Those having maxed-out on their summertime deep-dives into cli-fi flicks at the theater or books on heat waves, drought, and wild fires or on the future of the Arctic can now turn their attention to the social sciences. The selection here assembled by George Washington University writing professor Michael Svoboda, himself a former bookstore owner and committed “book geek.” Descriptions are drawn from the publishers’ copy.
Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming, by Stephen Ansolabehere and David M. Konisky (MIT Press, 2014 | 261 pp., $27.95)
Drawing on extensive surveys they designed and conducted over the course of a decade (in conjunction with MIT’s Energy Initiative), Ansolabehere and Konisky report that beliefs about the costs and environmental harms associated with particular fuels drive public opinions about energy. People approach energy choices as consumers, and what is most important to them is simply that energy be cheap and clean. Most of us want energy at low economic cost and with little social cost (that is, minimal health risk from pollution). The authors also find that although environmental concerns weigh heavily in people’s energy preferences, these concerns are local and not global. Worries about global warming are less pressing to most than worries about their own city’s smog and toxic waste. With this in mind, Ansolabehere and Konisky argue for policies that target both local pollutants and carbon emissions (the main source of global warming). The local and immediate nature of people’s energy concerns can be the starting point for a new approach to energy and climate change policy.
The United States in a Warming World: The Political Economy of Government, Business, and Public Responses to Climate Change, by Thomas L. Brewer (Cambridge University Press, 2015 | 351 pp, $39.99 paperback)
Addressing the widespread desire to better understand how climate change issues are addressed in the United States, this book provides an unparalleled analysis of features of the U.S. economic and political system that are essential to understanding its responses to climate change. The introductory chapter presents a firm historical context, with the remainder of the book offering balanced and factual discussions of government, business and public responses to issues of energy policies, congressional activity on climate change, and U.S. government involvement in international conferences. Abundant statistical evidence illustrates key concepts and supports analytic themes such as market failures, free riders, and the benefits and costs of alternative courses of action among industry sectors and geographic areas within the U.S. Written for audiences both outside and within the U.S., this accessible book is essential reading for anyone interested in climate change, energy, sustainable development or related issues around the world.
How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, by Candis Callison (Duke University Press, 2014, 316 pp., $22.80 paperback)
In this innovative ethnography, Candis Callison examines the initiatives of social and professional groups as they encourage diverse American publics to care about climate change. She explores the efforts of science journalists, scientists who have become expert voices for and about climate change, American evangelicals, indigenous leaders, and advocates for corporate social responsibility. The disparate efforts of these groups illuminate the challenge of maintaining fidelity to scientific facts while transforming them into ethical and moral calls to action. As she demonstrates, climate change offers an opportunity to look deeply at how issues and problems that begin in a scientific context come to matter to wide publics, and to rethink emerging interactions among different kinds of knowledge and experience, evolving media landscapes, and claims to authority and expertise.
Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives, Riley Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle, Editors (Oxford University Press, 2015 | 480 pp., $29.95)
Climate Change and Society breaks new theoretical and empirical ground by presenting climate change as a thoroughly social phenomenon, embedded in behaviors, institutions, and cultural practices. An improved understanding of the complex relationship between climate change and society is essential for modifying ecologically harmful human behaviors and institutional practices, creating just and effective environmental policies, and developing a more sustainable future. Produced by the American Sociological Association’s Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change, Climate Change and Society provides a useful tool for students, scholars, and professionals in future efforts to integrate social science research, natural science research, and policymaking regarding climate change and sustainability.
Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet, by Dieter Helm (Yale University Press, 2015 | 277 pp., $32.50)
Natural capital is what nature provides to us for free. Renewables – like species – keep on coming, provided we do not drive them towards extinction. Non-renewables – like oil and gas – can only be used once. Together, they are the foundation that ensures our survival and well-being, and the basis of all economic activity. In the face of the global, local, and national destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems, economist Dieter Helm here offers a crucial set of strategies for establishing natural capital policy that is balanced, economically sustainable, and politically viable. Helm shows why the commonly held view that environmental protection poses obstacles to economic progress is false, and he explains why the environment must be at the very core of economic planning. He presents the first real attempt to calibrate, measure, and value natural capital from an economic perspective and goes on to outline a stable new framework for sustainable growth. Bristling with ideas of immediate global relevance, Helm’s book shifts the parameters of current environmental debate. As inspiring as his trailblazing The Carbon Crunch, this volume will be essential reading for anyone concerned with reversing the headlong destruction of our environment.
