John Chung-En Liu and Andrew Szasz. 2019. “Now Is the Time to Add More Sociology of Climate Change to Our Introduction to Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology.

Picture of Earth drowning in a sea of flames via CCO Public Domain.

Young people around the world want to talk about climate change. Intro to Sociology classes could capitalize on students’ interest by demonstrating how sociological thinking is useful for understanding it. For instance, one unit could focus on the factors that make social movements–like the Youth Climate movement–effective. Another could illustrate how inequalities in housing and access to resources mean that climate change will disproportionately impact less advantaged. Still others could show how our socialization shapes how we think about the importance of protecting the environment, or how social institutions can impact climate change and its effects.

Despite this potential, the typical introductory sociology text devotes less than 3 percent of its total pages to environmental sociology. And, according to a new study by John Chung-En Liu and Andrew Szasz, in the 11 most popular textbooks, climate change hardly comes up. In one it is never mentioned at all. Using content analysis, the authors found that eight textbooks present the scientific evidence as unequivocal: climate change is real and will likely have catastrophic consequences. One textbook gets the facts wrong, conflating climate change with ozone depletion, and one other encourages students to debate the “controversy.”

The authors argue that Intro to Sociology courses should offer a sociological–not just physical–explanation of its causes, describe the impacts already observed and predicted future impacts, and illustrate how the world’s peoples, institutions, and governments have responded so far to scientists’ and activists’ warnings about the threat. Szasz has even developed a module devoted to sociological analyses of climate change. By incorporating lessons on climate change into the sociology classroom, instructors can help students to educate themselves about one of the most serious social conditions they will face, and demonstrate the power and relevance of sociological thought.