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Addressing the Vulnerability of American Communities to Climate Change and other Shocks



Michigan State University

Addressing the Vulnerability of American Communities to Climate Change and other Shocks


One of the most common misconceptions about global warming, and climate change, is the notion that all communities may be affected similarly, and that since the average global warming scenarios are for only 2-3 degrees centigrade increases, that we can easily adjust to that. In fact, climate experts have repeatedly tried to correct this notion pointing out that different places will be affected very differently: some will be much much hotter, others much much colder and everything in between; that extreme events will become much more common and vary from place to place; and that uncertainties in weather predictions will be common. Already there is evidence of highly diverse outcomes in different locations coming from hurricanes (e.g. Sandy, Katrina), tornadoes, and drought events. While climate scientists are dealing with the difficult task of predicting these events there remains an enormous task of understanding what makes some communities more or less vulnerable to these exogenous shocks. This is why having in place a national network of social observatories could provide a huge national service, and also serve to advance a social science in the service of society.

The network of social observatories described in the SOCN web site has the advantage over any other existing cyberinfrastructure for social science research in that it aims to provide a continuous national sample of the American population while at the same time giving us a refined fine-grained picture of what is happening in neighborhoods, communities, and cities across the nation. It will be able to do so by taping into the considerable and rich administrative data available in each county and state, linked to other data sources such as detailed ethnographic reports, the results from focused experiments, and survey data. By following over 2 million Americans over time in their communities it can begin to understand how different communities are affected by the place-based experience not only of climate change events, but also of other shocks such as economic downturns, businesses abandoning an area, and military bases being closed. At present all these things happen across the country but we have no current mechanism to understand what makes some communities more resilient than others, and others more vulnerable.

By having several hundred census tracts representing the nation both in terms of population and geography, a national network of observatories allows social scientists to collaborate with climate scientists, among others, to understand how differently scaled climate events are dealt with across the nation and thereby allow advances in the capacity of the social sciences to generalize about the capacity of human institutions, and families, to address the challenge of the coming decades of ever increasing extreme events. Even within the path of say, Sandy, there are differences in how neighborhoods responded, and recover from, that devastating hurricane. Why? What made one community or neighborhood respond in a way that minimized loss of human life or suffering of vulnerable populations such as the aged? What made one community capable of pulling itself up more rapidly than another? We know that income or social class alone does not explain these differences. What other features of communities results in a reduced impact and faster restoration of normality? Which ones further reflect on how to best be ready for the next event?

Another important benefit of a network of observatories would be to provide a closer link between city, county and state officials and the research community so that evidence-based responses become more common across the nation. By creating a partnership between data-providing administrators and research capable social scientists, a link is created in how to use all that rich data siting in government offices for the benefit of serving those very same communities—and to do so with a refinement and accuracy currently absent from government responses to crises. If we know in advance which communities or neighborhoods are most vulnerable it will be possible to allocate first-responders efforts in a crisis so as to achieve greater effectiveness and less loss of human life.

At present there is very little connection between the existing administrative data from local, county and state government and the national scientists at NOAA in addressing how the climate models affect local places. All we have are the translations of climate forecasts to local weather reports to tell us likelihood of snow, rain, and temperatures throughout the day. In the case of severe snowstorms, we have some idea of how much snowfall will occur. We remain unaware of how different parts of communities are differentially affected by different severities of snowstorms and thus rarely are resources allocated to reduce those impacts. Which neighborhoods are more likely to lose power when heavy snow or ice events come? Which ones have families that really must get to work to keep food on the table vis-Ă -vis families whose work allows them to telecommute and could be served later? Which neighborhoods are already highly vulnerable to slipping further out of the middle class because of exogenous shocks and which are firmly in the middle class and less vulnerable? These are issues that matter to families, and to our capacity as a nation to best serve all Americans.