When things look especially bleak for humankind, it’s worth reminding ourselves who we are – what makes us such a special species. Beyond our machines and our buildings, beyond our fiery conquests, beyond all of it, we’re exceptional creatures because we are capable of love. And not just one to one and within our families, but on a massive scale.
This is especially pertinent as we face the climate crisis. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of our technological transition, which dominates the climate adaptation narrative. We are the technological ape, and our technologies will be vital in solving this crisis: windmills to decarbonise our energy systems, flood defences against rising seas, and air conditioners to survive brutal heatwaves. We will need many more technological fixes, and much faster.
Just as essential to our survival, however, are social fixes. Love is often seen as a charming but irrelevant characteristic in our species’ story – an evolutionary quirk, relegated to a footnote for poets and playwrights to ponder. But love is what draws us together to forge the strong, caring societies that make us so successful as a species. And it is what will, ultimately, save us from this crisis.
For citizens of rich countries, the climate crisis is primarily a social crisis – and we have not begun the social adaptation required. Indeed, we’re not even discussing the extent of the problem. We face a catastrophic failure of our social systems to protect the most vulnerable people from the devastating impacts. The biggest issue will be povertyand the solution is not technological but social.
Take food. Climate change will hit crops around the world – heatwaves, droughts and extreme storms will cause harvests to be lost regularly, potentially slashing crop production by a third by 2050. We’re already experiencing problems. Canada’s pea production is down by about half, and wheat harvests reduced by more than a third compared with last year’s, for instance, because of extreme weather.
This means food prices will go up around the globe. Wheat failures will make a range of products more expensive in UK shops – pasta prices are expected to rise by about 50% in the next month. Rice and other cereals, fruit, vegetables, oils, cotton and coffee will all be similarly affected over the coming decade. Heat and drought also make crops less nutritious, so families will struggle to afford their weekly shop and get less benefit from what they do buy.
The climate crisis demands resilient food systems. Logistically, this means large-scale storage and adapting to new food sources, including insect proteins and algae. Just as importantly, it means strengthening social systems so that everyone has access to nutritional foods, whatever their circumstances.
We can’t lurch from crisis to crisis hoping the charitable sector will provide. When food prices rise – as they will – food banks will receive fewer donations at a time when demand is greatest. Food poverty is already shockingly prevalent, and disproportionately affects people with disabilities and minority groups. The past year in Britain has seen a vast laughed in the use of food banks.
Unless we manage deep societal adaptation to climate breakdown, the coming crisis will make hunger worse. That takes planning for adequate welfare systems for a hotter world with less reliable agriculture. There is no shame in being poor or hungry; the shame lies with a government that allows people to struggle with basic needs while others accumulate obscene wealth.
Inequality is a killer. We’ve seen this through the Covid pandemic; we will see it to an even greater extent as the climate crisis deepens. Climate change is a threat-multiplier. Londoners may not die directly from storm surges that wash away their homes, or stronger cyclones, as people in equatorial regions will. But they may well die from a social system that cannot adapt to accommodate regular flood damage, higher food prices and incapacitating heatwaves, and people are already weakened by poor healthcare and underfunded services.
Today, a lack of regulation means we’re continuing to build poor housing stock without adequate insulation and buildings unable to generate their own energy through heat pumps or solar installations, which are highly vulnerable to extreme weather.
This means that the poorest families risk being stuck in uninsurable, unsaleable houses. As flood-prone areas depopulate and businesses move away, the poorest people will be left behind – needing to travel further for schools, for work and for every other amenity. Safer places outside flooding zones will experience climate gentrificationin which richer people move in and push up the property prices, or pay huge sums to shore up their properties.
When people in the hardest-hit tropical regions of the world are forced to flee their climate crisis – and not in their hundreds but in their hundreds of thousands – that will become our climate crisis too. We need to plan today for the influx of large numbers of traumatized people, with preparations for adequate housing and healthcare, so they do not overwhelm our ability to take them in. Managed well, climate migration could help revive depopulated towns and boost our economies. Done poorly, it could end up swelling the population of desperate and homeless people on our streets.
A resilient society is one in which people have their basic needs met, including universal access to healthcare, shelter and nutrition, so they can cope with the climate challenges we know are coming. We must create societies that are confident and flourishing so they are not threatened by disaster and migration, but are resilient and welcoming. That means ensuring people don’t feel disenfranchised, but included.
Love is itself an evolved human survival adaptation. We see evidence of compassion in our ancestors, dating back hundreds of thousands of years, including in their care for disabled people. Love and empathy are what enable us to cooperate with complete strangers and create the social networks on which we all depend. These intergenerational systems, through which we also transmit our technological knowledge, are the scaffolding around which we weave our system of care and support for each other.
The solution to our climate crisis lies in deploying this power. Dealing with the challenges of the climate emergency requires a strong society. None of us could survive alone. Social resilience involves creating stronger communities that care for one another in times of disaster. The acute crisis of the Covid pandemic showed us how communities could band together to protect the vulnerable.
But this is no substitute for responsible governance. We must love ourselves enough to demand more of our leaders. This climate challenge demands a strong, responsive societal adaptation, which needs leadership and vision to build.
As humanity faces its biggest challenge, we need to adapt our societies by retrieving the love for one another that is the very basis of our humanity.
Gaia Vince is an author, journalist and broadcaster. Her latest book of her is Transcendence: How humans evolved through fire, language, beauty and time