The Problem of Climate Change and the Analogy of Development

Benjamin Bradlow, Princeton University

An agenda for “solving” the problem of human-induced climate change is one that escapes mainstream comparative social scientific logics of analysis for a simple reason. There is only one historical case of switching the energy basis of the global economy: the turn to carbon emissions-based economic growth on the basis of coal, oil, and gas. For modern sociology, this is not even a case, but rather a foundational process in the emergence of modernity that has shaped the discipline. A comparative sociological approach to the problem of mitigating climate change therefore requires reaching for historical analogy of comparison cases that highlight the social basis for switching points in large scale development trajectories. I argue that late industrializing developmental “catch-up” is such an analogy that can help illustrate the sociological foundations of when and why these switching points yield dramatic shifts in developmental outcomes. I proceed to analyze what carbon-based economic growth in the authoritarian East Asian “tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan) and democratic cases in Brazil and South Africa over the past half century tell us about the possibilities for a transition away from carbon-based economic growth. I then propose implications for further investigation within this comparative agenda. I underscore the fact that while historically, carbon emissions are the responsibility of early industrializing nations, the future growth of carbon emissions is primarily located in middle-income nations in the global south. Climate change as a social problem cannot be “solved” absent viable, non-carbon-based economic growth trajectories in these contexts. I conclude by showing how this implicates the social basis of three issues in urban and political sociology: the built environments of rapidly urbanizing cities, individual and collective transportation within and between these cities, and the growth of labor-absorbing industrialization in cities.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 215. Political Economy, Ecology, and the Crises of Democracy