The long arm of climate change: societal teleconnections and the future of climate change impacts studies
“Societal teleconnections” – analogous to physical teleconnections such as El Niño – are human-created linkages that link activities, trends, and disruptions across large distances, such that locations spatially separated from the locus of an event can experience a variety of impacts from it nevertheless. In the climate change context, such societal teleconnections add a layer of risk that is currently neither fully appreciated in most impacts or vulnerability assessments nor in on-the-ground adaptation planning. Conceptually, societal teleconnections arise from the interactions among actors, and the institutions that guide their actions, affecting the movement of various substances through different structures and processes. Empirically, they arise out of societal interactions, including globalization, to create, amplify, and sometimes attenuate climate change vulnerabilities and impacts in regions far from those where a climatic extreme or change occurs. This paper introduces a simple but systematic way to conceptualize societal teleconnections and then highlights and explores eight unique but interrelated types of societal teleconnections with selected examples: (1) trade and economic exchange, (2) insurance and reinsurance, (3) energy systems, (4) food systems; (5) human health, (6) population migration, (7) communication, and (8) strategic alliances and military interactions. The paper encourages further research to better understand the causal chains behind socially teleconnected impacts, and to identify ways to routinely integrate their consideration in impacts/vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning to limit the risk of costly impacts.