Sociology Of Climate Catastrophism

  • Date: 21/07/16
  • Geoff Chambers, Climate Scepticism

Belief in climate catastrophism is a social phenomenon, and requires an explanation in terms of the social sciences.

This article is part of an occasional series exploring the possibility (or rather the necessity) of a sociological analysis of climate catastrophism. Others can be found at

It argues 1) that the key criterion for identifying the social class which has propelled climate catastrophism to centre stage (the green blob; the chattering classes, Guardianistas, the “right on” generation – define them how you will) is university education and 2) an explanation is required of how such a weak (woolly, vague, unconvincing) idea as environmentalism (“we live on a fragile planet”; “we need to recycle/conserve/cycle to work to prevent the sixth great extinction” etc.) has conquered the world. Both ideas I have lifted from the work of Emmanuel Todd, a French historian and demographer I have often referred to in different posts. I’ve added an appendix describing Todd’s work, which is of great interest outside the narrow bounds of an analysis of climate catastrophism.

Belief in climate catastrophism is a social phenomenon, and requires an explanation in terms of the social sciences. There are a number of interesting psychological theories around – in fact every climate sceptic seems to have one. But while a psychological analysis may explain why certain people choose to be environmentalists, it can never explain how environmentalism – and in particular its most acute form, climate catastrophism – came to conquer the world; how, in other words, belief in climate catastrophism managed to attain a critical mass that permitted it to impose itself as a consensus belief, or ideology. Only a sociological explanation can do that. And a sociological explanation must account for a unique event – the rise of climate catastrophism – in terms of unique, or at least rarely repeated, social phenomena.

It’s easy enough to identify the social group which has most fervently adopted the climate catastrophism ideology. It’s the university-educated, upper-middle-class intelligentsia:- metropolitain; left-liberal; more likely to be humanities graduates than scientists; often working in academia, the media, or in related professions involved in the collection and exchange of information of all sorts. The libertarian social theorist Thomas Sowell in his book “Intellectuals and Society” defines “idea workers” as “people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas (writers, historians, academics, etc.) [and who] usually consider themselves as “anointed”, or as endowed with superior intellect or insight with which to guide the masses and those who have authority over them.”[Wiki]

I’ve often mentioned the work of the French historian Emmanuel Todd and its usefulness for understanding the catastrophist phenomenon (though he has never, to my knowledge, mentioned environment policy in his numerous comments on current politics).

One of his major achievements is to have convincingly demonstrated the close correlation between political revolutions and the attainment of universal literacy: in 16th century Germany at the time of the Protestant Reform; in England in the 17th century, announcing the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution; in France in the late 18th and in Russia in the early 20th century. His demonstration that literacy, rather than economic exploitation, is the prime cause of social upheaval destroys a major pillar of Marxism, but it also confirms Marx’s fundamental insight about the importance of class struggle in the evolution of society.

In an aside somewhere on the decline of the French Socialist Party Todd highlights one of the unintended consequences of advances in education. Whereas the attainment of universal literacy naturally reinforces egalitarian tendencies in society – leading, if not always to democracy, at least to nominal respect for the Common Man – the advent of mass tertiary education has the opposite effect.

For most of the 20th century university education was the reserve of a tiny élite, highly concentrated in the professions (law, medicine, academia..) Though they undoubtedly exercised disproportionate influence, as does any élite group, whether in Parliament, in their clubs and learned societies, or in the letter page of the Times, they were too few and isolated to be able to ignore entirely the opinions of their less educated fellow citizens, particularly as the latter included a large number of people (in industry, finance, the armed services, the media, as well as in the organised working class) who were obviously their intellectual equals.

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