpetually pay off in the form of either additional resources, or additional efficiency. Both, however, shared one assumption in common—that the price of a given natural resource would offer a direct reflection of its scarcity, and on this point, neither Paul was entirely correct. For one thing, in a global staples economy, supply is a rather elusive data point, for the simple reason that the only “supply” that factors into the price of a resource at any given time is the supply that has already been pumped, mined, cut or caught and subsequently weighed and measured, and not the supply represented by remaining global reserves, even if we were able to generate accurate estimates of those reserves (which is far easier said than done!). The price of cod, for example, provided no indication whatsoever of the declining volume of Atlantic cod stocks in the years before the collapse of that industry, which happened right around the time of Ehrlich’s gamble.

This is not to say that we in the environmental social sciences should pay no heed to the prices of natural resources. To the contrary. For environmental sociologists the prices of natural resources tend not to factor into analyses of socio-environmental change (there are some notable exceptions), but perhaps we should, for two reasons. The first is, for better or worse, observed and projected prices of natural resources drive policymaking at many levels, and a better critical understanding of natural resource pricing, its relationship to consumer and investor behavior and in turn to environmental impact, can enhance our contributions to those policy dialogues. Economists, on the other hand, who privilege the role of price quite regularly, have the ear of policymakers and media. In fact a recent article highlighted the notably higher frequency at which the New York Times cited economists than other disciplines! (See http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/02/09/are-economists-overrated).

The second reason is that while the prices of natural resources might not offer us a clear indication of the scarcity of those materials, they do have important implications for ecological impact, even if those implications are more complex than initially understood at the time of Ehrlich’s and Simon’s wager. In any system as complex as our global staples industries, multiple drivers influence the price of a commodity, and by the same token, the means by which that price in turn influences ecological impact is equally multiple and complex.

Today the price of one particular natural resource is making headlines—the price of a barrel of oil, which as of this writing is hovering around $45, down from over $100 less than a year earlier. While painful to the ears of some, and music to others, no one should be particularly surprised, given the dramatic volatility of oil prices in recent decades, as depicted in the following graph (Source: huffingtonpost.com).

Oil has received more than a fair share of forecasting attention over the past 10 years or so, due to growing concerns that we may have reached ‘Peak Oil,’ that stage at which global production levels begin a slow descent, and investors increasingly turn to lower quality and more environmentally precarious sources—scraping the bottom of the barrel as it were. Ironically, our enthusiastic scraping of unconventional oil sources here in North America is one significant factor attributed to the recent price plunge (another is reduced global demand induced by the economic recession).

Needless to say, if history is any indication, the price may well be low for a while yet, but it won’t stay there. Our social responses to current conditions, on the other hand, may have lasting effects.

What do low prices do for demand? Theoretically, it increases, as consumers and businesses take advantage of the relative reduction in their expenses. Historically low oil prices have fuelled GDP increases, and the consumption that goes along with it—not just of gasoline but other goods as well. This is a key concern at a time when we urgently need reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, today we may not see this happen to the same extent as in historical low price moments, since middle class consumers across the West are still reeling from the recession that began in 2009, and arent in a position to buy more of anything, certainly not new SUVs. Increasing efficiency, especially in the U.S. (finally!), is also dampening demand. Demand for oil in industrialized countries has in fact been relatively stable since 2005; much of the new demand is coming from developing countries, where governments tend to set prices anyway.

More interesting are the dynamics on the production side. A year ago, when oil prices were high, development of unconventional reserves, like oil shale and bitumen, was forging ahead full steam. At $45 a barrel, however, enthusiasm among investors for supporting such development has come to a screeching halt, simply because the costs to develop unconventional reserves is much higher than for conventional reserves. The already questionable economics of new infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline likewise look grim, further challenging the legitimacy of its construction. Low oil prices also enhance the legitimacy of the 100’s of fossil fuel divestment campaigns sweeping academia today, since oil stocks aren’t helping anyone’s investment portfolio at these prices. On the other hand, low oil prices will likely reduce incentives to support biofuels, which at least in some cases offer promise as a lower carbon transportation fuel alternative.

The other possibility worth serious consideration relates to political responses. Can social movement organizations engaged in climate change campaigns capitalize on what presents itself as a political opportunity window favouring the adoption of a tax on carbon, at a time when the price of one particularly carbon-intense commodity is so low? States that are desperate to generate new revenues, including those highly dependent upon oil development that have been particularly averse to climate mitigation policies to date for obvious reasons, might be especially fertile ground for such initiatives to make headway. Several prominent voices representing a diversity of backgrounds and political leanings have suggested as much, and the idea seems to be getting more attention in North America now than in the past several years of climate negotiations. The Government of my own Province of Alberta, ruled by a conservative party for longer than most of us have been alive, and reeling from this latest bust in its boom-bust economy, recently launched a survey of the Province’s citizens, assessing among other things their support for a tax on gasoline! Indeed, this crisis just might be an opportunity.

