People in the floods

Climate change and social capital: Professor Daniel Aldrich visits SEI

2 May 2023
Leading political scientist Daniel Aldrich emphasised the importance of strong social relationships in building community resilience in the face of climate disasters.

By Justin See, SEI Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Climate Adaptation

Hurricane Katrina. The Great Tohoku Earthquake. Super Typhoon Haiyan. These extreme weather events serve as powerful reminders that disasters have become more frequent and intense in the climate-changed 21st century. The need to adapt and build community resilience has become clearer than ever. 

The SEI was privileged to have global social capital expert Professor Daniel Aldrich visit Sydney to share his wealth of knowledge and experience in the important role that social infrastructure plays in building climate resilience. His visit included two public facing events: a workshop with the University’s researchers and students, and an inaugural panel discussion for SEI’s new Climate Adaptation Series.

In the workshop, Professor Aldrich drew upon examples from his research across Japan, United States, and Australia to argue that social networks, both personal and professional, matter especially during climate crises. He stressed the importance of networking, especially with people who think differently and access different resources, in building connections and expanding social ties. “These diverse networks come into play especially during disasters,” said Professor Aldrich.

He explained that social capital networks can provide people with access to diverse resources such as financial aid, information, and psychological support in disaster situations. In addition, he stated that social networks can be deepened and broadened by building ‘social infrastructure’ such as parks, libraries, cafes, kominkan, community spaces, and places of worship. He cited the example of Japan’s 3/11 disasters and showed how both the social infrastructure and intangible social bonds in coastal Tohoku communities helped people survive and thrive.  

 In addition to the workshop, Professor Aldrich joined SEI Director Professor David Schlosberg and SEI researcher Dr. Jo Longman, Senior Research Fellow at the University Centre for Rural Health, Lismore NSW, in an illuminating panel discussion that explored the nexus between climate adaptation, justice, and social capital. The panellists reflected upon the different types of climate adaptation and how social capital is an often overlooked but essential part of building resilience. They also provided examples of how communities tapped into their own networks in adapting to climate change. More specifically, Dr. Longman and Prof. Schlosberg talked about their research in rural NSW communities and how community-led action increases feelings of belonging and social connectedness. A recently published article in the Journal of Climate Change and Health illustrates that impacted communities see these collective activities as key to helping mitigate the mental health risks of a changing climate.

While climate-induced disasters will continue to be an unfortunate reality in the years to come, Professor Aldrich’s visit helped remind us about the importance of social ties and places: they form an important conduit for information; provide financial, administrative, and psychological support; and more importantly, help save lives. Successful adaptation requires collaborative efforts, and social networks and infrastructure play an important role in preparing for disasters.

Listen to the conversation

Here is the podcast of the SEI’s Climate Adaptation Series first event featuring Professor Daniel Aldrich, Dr. Jo Longman and Professor David Schlosberg. 

Justin See is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Climate Change Adaptation at the Sydney Environment Institute. He helps in the development and management of research projects relevant to climate change adaptation for SEI’s Climate disaster and adaptation cluster. Justin has more than 10 years of research experience in the field of climate change adaptation, vulnerability, and climate justice. Utilising strengths-based, gender sensitive and place-based approaches, his research explores the complex social, political, and economic injustices brought about by various responses to climate change and highlights diverse pathways to climate adaptation. He has published his work in climate change journals such as Global Environmental Change, Climatic Change, Climate and Development, and Journal of Flood Risk Management. Justin completed his PhD in Community Planning and Development at the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University, and was awarded as the 2020 International Student of the Year by the Victorian International Education Awards.

Header Image: 2011 Brisbane floods by Markus Gebauer via Shutterstock, ID: 70421374.