On October 25, 2016, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) hosted the first installment in its 2016-17 symposium series. Current CASBS fellow Eric Klinenberg delivered a talk on “Climate Change and the Future of Cities.”

The talk also was the inaugural Robert A. Scott Lecture, honoring former CASBS associate director Bob Scott – in attendance with his wife Julia – and supported by a fund dedicated to the symposium series.*

The symposium was co-sponsored with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, where Klinenberg also serves as a 2016-17 Visiting Scholar. The event represented the public announcement of a CASBS-Woods collaboration that will involve an ongoing research program and scholars network focused on how cities politically, socially, and physically cope with climate change events. Both CASBS director Margaret Levi and Woods director Christopher Field – a noted climate change and global ecology expert – were on-hand to acknowledge the partnership and hear Klinenberg speak.

A professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, Klinenberg delivered his presentation at an auspicious moment, just weeks after President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum and his Administration released a National Intelligence Council report on climate change and national security. Obama, incidentally, guest-edited the November 2016 issue of Wired magazine. The issue includes a Klinenberg article on climate change, released online in advance to coincide with the symposium.

What can cities do about climate change – what Klinenberg and others identify as one of the core, foundational issues of our time? How can cities create more sustainable forms of collective life, protect vulnerable people and places from extreme weather events, and do so without worsening widespread inequalities?

In addressing these urgent questions, Klinenberg drew on lessons learned and themes developed in early research that contributed to his 2002 book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, and continues in his recent work as research director of the federal government’s Rebuild By Design competition launched after Hurricane Sandy. Experience shows that disaster mitigation, while important, is far from sufficient. Climate change means that more extreme weather is coming, and we cannot block it all out. Hardline infrastructure – even newly-built hard infrastructure – is prone to failure. Mistakes will happen. Climate change mitigation, Klinenberg says, is our top priority; but we also need to adapt and transform the places we live, with a greater focus on “social infrastructure” – recognizing the social vulnerabilities that exist within and vary across urban neighborhoods.

“The risk factors we face with climate change are not just climate risks; they intersect with social risks,” said Klinenberg. “What makes the difference between life and death is the quality of the social infrastructure.”

After Hurricane Sandy, for example, affected areas that possessed the strongest social capital – where people were more tightly connected to their neighbors – fared better and recovered more quickly compared with neighborhoods that didn’t enjoy that social infrastructure. As a result, argued Klinenberg, we must create cities that are sustainable “not just ecologically, but sustainable for those who live in them” as well.

Moreover, as Sandy demonstrated and as Klinenberg showed photographically during his slide presentation, though the poor invariably suffer more not even affluent neighborhoods are immune from extreme climate events.

“Don’t think for a second that if you have a lot of money you can buy your way out of the problem. We’re all vulnerable,” he said.

Thus framed in a social context, how can city transformation and adaptation to climate change proceed without exacerbating the pervasive inequalities we see in our urban landscapes?

On an economic level, as Klinenberg pointed-out during the post-presentation Q&A session, investing in social infrastructure “is considerably less expensive than investing in hardline infrastructure systems. It really can do a lot of good.” Unfortunately, though, as a matter of political will “we haven’t invested in the cheap stuff, and the cheap stuff really matters too.”

More broadly, throughout his presentation Klinenberg compellingly created a clear space for the social sciences to occupy and a clear role for social scientists to play in the search for solutions. The social sciences must overcome historic disincentives to take on climate change, and instead help elevate its urgency – among a long list of societal problems – in the development of a “common consciousness” about it.

In fact, given that climate change is one of the signature problems of our time, Klinenberg cannot see how great universities working in both the climate and social sciences “can function without squaring-up and addressing it.”

Klinenberg’s message regarding climate change was unequivocal: “We’re about to have some real reckonings,” he said, “and social scientists better have something to say about it.”

*Read about the Robert A. Scott Lectureship Fund here.