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<![CDATA[Can We Make 2015 Year Zero?]]>Fri, 02 Jan 2015 14:51:06 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-can-we-make-2015-year-zero Debra J. Davidson, RC24 Secretary
January 2015

Each Partys intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 will represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party.

This is the central outcome of a nearly two-week-long Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru last month, and the nugget that commentators highlight as an encouraging sign in our decades-long effort to address climate change in an international forum. In short, all countries, including key rapidly developing countries like India and Brazil, agree to cut emissions for the first time. The extent of those cuts, however, are as-of-yet undisclosed, and while each Party is invited to communicate their intended nationally determined contributions prior to the 21st COP slated for Paris next December, and furthermore they ““may include, as appropriate, inter alia, quantifiable information, doing so is entirely voluntary.  

Alongside this timid but notable outcome, there were some clear fouls of note by the end of the meeting. We have been backing away from the lofty goals of the Common but Differentiated Responsibility clause--the critical Article 3 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change that stipulates that developed countries should take the lead--for years now, and never more acutely than in Lima, after which CBDR appears to remain alive in name only, with the addition of a new exit strategy, called national circumstances, to be invoked by any signatory. The implications of this clause are not yet clear, but presumably if your national circumstances get in the way of responsibility, say economic recession, or perhaps an over-reliance on fossil fuels development, youre off the hook. In other developments, the Clean Development Mechanism, intended to offer a market-based strategy for investments in clean development in developing countries, has also largely fallen off the table. Pledges to the Green Climate Fund, established in 2011 and intended to become operational in 2015 to assist extremely vulnerable countries with mitigation but even more importantly adaptation, has raised a paltry $10 billion, nowhere close to the original goal of $100 billion, a goal that has already been acknowledged as woefully insufficient. (The amount needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change globally is now recognized as being closer to $2 trillion. Per year. For a few decades.)

Elizabeth May wraps it up: The outcome of COP 20 is better than nothing, but definitely underwhelming. Unfortunately, much as I appreciate Mays voice in environmental politics here in Canada, Better Than Nothing is no longer better than nothing. Perhaps the most significant marker here is the 20; our 20th meeting of heads of state to tackle climate change; 20 years during which greenhouse gas emissions rose over 50%, the consequence of which is we are now locked into significant and deleterious impacts around the globe. I would wager, had we not held the past 20 COPs, that number would not be more. To the contrary, it would likely be slightly less, since the meetings themselves have a rather heavy carbon footprint. What is more, while we may have the capacity to accommodate a 2 degree increase in average global temperature, we are headed rapidly into temperature regimes that are far beyond livable.

Do we keep forging ahead? During the next COP meeting, to be held in Paris this December, Parties are expected to agree upon a new, binding, post-Kyoto commitment. This particular COP is much-anticipated, and the sentiment seems to be this is our last chance at international cooperation to address climate change. Many have already given up on the UNFCCC, some conveniently so since they had no enthusiasm for the process in the first place, such as the current Prime Minister of Canada. Indeed, reliance upon the previous 20 meetings as an indication of likely success is liable to lead to despair.

However, I would like to suggest an alternative approach. Rather than solely looking back upon previous failures, the question we all should be asking, environmental sociologists included, is: 

                      What can we do to make COP21 different?

First, lets acknowledge just how monumental the task is, by the numbers. I like the following graph for its simplicity, produced by Tyler Durden for Zero Hedge, using the target emissions cap of 500 gigatons proposed by the IPCC as the total amount that would offer a 66% chance of remaining below a 2 degree warming:


Enough said. 

Secondly, lets look at international politics. Yes, we have come together as an international community at many times in the past, but this is different. The fundamental link between global warming and our fossil fuel-driven free market economies simply cannot be swept under the table, or addressed with a technological fix. Moreover, while climate change affects every corner of the globe, there is little by way of common ground to be reached once we look more closely into the vast discrepancies between responsibility for emissions, and vulnerability to impacts. The Parties at the negotiating table represent a small set of advanced industrial countries who have the lions share of responsibility for historic emissions, and which are filled with middle class citizens who are loathe to forsake the lifestyles those emissions have bestowed upon them combined with a super-elite heavily invested in fossil fuels industries; an equally small number of rapidly developing countries in a position to overtake those emission leaders in their efforts to follow in the advanced countries footsteps; and a very large number of extremely vulnerable least developed countries that have done very little to contribute to global warming in the first place. Only the latter have a clear and irrefutable interest in aggressive mitigation, and yet they have little mitigating of their own to do.

