Inter-disciplinary Analysis of Climate Change and Society: A Network Approach

Jeffrey Broadbent and Philip Vaughter


Networks matter. Whether a personal social network of contacts we use to navigate our daily lives, to globalized communication networks that connect governments, commerce, and social movements around the planet, networks are omnipresent. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized how we network, as well as expanded the scale and sped up the time frame that we can now network on.

Social network analysis (SNA) examines the relationships among actors and ideas within social group. A relationship is any kind of transfer, from coercion and money to social approval and ideas, among people or groups of any size or level of organization. The vast and diverse network of transfers is central to reproduction of and change in social patterns and behavior, including how society relates to its ecological environment (Prell 2012). SNA is eminently applicable to studying the relations between society and the environment (Bodin and Prell 2011). SNA is interdisciplinary in the sense that it can be used to trace the flow of scientific and other ideas into the realm of discourse within society. From there, this flow of ideas can be followed to its impact upon political action and its outcomes. At the same time, it can be applied to different levels of society, from the micro inter-personal dynamics to the macro-global scale flow of new norms and alliances. SNA can also be used to isolate different dimensions of society, such as the composition of the discourse field around a phenomenon, as well as the network of cooperation or information transfer among social actors. These flows and dimensions include the crucial feedback loops of grasping and framing a natural phenomenon wherein knowledge and belief, correct or not, are born and take life. Although providing the crucial substrate to social potential, molecular or genetic components cannot predict the formations and flow of society. SNA is inter-disciplinary, then, in the sense that it allows us to draw in the concepts and ideas about the natural and human worlds at all levels, and study how they work within the social and cultural arenas of collective human action.

Social scientists have taken note of the role that networks and networking play in social and political change, from improving safety conditions in nuclear power plants to negotiating new legislation on the supra-national level within the European Union. SNA has been used to analyze the discursive dimensions around political processes as well as coalition formation among organizations around environmental activism. The effectiveness of political or social movements is often determined by the nature of linkages between actors within a social network. Social network analysis can be used to examine political mobilization and the formation of advocacy coalitions as well as the spread of scientific knowledge and the dissemination of social or behavioral norms. By representing scientific knowledge as an information network along with other types of networks, a network approach can integrate the perspectives of different sciences (consilience) to study their conjoint and interactive effect upon the process of climate change production and solution.

And nowhere is the interaction between human society and the environment on a greater scale than in how our behaviors affect that greatest of global commons: the Earth's atmosphere. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the Earth's atmosphere from human industry have begun to change the planet's climate regime. And with the change in climate, have come changes to earth systems that humanity is dependent on. Sea levels are rising, threatening coastal communities; ice sheets have begun to melt, threatening fresh water supply; crops in some areas have begun to fail, threatening food supply. While human beings are adaptable, our capacity to do so will likely be overwhelmed as the scale of these impacts increase (IPCC 2007a). In order to reduce the emission of GHGs that spur climate change, norms of collective responsibility will need to be disseminated on a global scale (Broadbent 2010). But how will this happen? Indeed, can it happen?

When ozone depletion was operationalized as a problem within the 1980s, the driving force (production of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs) was linked to a few specific activities (use of aerosol cans, use of specific refrigerants, use of certain packing materials) within a few economic sectors. The industries were able to substitute less harmful chemicals at low cost, and consumers did not have to radically change their behavior. Operationalizing climate change as a scientific certainty, let alone a problem, has been such a contentious debate because of the irreducible complexity of the issue. Greenhouse gases, which drive climate change, are not just produced by a few components of a few choice industries. Rather, they are omnipresent in virtually all economic activity and embedded within the production and maintenance of much of the globe's infrastructure. They are diverse in their source and type, creating debates over responsibility for their emission, as each greenhouse gas has its own global warming potential (GWP). Although carbon dioxide from industry and transport is the most abundantly produced anthropogenic greenhouse gas, methane emissions from agriculture cause more heat to be trapped within the atmosphere. To comprehensively tackle climate change as a problem, emissions from virtually every sector of the globalized economy must be addressed, not just a few choice “demon chemicals” from specialized sectors. Furthermore, because different societies around the globe have such varying sources of GHG emissions, national approaches to mitigation will have to be diverse rather than uniform. Mol (2001) has illustrated widespread norms and values in regards to the environment have diffused across the world, which seek to minimize the harm economic processes cause to the planet's ecosystems. However, this will take time to diffuse across different societies due to the scope and variety of climate change's drivers and impacts.

In the past, social scientists have studied how norms and values have been codified in international treaties on environmental issues (such as the Montreal Protocol) and how the design of these treaties have helped internalize environmental norms and values in societies around the globe (Schneider et al. 2002; Helm 2005; Speth and Haas 2006; Young 2002). However, constructs of environmental values or behavioral norms have been haphazard in regards to the threat of climate change, even with the drafting and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. While some nations have made great progress in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, others have not. Societies have varied greatly in their responses to climate change, and attention is now focused on what characteristics within societies are responsible for this variation. (Evans et al. 1993; Jacobson and Weiss 1998; Schreurs 2002, p. 261; Weidner and Janicke 2002, pp. 430–431) What factors have led to such varying norms and responses to climate change in societies around the world when global norms on policies around ozone depletion, ocean dumping, and pesticide use were embraced? The authors of this chapter are part of a group of researchers, the Compon project, who propose that the next step in investigating these variables is to examine comparative policy networks in order to test hypotheses about social factors helping or hindering domestic responses to climate change. The project on Comparing Climate Change Policy Networks (Compon) project tests the effect of social organization, cultural meaning and political mobilization on a nation's response to climate change. The Compon project is a collaborative effort among teams of scholars using social network analysis to compare and contrast discourse and action around climate change and climate change policy within 19 societies around the globe. The societies currently within the study include Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and the United States. Using data collected by academic teams using the same instruments in these societies, social network analysis allows researchers to identify and compare patterns of belief, advocacy coalitions, mobilization and policy-formation as they shape the formation of mitigation policies and behaviors (Broadbent 2010;

Broadbent 2013, #3577).

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