Monday, December 31, 2012

Climate Change Adaptation in Cities: A Sociologist's Perspective

A PR firm that works for The New Yorker Magazine sent me a sneak preview of this magazine's January 2013 article about how NYC will adapt to climate change.   The piece is written by a fine NYU Sociologist named Eric Klinenberg.  His very good book about deaths in Chicago from the 1990s heat wave has elevated him to disaster guru and I presume that this is why he was selected to write this.  You can see that the great majority of his career research citations  (which add up to 1,200 in total) are from that book.

His piece is filled with "human interest" subject profiles.  Columbia's guru Klaus Jacob receives a long profile.   Klinenberg then goes on at great length about the crucial role that social networks will play in helping us to adapt to climate change.    I certainly agree that access to trusted information is a decentralized strategy for coping with new news.  The most interesting part of his article relates to his claim that the cell phone network is fragile and can be knocked out in crisis.  Given the key role that trusted information plays in allowing us to adapt to challenges, this is an important point.   The Federal Government and FEMA should think about how to have an emergency broadcasting system so that households can be certain to be able to access key information during a crisis.  In Gotham City, the Mayor knew how to contact Batman using that beam of light.  Our engineers must be able to think of something similar?

To Klinenberg's credit, there is a fair bit of individual choice and behavioral change at the heart of his optimism about adaptation.    As a sociologist, he focuses on social capital as the key adaptation strategy. He writes about the Chicago neighborhood that suffered less deaths in the 1995 Heat Wave than its adjacent neighborhood;

"The key difference between neighborhoods
like Auburn Gresham and others
that are demographically similar turned
out to be the sidewalks, stores, restaurants,
and community organizations that bring
people into contact with friends and

So, if we don't "Bowl Alone" , we can adapt to Climate Change?   I would amend this statement to say that there are many strategies to adapt to climate change including migration, innovation, access to government information and social networks.  This portfolio of strategies together helps us to cope with the "new normal".    The key here is updating the probabilities in our heads about the new risks we face.  Armed with these updated probabilities, risk averse people will seek out new coping strategies that may include talking to neighbors, putting your house on stilts, moving to higher ground that help you cope with a crisis.

Again and again in his piece, he places government as the key actor in charge of protecting us.  I would guess this is because he has a Rawlsian focus and is mainly focused on how the urban poor will adapt to climate change. He knows that Don Trump will fly his helicopter to the higher ground.

Governments tend to care about physical places while people are focused on themselves.  Klinenberg does not bother to discuss (perhaps because NYU is in the flood zone?) whether private sector incentives and zoning should be used to reduce the population density in areas at increasing risk due to climate change.

So, consider the Manhattan Subway.   Built in the 20th century, I'm sure that the engineers would built it differently now if they could have a "do-over".  Would Klinenberg support a multi-billion dollar investment in climate proofing this infrastructure?  As a sociologist, how would he evaluate whether this would be a good investment of local tax payer $?

While Hurricane Sandy was quite a shock, Manhattan appears to be back on its feet just 2 months after the event.  What does that say about resilience?  The next shock will cause less damage because people will have learned many lessons from Sandy.  To quote The Who, "We won't be fooled again".