If we are to have a successful COP21 then, the onus is on Parties representing those countries doing the emitting, which means the onus is really on the citizens of those countries to generate that clear and irrefutable interest in aggressive mitigation that is currently missing. International agreements have always butted heads with state sovereignty after all, and while international pressure does hold some weight, politics remains at heart a domestic affair, and thus a successful COP21 hinges on domestic political pressure in some key countries in the coming year, including most importantly the U.S. but also China, India, Brazil, and yes, countries like Canada and Australia: even though they do not represent a large share of emissions, they nonetheless can and have had a notable and at times wholly deleterious influence on the outcomes of previous meetings. 

Are there signs of hope? I believe the answer is yes, but those signs will need to be capitalized upon over the coming 12 months, and not just by the current cadre of climate activists. Climate change needs to become not an issue, but the issue, the issue that strikes at the heart not just of ecological sensibilities, but also of poverty, race, gender, democracy and equity. Naomi Klein, in her recent book, This Changes Everything, catalogues the mounting collective actions that have taken place across the globe in recent years, in the form of local oppositions to fossil fuel developments, divestment campaigns, and the growing number and size of marches and other forms of civil disobedience directed at climate change. She has convinced me that we are in fact seeing something new emerge: not only are linkages being drawn between climate change and fossil fuels in heavy black pen, we are also observing a considerable disenchantment with those key narratives that have defined our neoliberal era--the same era during which we have seen the most significant growth in emissions. Even the Pope has come out in support for the climate: he has stated his plans to weigh in to sway this Decembers meetings.

What can we as environmental sociologists do to contribute? Most importantly, we can walk the walk. Be a role model for your students and participate in civil actions taking place in your neighbourhoods. But there is far more we have to offer, on the basis of the research we have been conducting for the past four decades. There are many important lessons we could draw from this research record, but three rise to the top of the list for me, and the more we can do to insert these lessons not just into peer-reviewed academic journals into public dialogues, the more we can shape those dialogues in constructive ways:   First, we can highlight the fact that far more people are concerned about climate change than not, as our survey research shows consistently. This majority offers a tremendous, albeit latent political force that could be mobilized with effective campaigns that highlight climate changes clear and present danger, a danger not only to other people at some future point in time, but rather to all of us, right now. Moreover, the number of people who reap significantly more benefits than costs of emitting greenhouse gas emissions represents a very small minority, to which our research on everything from the gross disproportions in emissions within and across countries, to the personal costs of consumerism can attest.

Second, we can highlight the machinery behind the skeptic discourse that has so effectively stifled constructive deliberations in many western countries. With the research done by environmental sociologists on climate skepticism, not to mention media studies, we are in a better position to soundly discredit this discourse, and its pundits, than anyone. 

Finally, we can highlight the fact that current debates are only the latest chapter in a long enduring battle between the concentration of economic power and the just distribution of basic human rights. The evidence that trickle down economics does exactly the opposite is mounting by leaps and bounds, and we can add to that litany the extreme inequities in the distribution of environmental risks, including climate risks.

Can we make Paris different? It doesn't hurt to recall that the French Revolution started in Paris almost exactly 200 years before the first Conference of the Parties, when French citizens pretty much dismantled every social institution that had defined European society up to that point, achieved without the benefit of the communications technologies we enjoy today. In the end, trying is always better than not, and trying hard is always better than just trying, particularly when we could not possibly have more to lose.
Womens March on Versailles, October 1789. Photo source: Wikipedia.
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<![CDATA[How to Get More Sociology in the Media]]>Wed, 03 Dec 2014 18:54:18 GMThttp://www.isarc24.com/blog/-how-to-get-more-sociology-in-the-media By Debra Davidson RC24 Secretary

I had an epiphany recently—not everyone reads peer-reviewed social science journals! Or any peer-reviewed literature for that matter. And yet, the primary avenue of communication we in academia are taught is the peer-reviewed article. Meanwhile, we lament the rather muddy political waters within which scientific information is tossed about in politics and civil society, and to great effect on the beliefs and opinions of citizens, elected officials, and ultimately policymaking. While the internet has certainly changed the world of information exchange, the key communication vehicle in these domains remains the media. In fact, even a regional media story can now be quickly broadcast around the world.

