Climate Change and Capitalism: A Sociological Problem

by | Jul 6, 2022 | Climate change and sustainable development | 0 comments

According to Urry (2009, p. 85), the past century has caused global temperatures to rise by at least 0.74ºC. It is apparent to partly be a result from the higher levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere: an outcome largely deriving from the long-term consequences of the free market economy. A deliberate shift in consumption processes and the assertion of the freedom for the market are reasons for the drastically increase in the emission of greenhouse gases. By contributing to climate change, capitalism – which strives for continued economic growth – is impossible to restore relations with a finite environment (Urry, 2009). This blog is crafted to explain recent history of the rise in global temperatures as well as to unpack the impacts of capitalism on climate change as a sociological issue.

The Climate Crisis

To give a shortened explanation as to why global temperatures can rise is due to a rise in the levels of greenhouse gases emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the more the sun’s rays are trapped causing the ‘greenhouse effect’ that results in the Earth warming. One major greenhouse gas is CO2. The Guardians (2022) regularly updated CO2 tracker ascertains that there is 418.5 atmospheric CO2 in parts per million on the 14 March 2022. In the past 10 years this has been an increase of 24.9 atmospheric CO2 in parts per million. If the patterns we are witnessing in present were to continue over the next few decades crops, rainfall and temperature patterns will experience drastic changes. Likewise, these changes represent a significant danger to the everyday human life with social organisations, economic institutions as well as global stability at threat of collapse. Some regard this as the ‘Anthropocene’, (although a slightly sceptical version) in which the Earth’s ‘natural’ cycles develop to become substantially distorted by human activity. The question remains as to will humanity hold responsibility for these environmental changes and, if so, what agency will they exert to combat these changes.

‘Freedom’ and Neo-Liberalism

As previously discussed, the change in consumption processes has dramatically increased the emission of greenhouse gases. This has been bolstered by the strengthening of neo-liberalism that has now become the dominant global orthodoxy. Neo-liberalism is ingrained for many of us into the common sense of how we live in and understand the surrounding world (Urry, 2009). As the dominant orthodoxy, the political ideals of neo-liberalism assert the freedom of the market and of trade as well as to minimise the role of the state. Whilst this may conceivably (although naively) reduce power of easily corruptible private interest groups in governments, state bodies are often crucial in setting regulation that threatens the slowing down of economic growth of which climate change has the potential to be a massive constraint. Rather than allocating scarce resources to necessity products, an influx of leisure goods and tourism – resulting in increased oil usage – has occurred characterising this switch in consumption processes. The effects of neo-liberalism then are a surge in greenhouse gases. The ‘freedom’ of neo-liberalism has subsequently led to behavioural changes contextual to your social and economic position in the world including bodies being subject to commodification, digital control and the potential for mass addiction to name a few. As a major part of this ‘freedom’ you are free to become addicted, completely dependant on excessive consumption of the products provided under global capitalism that is inescapable (Urry, 2009). The orthodoxy of neo-liberalism is so completely ingrained that it is difficult to demand social change in time to reduce the rise in greenhouse gases. 

A Sociological problem

Why then is the climate crisis a sociological issue? If there are no substantial reductions in economic systems high carbon emissions greenhouse gases could grow by 300% by 2100 with global temperatures also rising to a level where the globe would transform in its human and physical geography. Climate change can have a direct effect on consumption if nothing is done. Why, then, is nothing significant seemingly being done? To reduce carbon emissions requires not just a technological solution but change in social organisation is imperative. The nature of human social life is the central cause of the climate crisis so it is crucial for their to be substantial behavioural changes.  



Urry, J. (2009) ‘Sociology and Climate Change’, The Sociological Review, 57(s2): 84-100

The Guardian (2022). CO2 tracker. Available at: (Accessed: 14 March 2022).

Monbiot, G. (2022). Carbon Colonialism, Available at: (Accessed: 14 March 2022)


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