In 1995, 700 people died in a massive three-day heat wave in Chicago. The majority of those who died were minorities, but an interesting event occurred — neighborhoods similar in income, demographic and location had very different mortality rates, with no immediate reason determining this outcome. This result was puzzling — what made one community more resilient than another?
Eric Klinenberg, an NYU sociology professor and author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, sought to answer this question and describe its relevance to a currently warming world to Northwestern students at a One Book One Northwestern address on March 30. His answer is based on the idea of social infrastructure, or the personal and local networks that exist within a community.
Though some neighborhoods in Chicago were nearly identical in factors like race, income and age, significant differences in the social infrastructure still existed. For example, in one neighborhood, elderly people were more likely to live near abandoned lots in isolation, whereas in others, the elderly might spend time outside or around other people. In the neighborhoods where elderly isolation was an issue, the inhabitants could not get the help they needed when the heat wave occurred, resulting in a higher death rate than in populations with more interconnection within the community.
This idea of social infrastructure is a key component of how the society should adapt to climate change, according to Klinenberg. By taking actions to form tighter community networks and establish a stronger social infrastructure, societies can engineer resiliency that mediates the impacts of climate change. Through designing parks that function as storm walls, or renovating underutilized areas of cities, Klinenberg said he hopes to help prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
According to Klinenberg, climate change is the most dangerous problem humanity currently faces. He said people are innately wired to neglect long-term problems, which is why actions taken to deal with climate change are often unseen. However, the long-term impacts of climate change reveal that we, as a society, must begin taking action. Yet, even if we stopped burning all fossil fuels today, the climate would continue to warm throughout the century. These impacts are going to happen regardless of what we do, but how badly they impact us depends on how we react.