From grassroots to global: sustainable climate adaptation through social cohesion

5 December 2023
In the face of worsening climate disasters Sociology and Political Economy student Lizzie Moshirian explains why social capital and cohesion are vital to building climate change resilience.

By Lizzie Moshirian, Sociology and Political Economy student

In the wake of ineffective governance and collaboration, communities globally have taken the initiative of implementing adaptive strategies aimed at offsetting the impacts of, and building resilience to intensifying climate disasters. However, these efforts alone are often inadequate at sustainably responding to the impending threats of climate change, on both a local and global level. Social capital and cohesion, among both grassroots efforts from the bottom-up and government action and collaboration in a top-down approach, offer a potentially viable strategy for endeavouring towards sustainable climate adaptation; both complementing and encouraging collaborative grassroots and global action.

Extending the impact of community-driven initiatives with social capital and social cohesion

So often, calamitous events prompt the unification of groupings of people, however, this is often after experiencing extensive destruction and immense loss of life. Reactionary methods are, thus, sufficiently inadequate as the sole means for responding to climate change. Hence, preventative, grassroots-based efforts have been implemented in regions globally to aid in offsetting the intensifying impacts of climate disasters.This has been seen in Kwale County, Kenya, with the Vanga Blue Forest Project, a mangrove conservation and restoration initiative. This initiative aims to restore Vanga Bay’s coastal ecosystem and mitigate and adapt to climate change by utilising the beneficial qualities mangrove forests offer, such as absorbing carbon dioxide, reducing flood levels and acting as buffer zones to intense waves and storms. Though there is evidence of the benefits of community-driven adaptation, these actions alone lack the potency that fostering social capital and cohesion, in conjunction with climate adaptation initiatives, has the potential to offer.

Fostering social capital and cohesion — the strengthening of relationships and solidarity among community members — can act as a catalyst for developing resilient communities. Grassroots action accompanying and taking place in alliance with the values of social cohesion, such as “trust, an inclusive identity, and cooperation for the common good,”2 not only strengthens preventative methods for climate disasters, but rather prompts a unificatory strategy that enhances the well-being of a community and, in turn, mobilises resilience and more effective climate disaster responses.3

Puerto Rico: social capital and cohesion as a mechanism for climate adaptation

In a qualitative study after Hurricane María in Puerto Rico in 2017, one of the most destructive hurricanes in the region's history, community leaders in two rural barrios (small legal and geographic divisions) — Corcovada, Añasco and Mariana, Humacao — were interviewed in an inquiry into the benefits of successfully fostering social capital for disaster resiliency and responses. Conclusions were made that the mutual trust and active collaboration of citizens were conducive factors to higher levels of community resilience, seen in citizens attending to the needs of others and overall recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane María.4 For example, in Corcovada, three houses built from wood collapsed and so, initiated by community leaders, twenty-two local carpenters came together to rebuild two houses in one day, thereby showcasing the efficacy of social capital for cultivating resilience to climate impacts.5

The importance of well-structured organisations, especially ones that were “self‐organized and created community‐based,” were shown to support and enhance the effects of social capital. They did this by assisting with financial contributions, as well as linking social capital with external entities, such as government agencies and NGOs, in collaborative efforts to “accelerate recovery processes.”6 The sharing of resources, such as finances, materials and knowledge, after catastrophic events is a key element of successful social capital and cohesion, and indicative of both its inclusive nature and expansive capabilities as a constitutive means for climate adaptation.7 Complementing this, the collaborative momentum maintained by a small group of community leaders regularly meeting, as a part of a board of directors, was integral to the success of social capital practices. Community members noted the collective benefits of such, in that collaborative community momentum had been sustained, even after Hurricane María. It is also necessary to emphasise women’s contributions to fostering solidarity and resilience, as, in this example, and others,8 it was women specifically who, in all capacities — physically, mentally and emotionally — played a fundamental role in the recovery process.

The need for global collaboration

Community efforts alone are limited in their capacity to ensure lasting, sustainable adaptation to climate change’s destructive and displacing future. Whilst action, in any quantifiable form, is conducive to a degree of change, due to global structures favouring the Global North at the consequence of the Global South, global moral and ethical values also need to shift towards encompassing a global perspective. Further, these must blatantly reject the current divisive model, whose approach remains incapacitated at effective climate mitigation in its acquisitive resolve, and unscrupulously complicit with maintaining existing processes whilst simultaneously promoting climate mitigation and adaptation — two incompatible notions that have continuously born witness to perilous attempts to conjoin such, in what can only constitute a cataclysmic future.

Drawing from qualities of social cohesion, such as mutual trust, solidarity and inter-connectedness, local, regional, national and global agents must do more to interrogate existing structures and promote climate adaptation endeavours that are grounded in practical, accessible and implementable steps. The great challenge of this, however, is that we are yet to see mass collaboration come to fruition, though it is perhaps the most essential global component for mitigating climate change.

As Kauffman discusses in Grassroots Global Governance, a nexus between local and global governance exists in that they are “co-constituted at the grassroots level.”9 Proposing the notion of ‘grassroots global governance’ as a means for confronting global issues — including climate change — he draws from the successes of local watershed management in Tungurahua, Ecuador to emphasise that there are no effective global structures in place to disseminate these grassroots learnings, which are also limited by a lack of financial resources, knowledge and technological access. This calls for greater commitment from global agents, rendering both a top-down and bottom-up approach as constitutive of the greatest chance for effective (and sustainable) global change. Though there remains a long journey ahead, social capital and cohesion offer an enticingly viable strategy for sustainable climate adaptation.  

1. Schreuder, Willemijn, and Lummina G. Horlings. "Transforming places together: Transformative community strategies responding to climate change and sustainability challenges." Climate Action 1, no. 1 (2022): 1-15.

2. Burchi, Francesco, Markus Loewe, Daniele Malerba, and Julia Leininger. "Disentangling the Relationship Between Social Protection and Social Cohesion: Introduction to the Special Issue." The European Journal of Development Research 34, no. 3 (2022): 1195-1215.

3. Douglas, Gordon, Liz Koslov, and Eric Klinenberg. "Conveniently Located Disaster: Socio‐Spatial Inequality in Hurricane Sandy and Its Implications for the Urban Sociology of Climate Change." (2015).

4. Roque, Delilah, Anais, David Pijawka, and Amber Wutich. "The role of social capital in resiliency: Disaster recovery in Puerto Rico." Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy 11, no. 2 (2020): 204-235.

5. Roque et al., 2020:220

6. Roque et al., 2020:209

7. Aldrich, Daniel P., and Michelle A. Meyer. "Social capital and community resilience." American behavioral scientist 59, no. 2 (2015): 254-269.

8. Crawford, Gordon, and Chas Morrison. “Community‐led Reconstruction, Social Inclusion and Participation in Post‐earthquake Nepal.” Development Policy Review 39, no. 4 (2021): 548–68.

9. Kauffman, Craig M. Grassroots global governance: Local watershed management experiments and the evolution of sustainable development. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Lizzie Moshirian is an incoming Honours student in Sociology at the University of Sydney. Throughout her undergraduate degree, her work and research experiences have taken her to the Middle East, North America and Southeast Asia. Her research interests include collective action and solidarity, sociohistorical processes and legacies, feminist political economy, and global interconnectivity and development.

Header image: Fuad Stefan via Shutterstock, ID: 2103065303.

Related articles