How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, by Andrew Hoffmann (Stanford University Press, 2015 | 120 pp., $12.99 paperback)
Though the scientific community largely agrees that climate change is underway, debates about this issue remain fiercely polarized. These conversations have become a rhetorical contest, one where opposing sides try to achieve victory through playing on fear, distrust, and intolerance. At its heart, this split no longer concerns carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, or climate modeling; rather, it is a product of contrasting, deeply entrenched world views. This brief examines what causes people to reject or accept the scientific consensus on climate change. Synthesizing evidence from sociology, psychology, and political science, Andrew J. Hoffman lays bare the opposing cultural lenses through which science is interpreted. He then extracts lessons from major cultural shifts in the past to engender a better understanding of the problem and motivate the public to take action. How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate makes a powerful case for a more scientifically literature public, a more socially engaged scientific community, and a more thoughtful mode of public discourse.
Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture, by Bob Johnson (University Press of Kansas, 2014 | 230 pp., $34.95)
Carbon Nation ranges across film and literary studies, ecology, politics, journalism, and art history to chart the course by which prehistoric carbon calories entered into the American economy and body. The ecological roots of modern America are introduced in the first half of the book where the author shows how fossil fuels revolutionized the nation’s material wealth and carrying capacity. The book then demonstrates how this eager embrace of fossil fuels went hand in hand with both a deliberate and an unconscious suppression of that dependency across social, spatial, symbolic, and psychic domains. In the works of Eugene O’Neill, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, and Stephen Crane, the author reveals how Americans’ material dependencies on prehistoric carbon were systematically buried within modernist narratives of progress, consumption, and unbridled growth; while in films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and George Stevens’s Giant he uncovers cinematic expressions of our own deep-seated anxieties about living in a dizzying new world wrought by fossil fuels. Johnson reminds us that what we take to be natural in the modern world is, in fact, historical, and that our history and culture arise from this relatively recent embrace of the coal mine, the stoke hole, and the oil derrick.
Climate Change as Social Drama: Global Warming in the Public Sphere, by Philip Smith and Nicolas Howe (Cambridge University Press, 2015, 249 pages, $29.99 paperback)
Climate change is not just a scientific fact, nor merely a social and political problem. It is also a set of stories and characters that amount to a social drama. This drama, as much as hard scientific or political realities, shapes perception of the problem. Drs. Smith and Howe use the perspective of cultural sociology and Aristotle’s timeless theories about narrative and rhetoric to explore this meaningful and visible surface of climate change in the public sphere. Whereas most research wants to explain barriers to awareness, here we switch the agenda to look at the moments when global warming actually gets attention. Chapters consider struggles over apocalyptic scenarios, explain the success of Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth, unpack the deeper social meanings of the climate conference and “Climategate” critique failed advertising campaigns and climate art, and question the much touted transformative potential of natural disasters such as Superstorm Sandy.
Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, by Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman (Princeton University Press, 2015 | 250 pp., $27.95)
In Climate Shock, Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman explore in lively, clear terms the likely repercussions of a hotter planet, drawing on and expanding from work previously unavailable to general audiences. They show that the longer we wait to act, the more likely an extreme event will happen. A city might go underwater. A rogue nation might shoot particles into the Earth’s atmosphere, geoengineering cooler temperatures. Zeroing in on the unknown extreme risks that may yet dwarf all else, the authors look at how economic forces that make sensible climate policies difficult to enact, make radical would-be fixes like geoengineering all the more probable. What we know about climate change is alarming enough. What we don’t know about the extreme risks could be far more dangerous. Wagner and Weitzman help readers understand that we need to think about climate change in the same way that we think about insurance – as a risk management problem, only here on a global scale.