Climate and Sustainability

On the Social Side of the Climate Crisis

On Thursday, The Eastern Sociological Society (ESS) kicked off their annual conference at SIS, co-sponsored by CECE, American Institutes for Research, Deloitte, the MacArthur Foundation, Science Advances, AU’s School of International Service, The Department of Environment Development and Health, and the Hewlett Foundation. This was a significant landmark for ESS, because under the leadership of SIS Professor and CECE Director, Dr. Dana Fisher, 2024 was the first year that the topic of the climate crisis took center stage within the conference’s history. Academics, professionals, and activists filled the Founders room as it buzzed with the anticipation of discussing the importance of the social side of the climate crisis.

Dr. Fisher opened the event by presenting the first panel of speakers, including Dr. Marccus Hendricks, Associate Professor and Director of the Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience and Justice (SIRJ) Lab at the University of Maryland (UMD) and Former Senior Advisor at the White House CEQ, Allison Crimmins who is the Director of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, and moderator Andrew Jorgenson, Professor and Director of the Climate & Society Lab at the University of British Columbia. Both Hendricks and Crimmins emphasized the critical role of cross-sector collaboration in response to climate change, and the need to “take a social lens to what has largely been studied as a physical problem.” Sociology and social science are especially important in this regard because these disciplines frame both how we think about the problem, and the solution, which will ultimately determine its success no matter what­ tools we use to meet our climate goals. “The largest uncertainty,” said Crimmins, “is human behavior,” but measuring the dimensions of and attempting to mold this ambiguous factor is almost certainly the key. To solve the climate crisis, we as humans will have to learn to do things differently, and that means shaping society through transformational change that will shift behavior and action. These transformations are tied to our production, consumption and ways of life, and Hendricks claims that we need to ask ourselves questions like “how do we slow down” to mend the chasm that industrialization has cleaved between humans and nature? These big questions require big solutions that science alone can’t answer.   

Left to right: Allison Crimmins, Marccus Hendricks, and Andrew Jorgenson

The climate crisis is not a time “to operate in disciplinary isolation,” said Hendricks. Nor is it time to conduct a modus operandi devoid of moral commitment to humanity, or a disorientation towards values of equity and justice. Yet, finding a just, equitable, multi-faceted and interdisciplinary approach to understanding the problems and solutions of the climate crisis is a massive undertaking. It requires a diversity of thought, participation, and ways of knowing that are actively present at all stages. In the second panel, all speakers highlighted the necessity of bringing more voices into the fold of sociology. Dharna Noor, Climate Reporter at the Guardian and Melissa Finucane, Vice President of the Union of Concerned Scientists, both voiced how a spectrum of narratives must be shared in all spaces—from community action, to communication, to the decision-making table. This especially includes bringing forward voices from activists and people doing some of the hardest work on the frontlines of grassroots organizing, such as panelist, José Bravo who is an Environmental Justice Organizer at the Just Transition Alliance.

Understandings of what environmental justice means are incomplete, asserted Bravo. There are so many pieces missing from the narrative which contribute to a greater dissonance to the insidious systematic forces that create inequality and injustice. We need to “tell the complete story,” he said: “We [the communities] know the story…but when we talk about where things that affect us (like air pollution) come from, we don’t talk about…the big picture…like how the US armed forces are one of the largest carbon emitters.” Sociologists therefore need to close the loops on these understandings and more strongly connect the dots between environmental racism, governance, and global climate change as the climate crisis looms ever larger.

The ESS’s gathering at SIS demonstrated commitment to growing and molding their community to address some of the most pressing challenges facing society. Creating cohesion, direction, and a call to action on climate justice and the climate emergency across disciplines on the conference’s mainstage sets the tone for the work of this community over the next year, which comes at a critical moment. The decisions made by academics, community leaders, and policymakers at this moment will determine the future we all live in.