Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, focused on a path forward from the “burning house” at the College of Liberal Arts’ Difficult Dialogues panel regarding climate change and inequality this past Tuesday.
“Part of rebuilding for climate change is figuring out not just how we have better sea walls, but also how we have a better bridge that connects us,” Klinenberg said.
As a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge, Klinenberg used two of his books regarding climate issues to structure the conversation. Using data from the 1995 Chicago heat wave, Klinenberg said isolated societies intensify the consequences of climate-related disasters. Keeping the environment of the packed room positive, he said he found investing in successful social infrastructures similar to libraries is one of the first steps in mitigating and protecting humans from climate change.
Before the discussion, audience members including environmental science senior Carlos Pinon wanted “more insight on how climate change worsens the inequalities that are already present in our world.”
While gathering research for his books and working for the Obama administration, Klinenberg said he found a community with a low poverty level and updated social infrastructures such as libraries are safer from disaster. Communities with the same poverty level and no community centers, however, are more susceptible to higher death rates. Klinenberg said investing in institutions that welcome all is a first step in reconnecting a polarized society.
“The library is one of the only places we have that opens its doors all of the time to everyone regardless of age, race, ethnicity, social class or citizenship,” Klinenberg said, commending the Austin Public Library.
Klinenberg continued to argue for the support of inclusive and interactive institutions for the remainder of the discussion. He presented the audience with a project proposal from his team of a bridging berm off of the East River in New York that would drain excess water while simultaneously providing a green space for the community.
Klinenberg said physical infrastructure and social infrastructure must be combined in order to combat and prevent the impacts of anthropogenic climate change.
“I don’t think that building social infrastructure is sufficient but I don’t see a better first thing to do,” Klinenberg said.
Civil engineering senior Ludivine Varga said she found Klinenberg affirmed a lot of ideas she already formed, but left her wondering what initiatives she could take after the discussion was over.
“I know that social infrastructure is great, but we have to upkeep it,” Varga said. “With Facebook, Twitter and all of these social sites that lock us up, people are getting comfortable with being by themselves and they are not so open to having these changes.”
Klinenberg concluded the night with a call to action, encouraging the audience to do their part in transforming public spaces to foster equality.
“I think if we create places that are inviting and make us feel good, we prefer to be with actually living human beings — you know flesh and blood — more than we like to tweet, Instagram, and snap at them,” Klinenberg said.