Forecasting societies' adaptive capacities through a demographic metabolism model

Regarding how precisely education contributes to vulnerability reduction, we build the argument upon a well-established causal link between education and health39, 40, 41, 42. Education influences our cognitive function, attitudes, and behaviours and equips us with better social and economic opportunities. Schooling directly enhances cognitive development through increasing the synaptic density in relevant parts of the brain. Not only experimental and observational studies have provided confirmation of a robust effect of education on executive functioning and cognitive abilities43, 44, 45: neurocognitive and neuroimaging studies have also shown strong associations between adaptive changes in the brain and learning experience in classrooms46, 47. Abstract cognitive skills such as categorization and logical deduction acquired through schooling enhance the way educated individuals reason, solve problems, assess risks, and make decisions48, 49 — those skills and qualities that are highly relevant for adapting to climate change. Similarly, since education improves knowledge, understanding of complex information, efficiency in allocation of resources, and capacity to plan for the future50, 51, 52, this can help in making better choices on adaptation options, such as what insurance to take out or how to reinforce building structure.

Furthermore, education indirectly reduces vulnerability through mediating factors such as improved socioeconomic status and social capital. The increased income, for instance, allows people with higher levels of education to make not only the right but also costly strategic investments to reduce vulnerability. With greater social capital and larger social networks53, 54, the more educated also have better access to information and social support which facilitate coping responses and undertaking of adaptation measures. Through these direct and indirect mechanisms, there is sufficient ground to assume that education plays a role in reducing vulnerability and enhancing adaptive capacity.

A cautionary note is required on the interplay of the effects of education and income on vulnerability. There is a widespread view that income or GDP per capita is the most important aspect of socio-economic development and also that it is directly related to vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Many empirical studies indeed find an association between the two55, 56, 57. The alternative hypothesis, however, is that the cognitive enhancement associated with education is the common cause of higher income and economic growth27, 58, 59 and lower vulnerability. The association between income and vulnerability thus is spurious. Testing these contradictory hypotheses is beyond the scope of this Perspective. There is however evidence based on a study of disaster-related mortality in 167 countries over the period 1970–2010 confirming that female education is the most significant factor resulting in fewer deaths from climate-related disasters after controlling for the effect of income60. Most extant studies on human loss from climate hazards nevertheless commonly consider either only GDP55, 56, 57 or a composite indicator such as Human Development Index61. In fact, when the latter is decomposed into its three elements (income, education and health)62, the results show that countries with higher average levels of education did experience lower disaster mortality, while income did not play a significant role60.

In this context, it is also enlightening to look at the rich body of literature studying child mortality as an aspect of vulnerability. Multivariate (controlling for many relevant factors) and multi-level (stratified by household, community, and national level) studies have clearly come to the conclusion that for child survival, mothers’ education matters more than household wealth as measured by various indicators63, 64. Another series of studies has tried to explicitly test the importance of education with respect to disaster vulnerability after controlling for income and vice versa, asking what matters more, income or education? Generally, the result was that for vulnerability, mind matters more than money62, 65, 66, 67, 68.

With all this evidence at the micro level, it is not surprising that the vulnerability-reducing role of education also dominates at the macro level. Recent empirical studies have demonstrated consistent evidence showing that countries and communities with higher average levels of education experience lower vulnerability to natural disasters69. This applies to both developed and less developed countries as well as different dimensions of vulnerability including preparedness and responses to disasters, mortality, morbidity, coping strategies, recovery from disasters and other relevant outcomes. With respect to disaster preparedness (measures taken to prepare for and reduce the impacts of disaster such as having a family evacuation plan, emergency supply kit, and disaster insurance), direct experience of a disaster is undoubtedly one key driver of disaster risk reduction efforts. However, in the absence of disaster experience, it has been reported that the highly educated exhibit higher levels of disaster preparedness thanks to their better abstraction skills in anticipating the consequences of disasters — that is, thinking about the counterfactual that has not yet been experienced66, 70. Indeed, better disaster preparedness among more educated communities can provide protective effects when a disaster strikes. Not only were educated individuals more likely to survive and had a lower risk of injuries for example, from the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami71, 72, communities and countries with higher average levels of education also experienced much lower losses in human lives from climate-related disasters60, 62, 65, 73. The protective role of education further extends to morbidity associated with natural hazards, especially mental health, with more highly educated individuals showing a lower prevalence of distress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder following a disaster71, 74, 75, 76.

Likewise, since education facilitates decision-making related to disaster risk reduction measures such as construction practices and location decisions, damages to residential property and economic losses are found to be lower in communities and countries with higher mean years of schooling or higher literacy rate65, 77, 78. Furthermore, with better access to loans and credits, as well as larger assets and social networks which provide a wider portfolio for coping strategies, households or communities with higher average levels of education are better able to maintain their welfare and level of consumption after being affected by disaster shocks79, 80, 81, 82, 83.

With respect to adaptation to the changing climate, education is indeed highly relevant since individuals with higher levels of education are also more likely to have better awareness of climate risk84. Given that climate change is a relatively new form of risk and a rather sophisticated scientific subject, education facilitates the understanding of new ideas and concepts related to climate variability. Accordingly, a wide range of studies reported a higher likelihood of carrying out adaptation actions such as changing crop types, planting and harvesting dates, methods of farming and using improved type of seed among better educated households85, 86, 87. Education also increases options to diversify livelihood and sources of income when facing climate pressure88. For instance, migration as an adaptation strategy to cope with livelihood disruptions due to environmental change often involves more educated members89.

With the focus of this Perspective on ‘dangerous’ climate change, given the consistent evidence on the protective role of education in reducing disaster vulnerability69 we can conclude that better educated societies are more resilient and hold greater adaptive capacity to climate change. This insight is relevant when deciding what qualities and characteristics of populations should be forecasted when assessing future adaptive capacities in the context of global socioeconomic scenarios used in the analysis of climate change. Because these qualities go far beyond the mere consideration of population size — as has been done in earlier work based on the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios90 — the new SSPs approach has the populations fully stratified by age, gender and level of education.