Climate change and the “social”

Image: Yelena Odintsova


The “social” in the climate debate is reduced to a mere collateral and governable effect of the production of wealth

Some authors understand that the social sciences were slow to recognize climate change as an object of analysis because it would be “too social”.[I] But what suggests reading the successive reports of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) is, on the contrary, that the sciences mobilized by government institutions to equate climate issues have proved to be “less social”. And this would even be one of the reasons why they have not been able to account for the sociopolitical complexity of the effects as well as the causes of climate processes.

In other words, the climate problem is often 'naturalized' and social research that maps the plot that links the scientific fact to the political field tends to be seen unduly as climatic skeptics.[ii] The “social” in the climate debate is consequently reduced to a mere side effect and governable of the production of wealth.

As recognized by even one of the authors of the report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), responsible for the topic on climate deregulation and international migration, “scientific work demonstrates more and more clearly how issues of social justice, migration, development and conflicts are closely intertwined with climate change. And that the social sciences must be massively mobilized for these matters. These are eminently political issues that climatologists cannot predict with their mathematical models and decision makers do not want to be addressed in IPCC studies”.[iii]

Faced with institutional resistance to dealing with the conflicting and properly political issues of climate change, there is a tendency for researchers involved to prefer to fill the “social” part of the IPCC report with a debate on “adaptation” to the effects of changes. In other words, that “the social” is considered by the institutions as an undesirable side effect of climate change, a manageable residue in the face of the priority of maintaining unaltered the technical and locational standards required for the accumulation of wealth.

Now, the “social” can be thought to designate, alternatively, a state of reality, in an ontological sense, a principle of evaluation of actions, in a normative sense, or a problematic pertinent to the political field, in a critical sense.[iv] By emptying the possibilities of facing the climate issue in its entirety of its political dimensions and taking on the challenges of questioning the conflicting forms of interaction between different spatial practices, institutions refuse to transform the “sensitive experience” of the climate problem into a solution . For as the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem underlined, “the sensitive experience is the problem to be solved and not the beginning of the solution”.[v]

In order to properly configure “the problem”, one would have to consider the social as a system of relations and processes. In the case that interests us, such relations integrate the government of things with the government of men, the interaction between men and things and, ultimately, the relationship between men mediated by things. Because climate change is not a substance, but a process that unfolds in a space of relationships that also needs to be thought relationally, that is, beyond the official representations that institutions make of it based on schemes formatted from the perspective of the States and that put us at the risk of extending the limitations of the administrative field to science.[vi]

It is worth considering that processes such as climate change are endowed with a relative autonomy that “is based on the common life of a plurality of human beings who are more or less dependent on each other and who act with each other or against each other – of human beings who are immersed in a non-human nature”.[vii]

Conservative movements have operated, in the public sphere, as an assumed anti-reflexive force.[viii] In the environmental field, this conservative camp mobilizes against the adoption of political regulations in the name of the primacy of private property and the profitability of corporations. Your think tanks question the legitimacy of the science of environmental impacts, and, with greater emphasis, those who study its social dimensions, discussing the structural causes and socio-spatial inequalities of the effects of climate change.

Known episodes of financial crisis or geopolitical conflict have brought to light, in condensed form, the low priority given to climate issues by state and multilateral institutions, which tend to put aside their ecological discourse to give way to the search for autarchy and economic recovery to any cost. The anti-reflexive pressure thus shows all its bulk, with the traits of a capitalist cosmology focused on the business climate and on the material and monetary circuits of accumulation, unwilling to give visibility to the social and environmental processes on which these circuits depend and on which which, at the same time, elapse.

There is a diversity of possibilities for understanding social relations obscured by the prevailing institutional approach of a “climate change society” reduced to a simple object of adaptive actions. The social sciences make it possible to call attention to the socio-political constraints on the construction, legitimation or denial of the climate issue; for the role of traditional knowledge within the framework of a geopolitics of knowledge that should include knowledge from autochthonous epistemologies; for the recognition that scientific controversy has a different temporality from political controversy, indicating that ideological polarization can operate as a strategy to postpone political decisions; to the perception that, alongside the prevalence of short-term perspectives, the action of the fossil fuel lobby, the weakness of the international legal regime and the reluctance of governments in the South to adopt solutions that refer to colonial inequalities, the weakness of policies global climate change can be explained by the complacency of power instances with the more than proportional concentration of environmental evils on ethnic and low-income groups.[ix]

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).



[I] Latour, b. Où land? Comment s´orienter en politique. Paris: La Découverte, 2017.p. 81.

[ii] Dahan, A. and Guillemot, H. Les relations entre science et politique dans le régime climatique: à la recherche d'un nouveau modele d'expertise? Natures Sciences Sociétés. Paris, 23, supplement, 2015, p. S9.

[iii] Gemenne, Francois. Les scientifiques du Giec demeurent dans une posture de “neutralité objective” qui confine à l'attentisme, interview with Mickael Correia, 22/2/2022,

[iv] Gaudin. O. and Cukier, A. Le sens du social, pphilosophie and sociology. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017.

[v] Canguilhem, G. Lessons on the method. In: Bourdieu, P. Chamboredon, JC and Passeron JC. Le Metier de Sociologue. Paris: Mouton/Bordas, 1968. pp 336-339.

[vi] Duclos, D. The Science absorbée par la commande administrative. In: Theys, J., Kalaora, B. (eds.). La Terre outragée – les experts sont formals. Paris: Ed. Autrement, Sciences et société series n.1. 1992, p.170-187; Bourdieu, P. (avec Loic JD Wacquant) Réponses. Paris: Seuil, 1992.

[vii] Elias, n. Writings and essays; 1. State, public opinion process. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2002, p.31.

[viii] Dunlap, RE and McCright, AM, Anti-reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement's Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy, Theory Culture Society, London, 27 (2-3):p 100-133, May 2010

[ix] Acselrad, H. The “social” in climate change, magazine link, v. 18 no. February 1, 2022.

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