What Happens When Climate Adaptation Meets Social Isolation?

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.

Against conventional wisdom, the reason that older people are so susceptible to natural disasters isn’t just because they’re frail or reliant on electronic medical devices. Just as dangerous, older people very often live alone and lack access to basic resources that the rest of us rely on to cope: water, shade, shelter, food, heating, air conditioning, and care.

Writing this takes me back to a scorching morning in western Tokyo. I was visiting Atago Danchi, a public housing complex in the city of Tama, which has the highest concentration of elderly people in Japan. Besides being elderly, the residents of Atago Danchi are also low-income — two factors that compound the worst effects of social isolation. A local community organizer showed me around, pointing out one apartment that was under renovation after the previous occupant suffered kodokushi.

Tama city government’s Elderly Assistance Unit partners with local businesses, utility companies, and the postal service, contracting workers to check in on elderly residents and report anything unusual. On good days, the service is a courtesy, but in extreme heat, it’s a lifesaver. Shortly before I’d arrived, one resident had suffered heatstroke and collapsed in their apartment, but someone making their rounds called an ambulance just in time to save them. It was a small victory, but enough to make me wish for a similar service in Montreal, where most of the recent heatwave’s victims were aged 65 or over.

Visiting Tama, I saw firsthand how climate disasters affect entire communities living at the margins. But it’s the same all over the world: Poorer neighborhoods very often have too few trees and too much heat-absorbing concrete. This much we know from Dr. Angel Hsu, who uses remote sensing and satellite imagery to locate which urban residents are most vulnerable to both environmental problems and social isolation.

For example, when the heat wave struck Pakistan, Faisal Edhi, who oversees a rescue service in Karachi, told a Reuters reporter that “most of the dead brought to the morgue were working class factory workers who came from the low-income Landhi and Korangi areas.” Similarly in Washington, DC, “People who live in poorer, historically African American communities in Northeast and Southeast Washington, where many residents rent and have less ability to landscape or plant trees, are more at risk of heat-related illnesses than the people in more well-off communities.”

The implications of these ‘urban heat islands’ go beyond heat stroke. A study recently published in Nature found, matter of factly, that “higher temperatures increase suicide rates.” After analyzing decades’ worth of data in the United States and Mexico, researchers concluded that the relationship between extreme climate and mental health isn’t coincidental; it’s causal. They predict that if temperatures continue to increase at the present trajectory, then by 2050, as many as 26,000 people in the U.S. could die by climate-caused suicide.

If that sounds like fuzzy math, consider that after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico last year, the suicide rate there increased by nearly 30 percent. In August, a full year after Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican government released an update to the storm’s official death toll. Initially it was estimated to be 64. Now it’s 2,975. Tellingly, the same report found that “the risk of death was 45% higher” for those who lived in a poor community when the storm hit. Whether they’re natural or manmade, disasters show us who doesn’t count.

Just last month, Hurricane Florence swept through South Carolina, killing at least 37 people. Among them were two female mental-health patients who, inexplicably, were being transferred to a different hospital in the middle of the storm. According to a statement from local police, their escorts abandoned them when the flooding began. Both patients drowned. They were found chained inside the back of the van.

Whether we believe it or not, we tend to talk about climate change as a kind of equalizer. But global warming, rising seas, and severe weather do not make us equal. Support, care, and love make us equal. We should take care of each other, and of Mother Nature, not because we’re all in the same boat, but precisely because some of us are already at the bottom of the well.