I currently live in the U.S. I saw your response to the “Ask Sara” questions that includes climate forecast maps in Canada and the U.S. and found it very helpful. I have two questions to follow up to that:
– Are you aware of a similar map or resource for Europe? I haven’t been able to find one by googling, but maybe I’m just doing it wrong.
– Are you aware of any maps that show the robustness of social cohesion with respect to climate change adaptation?
Originally, I was planning on moving to Michigan, upstate New York, or Maine in a few years to get established in a place that will have a more livable climate in the coming decades, but I have grown increasingly concerned about the nature of our potential response to serious climate disruption in the U.S. (we can’t even get people to agree on wearing masks) so I have started thinking seriously about Europe or Canada.
– Michael in Durham, North Carolina
You’ve asked an easy question and a hard one.
I’ll get the easy part out of the way. Yes, forecast maps for Europe are available. Here’s an infographic showing the expected consequences of climate change across the continent. You’ll see that no European region will remain untouched by climate change, with expected consequences ranging from melting glaciers to heavier rains.
Such impacts are relatively — emphasis on “relatively” — simple to predict because they’re a result of physical processes. If you trap more heat in the planet’s atmosphere, ice will melt. A warmer atmosphere is a moister one, prone to dumping rain and causing catastrophic floods. And so on.
Compared to modeling the physics of a warming planet, it’s more difficult to predict the future of what you call “the robustness of social cohesion” and “our potential response to serious climate disruption.” But it’s a crucial consideration. Physics tells us that molecules of carbon dioxide trap heat in our atmosphere. But it can’t tell us how many will die in heat waves, because our behavior has an enormous influence on that. People can reduce the harm of heat waves by checking on elderly neighbors during hot weather, planting shade trees, enacting policies that enable low-income people to access air conditioning, and more.
To dig into those complexities, consider three different measures of how societies might respond to climate disruption.
First is the ND-GAIN Country Index, produced by Notre Dame researchers. It scores each country on its potential vulnerability to climate change, using data on projected changes to groundwater resources, expected consequences of sea-level rise, and other climate impacts. The index also examines each country’s “readiness” for climate change, with a lot of weight given to each nation’s attractiveness to business investment. In the index’s composite core, Norway ranks first in the world. The U.S. is No. 19.
If you believe that a country’s past performance in caring for its people is an indicator of how residents will fare in the future, it’s worth examining the Social Progress Index. The product of a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called the Social Progress Imperative, the index evaluates each nation’s ability to meet its people’s needs, both tangible (food, water, shelter) and intangible (access to knowledge, a healthy environment, individual rights, opportunity).
Here, Norway again ranks No. 1; the U.S. is No. 28. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote when the most recent Social Progress Index was released in September 2020, despite our country’s enormous wealth, “Americans have health statistics similar to those of people in Chile, Jordan and Albania, while kids in the United States get an education roughly on par with what children get in Uzbekistan and Mongolia.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a third way of evaluating how societies may respond as climate-related catastrophes become more frequent. As my colleague Jeff Masters writes, you can think of the pandemic as a pop quiz that tests a government’s willingness to heed expert warnings and to respond effectively to global crisis. The U.S. has flunked this quiz, with a per-capita death rate among the worst in the world.
By contrast, the “A” students are countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and others whose leaders have successfully — so far — held back the virus. (Norway, with a population of 5.3 million, has suffered fewer than 300 virus deaths.) You can explore country-by-country data at the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Michael, I hope you’ll find guidance in those different measures of how countries may respond to disaster. But don’t mistake this guidance for a guarantee: Unlike a mountain range, a nation’s social stability isn’t a static feature of the landscape.
In fact, it’s a little dangerous to assume that a society’s virtues or flaws are immutable, because that obscures our own agency in the matter. To echo writer and author Rebecca Traister, what makes a society resilient is people doing the work of making it resilient.
If, in the future, countries prepare in advance for shocks, support people during and after crises, help communities adapt to fires, floods, rising seas, and more — and do all of the above on an equitable basis — it will be because people fight for it. That means speaking up and pushing at every opportunity toward the society that you want to live in, rather than passively accepting a fate of disaster and division. And that will be true no matter where in the world you live.
P.S. More Americans than ever support wearing masks. Don’t give up on us!
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