Climate Change and Societal Risk

An Introduction to Sociology of Climate Change

In modern society, nation states have faced various challenges, including housing bubbles, pollution, and unemployment, due to economic, environmental, and social risks. Generally, the modern state promotes technology to resolve social problems (e.g., promoting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to secure food supplies) and thus justifies its legitimacy (Chou, 2014). The state seeks to secure basic human rights via technology and economic progress, hoping this will convince the people to pledge their loyalty to the nation state and maintain their faith in representative democracy.

   However, the contradiction between economic growth and environmental protection in the context of globalization has led to unintended consequences. Since the 1980s, the chemical and petrochemical industries have been the main industries triggering exports and economic growth among developing states (Chou, 2015) despite these industries’ high pollution levels, high energy consumption, high water consumption, and high carbon emissions. The consequences include the mass destruction of the ecological environment, the development of dangerous scientific industries, and pollution due to high scientific uncertainties, which all contribute to global climate change (Chou, 2017).

Facing the challenges of globalization and climate change, Ulrich Beck argues that risks and side effects caused by the industrial society are not only local or regional but also cross-national and result in irreversible global consequences. At the spatial level, the consequences of nuclear risks are not limited to any single location, making the risk omnipresent. At the temporal level, the risk is in not knowing what will happen: the ‘unknown unknowns’ (Beck, 2006). At the social level, because the new risks are intertwined with many factors involved in global economics, their causes cannot be precisely determined, and their effects are not reversible. Therefore, the risk is incalculable.

In the context of global climate change, Beck thus argues that ‘methodological nationalism’, as the core of traditional sociology, cannot address global risks comprehensively. Methodological nationalism assumes that the nation, state and society are the natural social and political forms of modern society. However, the cross-boundary risks and manufactured uncertainties have already penetrated the boundaries of nation states and academic disciplines. For example, the health impacts, environmental impacts, and social impacts of extreme weather cannot be governed by any single agent, organization, group, or any single discipline. Essentially, in the age of global climate change, the new paradigm is no longer limited to a unilateral scientific principle but must expand professional knowledge. The new paradigm not only integrates various scientific principles but also seeks new social science methodologies for better risk governance (Chou, 2015).

In this regard, the Sociology of Climate Change aims to respond to Beck’s proposal to address global plights from the cross-disciplinary perspective of methodological cosmopolitanism. The author, Professor Chou Kuei-Tien, identifies the role of regulatory science in the context of Taiwan. Chou argues that in Taiwan, a culture of technocracy took root in the Cold War era as a solution to rapid modernization. Hence, Taiwan has become a kind of double risk society — a regime of expert politics with hidden and delayed risk. On the one hand, scientific elites manage risks with the ideology of positivism. On the other hand, social, environmental, and economic risks have been ignored or deemphasized for decades.

Chou further analyzes Taiwan’s current risk society from the following perspectives. First, Chou analyzes the local carbon, water, and energy-intensive industries, particularly the petrochemical and steel industries. Chou then identifies that, historically, due to the path dependency, Taiwan’s society failed to follow a successful industrial transition to reduce reliance on the high-carbon industrial structure.

Second, Chou addresses the issues of Taiwan’s public perceptions and actions toward climate change and air pollution. According to the studies, most of the public are aware of the seriousness of climate change and air pollution. Finally, Chou probes the actions of civil society and the environmental movement. Chou argues that in recent decades civil knowledge and risk discourses have grown as a response to climate change. As a result, the environmental movement in Taiwan has gradually become a significant social power, challenging the technocratic regime over the past decade. Through antipollution appeals, local communities have grown from simple NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protesters into systematic civic groups equipped with solid scientific knowledge and able to resort to strategic actions. The Taiwanese government’s failure to handle environmental risk has engendered tensions between the state and civil society and compromised the state’s legitimacy, as is shown by the emergence of a civic environmentalism that has challenged the persistent technocratic government in recent years. [1]

The new Taiwanese government designed the ‘2025 nuclear free homeland’ roadmap in 2016 to address problems in carbon reduction with energy transition, industrial transition, and the reduction of air pollution. However, so far, this proposal does not aim to construct a new energy paradigm but rather maintains the conventional ‘hard path’ of energy development. For example, the new government has not clarified solid strategies for promoting ‘prosumer’ energy systems and roadmaps for the petrochemical and steel industries.

Therefore, a model capable of accelerating the formation of a new energy paradigm is required. Chou suggests a project entitled the Sociology of Climate Change with the following themes:
1. Climate change and cosmopolitanization with institutional and political metamorphosis.
2. Climate change and a high-carbon society.
3. Climate change and the transformation of a regime of expert politics with hidden and delayed risk.
4. Climate governance and public awareness.
5. Climate governance and social movements.
6. Construction of social networks for transformation.

1. According to Oxford dictionaries, the definition of Nimby is “A person who objects to the siting of something perceived as unpleasant or hazardous in their own neighbourhood, especially while raising no such objections to similar developments elsewhere”. See


1. Ulrich Beck (2006). The Cosmopolitan Vision. Malden: Polity Press.
2. Kuei-Tien Chou (2014). Paradigm shift of risk society. Taipei: Yuan-liu.
3. Kuei-TienC hou (2015). “From Anti-pollution to Climate change risk movement: Reshaping Civic Epistemology,” Journal of Sustainability, 7(11): 14574-14596.
4. Kuei-Tien Chou (2017). Sociology of Climate Change. Taipei: National Taiwan University Press.

Professor Kuei-Tien Chou
Director, Risk Society and Policy Research Center, College of Social Science
Professor and Director in the Graduate Institute of National Development

Dr. Yeng-Chieh Tsai
Postdoctoral Researcher, Risk Society and Policy Research Center, College of Social Science


  • Issue 4

    Leap into the Cutting-edge Terrain of Internationalization Leap into the Cutting-edge Terrain of Internationalization more Landscape