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What Happens When Climate Adaptation Meets Social Isolation?

chicago heatwave 1995
Chicago Tribune photo by Walter Kale
October 9, 2018

Ahead of the UN’s annual climate meeting in December, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is reportedly “struggling to find the right words for very bad news.” Indeed, one of the more alarming word choices I’ve noticed is a hand-me-down from Darwin:

  • “A summer of fire, heat, and flood puts a focus on adapting to climate change.” The Globe and Mail (September 7, 2018)
  • “With climate change no longer in the future, adaptation speeds up.” The New York Times (September 21, 2018)
  • New climate debate: How to adapt to the end of the world.” Bloomberg (September 26, 2018)

Here, then, is a decades-long conversation turned on its head. No longer is the question how to prevent or prepare for climate change, but how to survive. By way of an answer, it is instructive that those of us who don’t survive climate disasters are consistently the most socially isolated members of society.

Take this summer, for example. In July, I traveled to Japan to research different forms of social isolation, from hikikomori (shut-ins) to kodokushi (lonely deaths), as well as the ways Japanese people, organizations, and institutions build belonging. During my time there, a record-breaking heat wave set over the country, killing nearly 100 people and injuring some 57,000 more. Around the same time, unusually intense heat waves killed 70 people in eastern Canada, and 65 people in Pakistan.

In every case, across the world, socially isolated persons suffered disproportionately. More than 80 percent of the people who died in Tokyo were elderly. This disparity isn’t new: In the four years between 2013–2017, about half of the patients in Japan who were hospitalized during heatwaves were 65 or older. Neither is it specific to heatwaves: The torrential rain, flooding, and landslides that also struck Japan in July took their greatest toll on people over 60, who accounted for 70 percent of the roughly 200 deaths.

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