Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
Call it resilience or call it resiliency, which means the same thing. Either way, the concept has gained new prominence lately in scientific reports and the associated public dialogue about climate change.
This growing attention to resiliency is happening as part of the broader discussion of climate-change readiness – how to adapt to impacts that scientists say are locked into the climate system, thanks largely to humanity’s past and current carbon pollution, regardless of how much emissions are reduced in the future.
Following are some examples of ways in which the resiliency idea has popped up this year.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The United Nations-sponsored IPCC, the world’s leading scientific body on climate change, issued its latest batch of voluminous reports this year, summarizing the past several years of findings on different aspects of the subject.
Adaptation and resiliency were at the heart of the reports’ conclusions and recommendations. For instance:
A first step towards adaptation to future climate change is reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability. Strategies include actions with co-benefits for other objectives. Available strategies and actions can increase resilience across a range of possible future climates while helping to improve human health, livelihoods, social and economic well-being, and environmental quality. Integration of adaptation into planning and decision making can promote synergies with development and disaster risk reduction.
National Climate Assessment
The 2014 National Climate Assessment’s consideration of resiliency for the nation’s coastal regions was presented in the context of four “key messages” that the authors emphasized in their description of impacts those regions are experiencing and can expect to experience because of climate change:
Economic disruption: “Nationally important assets, such as ports, tourism, and fishing sites, in already-vulnerable coastal locations, are increasingly exposed to sea level rise and related hazards. This threatens to disrupt economic activity within coastal areas and the regions they serve and results in significant costs from protecting or moving these assets.”
Uneven social vulnerability: “Socioeconomic disparities create uneven exposures and sensitivities to growing coastal risks and limit adaptation options for some coastal communities, resulting in the displacement of the most vulnerable people from coastal areas.”
Vulnerable ecosystems: “Coastal ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change because many have already been dramatically altered by human stresses; climate change will result in further reduction or loss of the services that these ecosystems provide, including potentially irreversible impacts.”
The state of coastal adaptation: “Leaders and residents of coastal regions are increasingly aware of the high vulnerability of coasts to climate change and are developing plans to prepare for potential impacts on citizens, businesses, and environmental assets. Significant institutional, political, social, and economic obstacles to implementing adaptation actions remain.”
The Houston university’s Shell Center for Sustainability held a scientific workshop in October – How sustainable is the Texas Coast? Are we in a “state of denial”?
Announcing the meeting, the center declared:
Our dynamic coastline is changing faster than ever before. Changes are visible over the last 50, 30 and even 10 years. The environmental, social and economic impacts of coastal change are readily measurable and are increasing. These impacts can make us less resilient, particularly when more intense conditions affect our coastal state. The effects result in even greater impact beyond our coast.
Yale Climate Connections
Yale Climate Connections, an independent news and information service of Yale University’s Center for Environmental Communication, focused on resiliency in one of its recent podcasts. An excerpt:
Resiliency … it’s a buzzword among city planners preparing for the impacts of climate change. But what does it mean?
According to Roger-Mark De Souza, at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., it means preparing for a new reality:
“And that reality is that as human beings, we are having an impact on the environment, and that in turn, is affecting our well-being. And this must be part of how we organize our communities, and think about how we conduct ourselves on a day-to-day basis.”
In some cities, resilience means creating urban parks to filter stormwater runoff, designing roads and bridges that can survive more extreme weather, or developing early warning systems so people can evacuate if needed. Regardless of specifics, the ultimate goal is an engaged, proactive community.
Responding to Climate Change
A U.K.-based news service called Responding to Climate Change published an article in November, reporting on a Washington conference held by the Global Environmental Facility, “a partnership for international cooperation where 183 countries work together with international institutions, civil society organizations and the private sector, to address global environmental issues.”
The headline was “What does it mean to be climate resilient?” An excerpt from the beginning of the article made clear that for all their expertise and experience, there was no clearcut answer for that question among conference participants:
Ask a meeting of 50 climate change specialists what they mean by “resilience” and you’re likely to get 50 different answers.
Like “sustainability”, it is a word much abused by the media, policymakers and big business.
But as extreme weather events linked to climate change start to bite around the world, the importance of resilience will grow.
What’s important says Dennis Bours, a Bangkok-based climate consultant, is that the term no longer simply applies to infrastructure.
“I think resilience means you don’t just look at climate action, which in the past you would talk about hard measures like sea walls,” he says.
“Instead you must look at a complete picture including policies, governance and management structures on a national and community level, and a combination of hard and soft measure that you look at as a complete package. It’s not just about one intervention.”