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Facing Climate Change Together: Social Connectedness in the Face of Catastrophe

August 4, 2016

Human-induced climate change will cause a temperature rise of between 2-10 degrees over the next century. This temperature rise will contribute to significant changes in agricultural growth; increased precipitation; increased periods of drought and fire; higher incidences of heat waves; higher incidences of flooding; increased hurricane intensity; rising sea-levels; and ice-free Arctic regions.

The impacts of climate change will affect everyone on Earth in one way or another. Yet, experts are in agreement that people who live in poverty – often those who have contributed the least to climate change – will suffer the most. For many reasons, the poor are considered vulnerable in the face of climate change. But one other group of people are also understood to be highly susceptible to climate-related disasters: the socially isolated.

Researchers have noticed a worrying trend over the past 20 years: a decline in human social connectedness. As a result of a lack of social networks and community engagement opportunities, there are many people around the world who are considered isolated and socially vulnerable. These include people in poor health, people with disabilities, people living alone, people with transient lifestyles, and many more.

Being isolated from others can have detrimental consequences relating to climate change challenges. In the 2003 Paris heat wave, 919 people died in their home – seven times higher than the previous year’s heat wave, with 92% of the victims having lived alone with little social or community connection.  Living with at least one other can make a significant impact, as researchers have identified that people living together are “found to be more likely to take remedial measures, such as drinking more liquids during heat waves.”

Older people are perhaps the most at-risk subgroup among the socially vulnerable as they are highly susceptible to heat and cold-related health problems. The elderly are also more likely to have mobility issues, as a result of limited physical capacity, and are often taking prescribed, vital medications. So, too, do individuals with physical or mental disabilities. In addition to the elderly and the disabled, the World Health Organization also identifies substance abusers, ethnic minorities, homeless individuals, migrants and rural inhabitants as having high potential for social isolation.

A lack of information is also a serious problem for socially isolated individuals. The WHO maintain that many of the aforementioned socially vulnerable subgroups are especially at risk because of communication barriers, “which could result in delayed response or misinformation.” Illiterate individuals, migrants, or even those with visual or auditory disabilities, may not understand the emergency protocol materials and messaging. It is therefore important for these people to have strong social networks so that they can be informed by members in their community.

A lack of social support means that response and recovery to climate change events is much more difficult. Communities or neighbourhoods with strong social networks have been shown to respond better to emergencies. Socially connected networks demonstrate greater resilience in the face of disaster. Strong communities often take “collective action after an adverse event” because they have worked to develop the necessary resources to help their members deal with major disturbances.

Climate justice is a new, leading research topic aimed at addressing and finding solutions to social justice matters impacted by climate change. The ability of people to adapt to natural emergencies is shaped by many factors, including the relationship one has with their community or social network. Climate justice advocates everywhere understand that knowledge and social connectedness are vital tools for any community facing climate-related disasters.

Developing resilient communities and fostering social networks benefits both “disaster planners and community members alike.” The U.S Department of Health and Human Services advocates for social connectedness as “important emergency preparedness action.”

Stimulating socially connected communities can work to increase the wellbeing and safety of its members, either through developing and distributing disaster plans, creating “reunification” plans for families or simply offering a safe space to express worry.

The socially vulnerable are the most socially disconnected. Dan Farber, Berkley University Law Professor, wonders if the world needs an “Endangered People Act” so that the most susceptible humans are protected from the impacts of climate change. It is important to truly foster strong social networks so that the most vulnerable and disconnected members of society are not forced to face the harsh realities of climate change alone.