Personal connections key to helping communities cope with devastating impact of climate change

Connections with friends and family are key to helping communities adapt to the devastating impact of climate change on their homes and livelihoods, a new study shows.

People are more empowered to respond when they see others doing the same, according to the research by an international team including Lancaster University and the University of Exeter.

Researchers analysed how an island community in Papua New Guinea of around 700 people coped with the impact of encroaching sea-levels and dwindling fish stocks. Their study, published in the journal ‘Nature Climate Change’, examined the action households there took to deal with these impacts.

Lead author Dr Michele Barnes, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU), said: “We found their actions were related to their social networks, the ways they are connected to other people within the community.

“To cope with the impacts of climate change, existing practices or behaviours can be tweaked-this is adaptation. However, in some cases this won’t be enough, and people need to enact more fundamental changes – transformation.”

The authors also found the connections the household had with the marine environment played an important role in determining the responses to climate impacts.

Co-author Professor Nick Graham, of Lancaster University, said: “Climate change and other human impacts rapidly degrade coral reef ecosystems and alters the composition of reef fish.

“The adaptation of coastal communities is becoming essential. Our research highlights that interacting with and learning from the marine environment is one mechanism through which this adaptation can be achieved.”

Communities were encouraged to adapt and transform through their social networks. Households which were more socially connected to others taking action were more likely to do the same.

Co-author Dr Lorien Jasny, of the University of Exeter, said: “It may be a situation of ‘like-attracts-like’ where households with particular mindsets are more socially connected to similar households. Another explanation is that households were influencing each other’s actions. It’s likely a combination of the two.”

Dr Barnes added: “The policies and programs seeking to reduce vulnerability to climate change often focus on building up material assets or creating infrastructure. Our research emphasises a broader set of factors can play an important part in the actions communities end up taking.”

A film about the research has been produced by the lead author.

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