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date: 22 May 2024

Social Theory and Climate Changelocked

Social Theory and Climate Changelocked

  • Robert J. AntonioRobert J. AntonioUniversity of Kansas


Social and biophysical limits to population and economic growth have long been an intense matter of contestation and division among social theorists. The roots of this split originated with warnings by Thomas Malthus about overpopulation and 19th-century political-economic debates about the expansion of modern capitalism, especially its alleged capacity to generate continuous, unplanned exponential growth and its actual unparalleled acceleration of growth and profound social and biophysical changes it wrought. The post–World War II era economic expansion of capitalism, or “Great Acceleration,” massively increased the size of the global economy relative to the biosphere, greatly intensified resource consumption and waste production, and consequently sharply accelerated climate change and other environmental problems. The public, experts, and corporate interests disagreed about strategies to cope with ecological damages, especially when they threatened to curtail economic growth. The seriousness of the threats posed by climate change and the scope of technical challenges, regulatory interventions, and socioeconomic costs of mitigation, especially decarbonization, have been the subject of intense disagreement among social theorists and divergent policy proposals. Social theory debates have focused on the role of capitalist production, organization, consumption, and culture. Centrally, they have addressed whether capital accumulation and growth are the ultimate indirect drivers of anthropogenic climate change and whether their material and social benefits outweigh their damages to the environment and human well-being. Social theorists also have debated whether market-based incentives and market-driven technological progress can cope sufficiently with climate change; whether statist efforts to adapt to and mitigate it sustain or undermine democracy; and whether climate change requires fundamental transformation of capitalism, modest reforms, or little or no planned change. Social theory debates over these policy positions have been in part shaped and justified via divergent “constructivist” and “realist” epistemologies. Constructivists argue that realists are too trustful of scientific authority, favor top-down technocracy, ignore voices of local publics, exaggerate the certainty of climate and other ecological futures, and pose environmental policies that cannot meet energy demands and economic needs of poor nations. Realists hold that constructivists have a flawed relativist epistemology; exaggerate the uncertainty of scientific findings; underestimate the speed, dangers, and possible irreversible damages of climate change and other global environmental problems; place too much confidence in markets and technology; and understate the already serious and likely to grow much worse damages that poor nations and regions suffer. The social theory debates over climate change and other global environmental problems’ severity and prospective policy options mediate between science and democratic public life and thereby inform debates over possible collective actions to address the inevitable trade-offs between limiting serious ecological damage and sustaining socioeconomic well-being.


  • Climate Impact: Terrestrial Ecosystems

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