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People in a rubber boat escaping floods
Academics are increasingly interested in social reactions to climate changeImage: AP

Social shifts

February 1, 2011

Climate change has long been the domain of natural scientists. Increasingly, however, it's being addressed by sociologists keen to find out how environmental awareness has caused a shift in public thinking and behavior.

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Across the board, society is getting gradually greener, whether in terms of consumer habits, automobile technology, urban planning, electronics, energy, textiles, interior design or foreign policy. Clearly, an environmental revolution is underway.

"We're seeing a steep learning curve," says Kiel-based environmental sociologist Martin Voss. "Environmental issues have arrived in the mainstream, and the engine of this process is the debate about climate change."

The environment became a priority in the period between 2005 and 2007, with contributing factors including Hurricane Katrina; Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient truth"; the Stern Report on the economic impact of climate change; the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report; the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali and Nobel Peace Prizes for both Gore and the IPCC.

The combined effect was a shift in the global mindset - a rare phenomenon. Questions were raised and attitudes changed. It gave rise to a new public discourse, and moreover, triggered a new approach to sociology and media studies.

An altered perspective

The environment has long been a niche subject in the field of social and media studies - climate change was traditionally studied by climate experts.

But now that the issue has been embraced by the public and politicians alike, it's also become a matter of interest to academics, keen to find out how society is tackling the problem.

"Ultimately, climate change is not only a matter of CO2 emissions, rising temperatures and melting glaciers," stresses Martin Voss. "We're interested in social reactions, such as coastal protection and flood management measures. Basically, the way society is adapting."

Environmental sociologists are also intrigued by green lifestyles and new modes of thought. Studies underway at universities in Marburg and Lueneburg are looking at the development of environmental awareness.

"A stable and high level of climate awareness has emerged within society," says Harald Heinrichs, professor for sustainable policy at the Leuphana University in Lueneburg.

To know is not necessarily to act

Meanwhile, environmental psychologists and behavioral economists are researching the impact of the new green consciousness on actual behavior.

For now, there's a major gulf between the two - according to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions housed in the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York.

Also blazing a trail in the field of the sociology of climate change are a number of European institutions such as the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Hamburg, where academics from various backgrounds are combining their expertise to research floods and storms and future options for protective measures as well as media coverage of natural disasters.

"We all benefit enormously from one another," says Irene Neverla, a media studies expert.

Climate change as an opportunity

"Communications experts were quick to pick up on the topic," says Harald Heinrichs. "So were political scientists who explored climate policy as an aspect of international relations." The Leuphana University in Lueneburg is busy in the field of climate and environmental sociology. Heinrichs himself has researched the German tourism industry's efforts to adapt to climate change.

"If we see it as a chance to modernize the economy and society on a fundamental level, climate change is a great opportunity," he says.

Cultural studies expert Harald Welzer, on the other hand, sees it more as a threat. He's written a number of books heralding the end of the world as we know it, and examining how democracies are struggling to rise to the challenges of climate change.

Religion and mysticism

But all in all, the experts are only now beginning to answer the questions raised by climate change. According to Martin Voss, this marks a return to traditional European thought.

"Studying climate change has brought a return to something that we lost in the wake of the Enlightenment: a feeling that everything is interconnected," he observes. "Climate change is making us more receptive to mysticism and religion."

This is a side to the coin that's being explored by environmental psychologists all over the world - and indeed by theologists, such as Andreas Lienkamp. "

"Climate justice is a major issue in the US," points out Harald Heinrichs. "That's one of the many new questions set to gain prominence in European climate research."

Torsten Schäfer (jp)
Editor. Sonia Phalnikar

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