Global warming discussed in social context

Allison Wickler

Concerns about global warming are plaguing not only environmental scientists, but social scientists as well.

Because of this, sociology professor Jeff Broadbent began bringing together researchers from around the world to investigate social and political responses to climate change.

He organized a conference held Thursday and today at the Hubert H. Humphrey Center to start off the project, which aims to find out why “humanity has not responded very well to this looming threat of climate change,” a topic which has been the focus of his work since 1975.

To view the complete conference itinerary, go to The Institute For Global Studies web site

Former Vice President and University alumnus Walter Mondale spoke at the event Thursday night along with Leslie King, a dean at the University of Manitoba and a coordinator at the United Nations, who gave the keynote address Thursday evening at Cowles Auditorium.

King said she has been investigating how institutions interact with each other to address climate change issues.

The environment has physical and biological aspects, which people commonly see, she said, but also cultural, social, economic and ethical facets.

“For global change programs … we need multilevel governance,” she said. “They demand solutions at all levels.”

Mondale spoke about the American public’s lack of concern with using resources efficiently during his early political career.

“That was the sociology of how we dealt with those issues,” he said.

He also said the lack of efficiency in government inhibits the passage of legislation which would address climate change.

“You’ve got to really have tailwind if it’s a big issue,” Mondale said. “If it really reaches down into American society and raises cause or changes ways of living, or affects interests of great strength, it struggles.”

As a part of the project, researchers from 15 countries will conduct surveys for the next two years about successes and failures in implementing global warming policy in their respective countries, then determine why those successes and failures occurred, Broadbent said.

The researchers will design the survey in a private workshop Saturday and Sunday.

International experts on environmental policy, including political science professor Kathryn Harrison of the University of British Columbia, will hold panel discussions Friday, which are free and open to the public.

Harrison said while the cost of reducing emissions does matter, other factors can also determine why countries like Australia and the United States did not ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while other developed nations like Canada and Japan, did.

Voter interest in the environment can affect the passage of climate change legislation.

“When it is a high priority (with voters), politicians tend to respond, even if some of the measures demanded by that response are difficult and costly,” she said.

Today’s panels will discuss how government interest plays a role in how much interest a country gives to the issue of global warming.

Harrison said in a government system with separation of powers, it is more difficult to get all the parties involved to agree upon appropriate action.

The call to reduce emissions is often framed as being unfair to businesses in developed countries like Canada and the United States, she said, which are asked to make deeper emissions cuts than developing nations.

“We don’t talk about whether it was unfair to the rest of the world that we put all the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and continue to put many more per person than the rest of the world,” she said.

Mondale said he is optimistic that the American public “gets it” this time around in the climate change discussion.

“So many deep changes are needed in America, but I think we’ve got a chance again,” he said.