So where do journalists get their scientific information anyway? They are just as pressed for time as the rest of us, and like to be efficient, so when a reporter has reason to seek the expertise of a scientist, they do not necessarily conduct a thorough search, but rather go to names and contacts already on hand first. In other words, they frequently have Go-To lists of contacts for various topics.

Certain advocacy groups on both sides of debates are quite active and skilled in engaging the media, and those with the most resources to do so, with entire staff rooms full of skilled communications staff plugged into the media, tend to belong to industry-funded conservative think tanks that have a particularly partial if not down right blasphemous take on scientific topics. Enough said there, you all know whom I’m talking about. While all this is going on, you and I are at our computers writing that next conference presentation or journal submission. So whose scientific input is most likely to get heard? You got it.

I suspect you all know where I am headed: Let’s get out there and show the world what environmental sociologists have to offer to contemporary social and political discussions! Easier said than done? Yes and no; it does take some time, attention, and a little skill-building, but it is by no means beyond our reach, even as busy academics. I have been thrown reluctantly in the limelight on a number of occasions, and have in recent years decided I should not only stop being reluctant, because such opportunities to speak to a broader audience should be eagerly pursued, rather than avoided. I have picked up a few things in the process, but by trial and error, and through taking a course, and I wanted to share them with you here, because you all are doing important work that can make a difference beyond the Ivory Tower.

First of all, while few of us are already on the Go-To lists of reporters, we don’t have to sit back and wait to be ‘discovered.’ We can also do much more to get discovered, by seeking communications outlets beyond the academy, like social media. Send brief posts describing a key finding of a recent publication, or even your own analysis of an existing conversation string. It also helps tremendously if your institution is staffed with communications outreach staff who have relations with journalists with whom they are in regular contact, and thus your next step is simply to knock on the door of your communications officer to let him or her know of your recent research. For those working at institutions that are not so well-staffed, it takes a little more work; you will need to do a bit of internet research to identify two or three reporters that regularly report on social and environmental topics, and approach them yourself with a story idea. Then, cultivate a relationship with those individuals by approaching them regularly with story ideas, and soon enough you have made it onto their Go-To lists.

When you do make a pitch, be ready with a pitch that is likely to sound interesting to those outside academia. Reporters don’t get excited about contributions to scholarship as such, and they certainly don’t get excited by conclusions like “it’s complicated.” They do, however, love a clear, notable finding that has implications for a current issue or event, and they also love specific ‘what does this really mean for x’, ‘what now?’ or ‘what you can do’ statements. This is not to say that we must avoid conveying the complexity associated with socio-ecological systems, but rather that the onus is on you to clearly articulate that complexity in ways that are meaningful and digestible to the non-academic reader or viewer.

Once you have a reporter on the hook, or if you are directly approached by a reporter, here are a couple important interviewing tips:

Never agree to an interview on the spot. You need to catch your breath and prepare, so offer an excuse, such as “I’m busy at the moment, is there a time later today that works for you?” During that initial conversation before the interview, ask the interviewer--or clarify if you have already been in touch with him or her--what the purpose of the story is, what he or she is looking to emphasize. You don’t want to inadvertently end up in a conversation that you didn’t realize you were heading for, because the reporter had an agenda that you were not aware of.

Next, while you should certainly give some thought to the likely questions the reporter will pose, and consider your answers to those questions ahead of time, one crucial part of preparing yourself is deciding what you want to say. There is no rulebook that says you must let the reporter dictate the direction of discussion. This is your moment to speak to a potentially very broad audience, and it will be a small one: even though your interview may last 30 minutes, on most occasions you might get a couple sentences in print or 30 seconds in video. Think of two or three key points you want to make in advance, and then look for opportunities during the interview to insert them. And finally, a professional newsprint reporter will do this anyway, but ensure you are sent a copy of the story to review before it goes to print. Of course you then need to respect the reporter’s timeline and get your response back right away.

We don’t have the opportunity to preview television interviews obviously, but in these cases you have far more control over the final product, since the reporter isn’t going to sit down with interview notes and write up her or his story. For this reason, however, television interviews can be quite stressful, and preparing yourself with some little stress reduction strategies is always a good idea. In most cases these are pre-recorded, however, and you do have the right to ask for a re-take during the recording of the interview if you feel like you are fumbling with a particular answer.

In the end, first impressions are very important. Reporters will remember those sources who are clearly spoken, engaging (look them in the eye, not at your lap!) and those sources who make their job of telling the story easier by pointing out exactly what the key themes are.

So reach out, prepare, and get more sociology in legislatures, coffee shops, and everyone’s living rooms!

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