A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
February 11, 2011 Volume 41 / Number 4

McNall Book cover: Rapid Climate Change

New Book: Rapid Climate Change

Sociology professor Scott McNall, a longtime campus advocate of sustainability, saw his book Rapid Climate Change published by Routledge in January. The book is designed as a supplemental text for college courses in climate science or sustainability and is also intended for the general public. McNall is currently the senior advisor to the president for sustainability at CSU, Chico. He is also the former director of the Institute for Sustainable Development, and former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. His book deals with the scientific, psychological, sociological, and economic issues involved in solving the problem of global warming. McNall recently took the time to answer some questions about his Rapid Climate Change.

Tell us a little about Rapid Climate Change.

The book covers four major topics: The first is the science of climate change—what we actually know about climate change and what things are problematic.

The second chapter asks: If what we know about climate change is true—and some things are pretty certain—why would people not believe this? Why would people actively argue that humans are not causing the planet to warm?

The third section of the book deals with why human beings tend not to take action in terms of long-term risk. It is really hard for us just in terms of the way we are hardwired to act.

The fourth chapter looks at what can we do about climate change: What technologies are out there, and what are the problems that you need to solve?

One of the things I argue—and others have argued this too—is that you can’t just look at climate change as a standalone problem. Climate change is described as a “wicked problem” because it is composed of a set of complex, interacting networks. It is related to global inequality; it’s related to population growth; it’s related to an economy based on consumption. So you need to work on this set of what are called “nested problems.”

What kind of research was involved in the project?

I’ve been teaching this for three years, not just involved in the sustainability movement. With Professor Sally McNall, I teach a class in the spring called “Men, Women, and the Land,” which is about our ideas of nature and where these ideas come from and how you can frame discussions of the natural world in such a way that people will take care of it—of the biosphere on which all of our lives depend.

So you’ve had some practice making this case…

I try to be as neutral as one can be and try hard to understand the moral frameworks within which people act.

In writing the book, I was trying to think about why [people resist the scientific research on climate change] and I concluded several things:

First, we are doing a really terrible job in K–12 and in the universities in terms of teaching what science is, that science is not just another idea system or ideology. People have come to believe that their ideas and opinions are as good as the kind of ideas that are tested repeatedly by communities of scientists who are always working to disprove a theory—not prove it, disprove it. So we seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is.

Then once you get past that point, why would you continue to deny the science? Because of what the science implies.  We are sure that CO2 levels have been building up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. But the message implied by that is: This means you have to change the way you live. And for many people, that’s a moral challenge. The fact that CO2 levels are increasing and that humans are the primary cause is seen by many people as a challenge to the way they live. And certainly some scientists have framed it that way: “You have got to stop.”

We are using, per capita, more energy around the world every year. And there’s a limit—there really are limits—to the natural resources we have. Oil will continue to increase in cost, and it will for a simple reason: There are just going to be more people on the planet. There are about 7 billion of us now, and we are going to add 2 billion more by the year 2050, all of whom want a decent standard of living.  The poor of the world want to live like we do.

Debates about climate change often involve people thinking carefully about their quality of life and thinking about what one generation owes to the next. So it is not surprising that these discussions become kind of passionate.  Most people simply don’t know how to do things differently.

Did writing this book result in a change in the way you thought about climate change?

The more you learn about climate change, the greater the problem seems. The problem just expands. I think there are potential solutions, and I am more hopeful about solutions. But I’m not hopeful about national governments implementing these solutions. I am more hopeful about individuals and communities and states like California, Oregon, and Washington helping others to see that you can maintain a decent quality of life and lower your carbon footprint.

The book is dedicated to my three grandchildren, and in a way it’s written for them in that this is all about what’s going to happen to future generations.

How do you hope to affect readers?

First, I hope to help them understand what the science says and what are the basic laws of the universe.

Second, I want readers to figure out how to frame discussions of our future in a way that is productive and helpful by understanding why it is hard for people to act.

Third, I want to show people the complexity of the problem and to note that we are not going to mitigate our way out of this problem—we are going to have to adapt.  I don’t want readers to come to the conclusion that technology is going to save us. We really do need to do a better job of preserving biodiversity, protecting our oceans, conserving scarce natural resources, and thinking about the welfare of future generations.

What’s next? Another book?

Yes, it is different, but it grows out of this. It’s about the concept of resilience. The book will be called Resilience in Environmental, Social, Political, and Economic Systems. We have lots of stories about the indomitable spirit of human beings. We are a creative and resilient species that has constantly adapted.  We will continue to adapt, but we need a better understanding of what is possible. 

We need to understand  what allows an economic system to be resilient as well as the conditions that will allow for resilience in the biosphere.   I am trying to figure out what we can reasonably expect in terms of our ability to adapt, and that leads into asking, What would a post-carbon economy actually look like? Do we really know what that would look like and how it would change our lives or our relationships with one another? Do we have any alternatives, and if so, what are they?

[Laughs.] A big project, I know!

Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications