Climate Resilience: Deconstructing The New Buzz Word

By Cara Pike via Climate Access

“Climate resiliency” is a new buzzword in environmental communications. Buzzwords are exciting because when successful, they convey important concepts in a compact and compelling way. At the same time, it is easy to assume audience understanding and for terms to be co-opted over time.

Back in March, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating the Climate, Cities and Behavior Symposium (CCB) at the Garrison Institute, a gathering of municipal and community leaders involved in climate and sustainability planning. The focus was on understanding the intersections between resiliency, sustainability and climate issues. It quickly became clear that while use of the term resiliency is rising, there are still a lot of issues to consider about what resiliency actually means and the pros and cons of using it to advance public understanding and engagement.

At CCB, Missy Stults from the University of Michigan proposed (“Fostering Resilience: From Theory to Operation”) that resiliency is a subset of the larger umbrella of sustainability – the foundation (or handle) that keeps the umbrella strong. There are different types of resiliency to consider such as economic, ecological, community, climate, and social so being clear on what you are building resiliency for is key.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, resiliency is defined as “the ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy,” This is appealing because “climate resiliency” conveys both an inherent recognition of a threat that needs to be responded to, as well as a sense of efficacy – that it is possible to respond to that threat.

On the other hand, the other meaning of “resiliency” is “the property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed; elasticity.” This is problematic because when used in the climate context, it can feed into the desire to return to the status quo as quickly as possible.

Mindy Fullilove, professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences and director of the Cities Research Group at Columbia University provided an example at CCB of how climate resiliency can mean very different things to different audiences. For those who have the resources to protect themselves from extreme weather events and other challenges, resiliency conveys a sense of strength. On the other hand, for communities already struggling due to economic and social injustice, resiliency can imply an expectation that people within those communities continue to withstand challenges, largely without the resources or support to adequately do so.

At the crux of this conflict is the idea that resiliency is about resuming an original form, a bouncing back to what was. This fails to recognize that the status quo wasn’t working in the first place as we were already on an unsustainable and inequitable path. The desire to return to normal in the wake of a disturbance is understandable,; however, what is needed is a “bouncing forward” to new approaches that tackle both the reality of a two-degree Celsius temperature increase as well as the systemic injustices that threaten the well-being of citizens who often also face some of the worst climate impacts.

My sense is just like with sustainability, using resiliency, as the new buzzword will not solve challenges engaging the public in these issues. Perhaps more important is to focus on conveying the characteristics that resilient systems and communities should reflect such as flexibility, diversity, and transparency; and to highlight strategies that enhance resilience in a range of areas, such as disaster risk-reduction and improving the quality of daily life.

A good example of an organization focusing on community-level solutions that illustrate both climate as well as social resiliency is IOBY – or “In Our Backyards.” Founded by Cassie Flynn (see her Garrison presentation), Erin Barnes and Brandon Whitney, IOBY emphasizes  what people want to see in their neighborhoods versus the typical “not in my backyard” environmental approach. By helping citizens organize and fund local projects, IOBY is fostering community buy-in for solutions, a network of long-term stewards, and visible benefits of taking action such as having access to green spaces and organic food.

What is perhaps most interesting about IOBY, however, is how it has become a network for organizing citizens around other local challenges. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, IOBY participants helped organize neighborhood response efforts by using the lists of project volunteers in their area as well the  IOBY neighborhood gardens to gather and coordinate.

Social resiliency and connectivity are among the most important capacities to develop as we learn to prepare for local climate impacts. Amplifying local climate solutions that benefit and bring people together is critically needed so we can begin to close the climate efficacy gap and build hope for the future.

— Cara Pike is the director of Climate Access


41 Responses to Climate Resilience: Deconstructing The New Buzz Word

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    This is a good summary, Cara, but we have to be careful here. The Right, and their friends in fossil fuels, are also talking resiliency- we’ll like more CO2, warmer winters, etc, and if there are bumps, “we can adapt”, as Rex Tillerson says.

    There is no chance of adapting to a 3C increase. There isn’t enough cement to build seawalls, and even if there were it’s too expensive. Similar problems exist for lost farmland and failed cereal crop germination due to higher temperatures.

    What we really need to do is stop burning fossil fuels, or it’ll be like trying to fix the leaks in the Titanic.

  2. Superman1 says:

    “the reality of a two-degree Celsius temperature increase”. Given the posting yesterday of the possibility of much higher climate sensitivities, the manuscripts I have been receiving that independently predict such increased sensitivities, it appears that the ‘climate warming commitment’ we have generated may be substantially larger than the already substantive numbers that were being used. 2 C should be viewed as a faded hope; it’s not a ‘reality’.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Resiliency’ in the mouths of the Right means that they, the rich (not the droogs, who will be sacrificed like the rest when their ‘useful idiot’ roles are over)will ‘bounce back’, while we, the 99% of steerage passengers on the global ‘Titanic’, will perish. It’s the opportunity to cull the ‘useless eaters’ who they hate so much, and fear, that they have been searching for over many decades.

  4. Martin Keeley says:

    Oh, wonderful. Another meaningless buzz word that follows along the line of “capacity building” one adopted by everyone and is ridiculous terminology unless you are referring to expanding your bladder!

  5. Superman1 says:

    It’s a good presentation, showing the practical near-impossibility of attaining 2 C, but it contains a major omission. In a document published last year, he emphasized that 2 C has no scientific basis as a target(as he does in this speech), and the climate community consensus is that 1 C is a far safer target. I forget his exact wording on 2 C, but it was something like Extremely Dangerous.

  6. Superman1 says:

    Yet, his presentation linked here focuses on what is required to achieve 2 C! The point is, we can’t even make the 2 C target, and even if we did, we would still be well within the danger zone. In other words, if 1 C is the more desirable scientific target, we can’t get there from here!

  7. Superman1 says:

    Remembering that his curves were calculated without including the positive feedback effects, and they used climate sensitivities that yesterday’s CP post showed may be overly low, then if he were to use the 1 C target which he stated last year was the scientifically appropriate target, the only conclusion is we cannot get there from here! In other words, there is No Way Out!

  8. Superman1 says:

    Prokaryotes, I will try to locate his document from last year where he makes the statement about 1 C, but if you have it readily available, please post. It is a very clear document, and he names names of the ‘scientists’ who altered the historical data to make their reports acceptable to the government sponsors. Some of the names will surprise you.

  9. Ben Lieberman says:

    I would agree that climate resiliency is a term ready for misuse by those following a three-step process to nowhere:
    (1) deny climate change (2) deny that human activity is causing climate change (3)deny any harmful effects

    Instead of resiliency I would suggest the term climate magic. Climate magic has the property through some kind of undefinable stretching, bending and sleight of hand of allowing us to do nothing while suffering no ill effects!

  10. Dave says:

    Resilience can be a useful concept for getting public and leaders to understand thresholds and system state changes more readily. It also encourages strengthening social, ecological, and local economic systems however possible – to allow constructive response to stresses (vs. collapse).

    Whatever climate changes and potential catastrophes are coming, people are going to be trying to live through them, and those inhabiting resilient systems are likely to do better.

    Is there potential for overuse and watering resilience down to meaninglessness? Of course. Resilience as an abstract concept is definitely not a panacea. That does not mean it is useless.

    The opposite tendency among some climate hawks seems to be to ignore the need to prepare for climate stresses and throw the hands up in despair over current emissions data. Not a pose that advances our chances of survival!

  11. Superman1 says:

    I have located the Anderson document. It is titled: “Climate change going beyond dangerous – Brutal numbers and tenuous hope.” Here are some excerpts related to the 2 C/1 C targets.

  12. Superman1 says:

    The impacts of 2 C are more serious than previously thought, and consequently the 2 C guard-rail lies in far more dangerous territory. If the logic of defining 2 C impacts as dangerous is to hold, the more recent impact analysis suggests 2 C represents the threshold between dangerous and extremely dangerous, rather than between acceptable and dangerous climate change.

  13. Superman1 says:

    Certainly, it could reasonably be argued that 1 C rather than 2 C should become the de facto appropriate target. If one accepts the rationale of safeguarding against dangerous climate change it is di&cult to argue against a 1 C goal from a scientific point of view.

  14. Superman1 says:

    However, from a practical, political point of view, it is almost impossible to imagine us now stabilizing at 1 C, given what we have emitted into the atmosphere already. Even if all emissions were immediately stopped, 1 C would likely be exceeded.

  15. Superman1 says:

    That ends the excerpts. The last sentence is an understatement. I have seen computations where fossil combustion is halted immediately, and the interim temperature peak is anywhere from 1.5 C to 3 C, with some outliers above 3 C.

  16. Superman1 says:

    These computations had climate sensitivities substantially lower than those implied by the CP article on Sunday, and they did not include feedbacks in the models. Add in the latter two effects, and terminating fossil fuels without parallel rapid carbon recovery or geo-engineering could lead to extremely serious consequences.

  17. Superman1 says:

    The second excerpt is in cyber-space.

  18. Superman1 says:

    Excellent. Your definition of climate magic describes many of the proposals we see here!

  19. Superman1 says:

    Per your last paragraph, three parallel approaches are required: 1) make whatever sacrifices are necessary to avoid the realistic worst case scenario (if avoidance is still possible); 2) make preparations for adaptation with all due haste; 3) make preparations to deal with the psychological consequences if the worst case (extinction) cannot be avoided.

  20. Superman1 says:

    Following the above, it would be useful to see an article/thread here about selection of the desired interim temperature ceiling. My view is that the temperature at which rapid Arctic ice melting started to occur should reflect the ceiling; it is roughly half the temperature we have today. There may be other events that suggest even lower temperatures as desirable targets.

  21. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Resilience is the ability to cope with stresses. Our industrialized society is extremely non resilient, we are the least resilient mankind has ever been.

    We have become “efficient” at the cost of resilience. We have become so efficient that what should be a small glitch, could end up a major disaster.

    The lack of resilience is evident in our financial systems, our manufacturing and our agricultureal systems. We are so very globalised and interrelated that catastrophe will severly affect the whole of mankind.

    Collapse is inevitable and what we are doing will make it much more nasty and complete.

  22. Yep. Resilience is like Hope-ium. Everyone smokes it, but we should not over-indulge

    Like a junkie rationalizing that one more won’t kill him – because he’s resilient.

    Social resilience should not be used to fool ourselves into thinking the climate is resilient.

  23. Joan Savage says:

    Given the recent CP post, “New York City Allocates Nearly $300 Million Of Sandy Funds For Climate Change Resiliency Plan” we’d better nail down what resiliency means in a hurry.

    One clarifying question, WHAT do we want to be resilient? In an immediate, government spending type of time scale, Do we want communities to be able to stay together? Do we want rapid restoration of utility services? Do we want hospitals with generators that don’t get flooded? Do we want to be able to make rapid deployment of alternate evacuation routes?

    These are near-future uses of funding that might qualify as “resiliency.”

  24. Joan Savage says:

    Part 2, What do we foresee as a resilient practice, structure, tool or service in 2018, 2023 and on out?

  25. Joan Savage says:

    In some Tom Clancy book, I forget which, he paraphrases a military observation to the effect that in the long run, firepower always beats out defenses.

    Nature has been given the military advantage of surplus firepower. Resiliency is about surviving our mistake.

  26. David Goldstein says:

    Speaking of ‘resiliency’, here is the headline in today’s Yahoo Finance section: ” U.S. Oil Production to Shock Global Energy Markets: IEA Report – A new report says the recent boom in North American energy as big of a deal for the world oil market as the rise of China was over the last 15 years.”

    So…sorry, folks (and I am in the middle of 3 climate change campaign actions right now!)…but, really…with macro trend realities like this, what the f*#* is the point? Please, anyone?

  27. Superman1 says:

    There are two major trends relative to climate change; a global race to discover and exploit remaining fossil reserves as rapidly and completely as possible, and climate data showing only the most draconian sacrifices may be required to provide even the slightest glimmer of hope to avoid extinction. These are polar opposites, and the final outcome should be crystal-clear to anyone who removes their blinders.

  28. Superman1 says:

    David, I would also appreciate your comments on my lead post on the article ‘False Balance Lives’, which addresses your provocative HuPo article last week.

  29. David Goldstein says:

    Yes, Supe- when all is said and done: The media, the politicians, the lobbyists, the everyday habits of the everyday public-at-large…almost the entire spectrum of human culture is bound up in the web of fossil fuels. For the most part, of course, this evolved fairly ‘organically’- incredibly efficient and portable sources were discovered and then, over the past couple centuries utilized to fuel the latest chapter of the Human Story (I call this story, ‘Filling The World’). Lately we have discovered that, after all, fossil fuel use is ultimately prohibitive. But the ‘web’ is soaked in carbon now. We climate activists see the ‘180’ that humankind has to make (thanks to the scientists), but, for the most part, humans will not EVER even considering making an ‘inconvenient’ ‘180’ until backed into a very dire corner (if then!). There are, of course, the ‘monied’ interests that actively work against the ‘180’. Then, more ominously, there are the bulk of us who will not ‘rise up’ until backed deeply into that dire corner. I fear, and increasingly believe, that we activists are simply doing what we can, all the while waiting for the consequences of our species’ limited perspective to brutally awaken our fight/flight response.

  30. gordon says:

    In our work we have moved away from climate resiliency, climate sustainability or climate balance. It seem to fail the test of reasonableness given the baseline is moving ahead of us so to speak. It is a case of stock and flows. We now focus Adaptive Capacity. The definition, forward looking, say the decisions we make today must increase our ability to adapt in the future. We are not sure about what the future looks like we tomorrow. We can suggest outcomes but solutions will have to wait, since the this cascading climate dilemma will continue on for generations to come. Adaptive Capacity forces a new paradigm. It is not about conservation but making decisions that we have not contemplated. In designing a waste water treatment plant for new housing we went to MBR technology. The recycled water then is used for fire suppression, toilets and clothes washing (it is EPA Class A after recycling). As an adaptive capacity decision it will leave more water both recycled and fresh water for future generations to make decisions with. As we see it we are pushing resources into the future. Similar decisions are being made in estuary restoration, increasing river capacity into the future.

    As it turns out Adaptive Capacity is not original to us. The Swedes have been interested in it for some time. We did not know this we came up with the idea of it and a definition and then searched it online. Turns out others have been thinking this way for a long time. Just some thoughts form someone who reads TP and CP regularly.

  31. Superman1 says:

    The history of our species has been people sacrificing to make the world a better place for their progeny, up to and including their own lives, if necessary. In an about face, we are now sacrificing our progeny, not sacrificing for them. What has happened to cause this? How can we incentivize the opposite behavior that characterized our actions for millennia?

  32. BobbyL says:

    I guess sacrifice ended with the “ME” generation. Thanks to author Tom Wolfe we can date the end of sacrifice to the 1970s. So until we have a “WE” generation don’t count on too many Americans be willing to make sacrifices. Rather, the goal is to look out for Number One and yes, you can have it all. What we need is a solution to global warming that meshes with narcissism. Maybe something like what W said after 9-11, “Go out and shop.” He understood the American people. He was also smart enough to lower taxes during the Iraq War rather than raising taxes to pay for the war. That gave us more money for shopping. This is a country where only place anyone is calling for sacrifice is on comments sections of blogs. That’s about it.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As they said here, of one notorious Rightwing, wannabe Thatcher (with a bee-hive hairdo!!)at the time of Clinton’s hilarious, ‘I smoked it but didn’t inhale’- ‘Senator X smoked marihuana at university, but she didn’t exhale’.

  34. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The collapse will be synergistic, as all these disasters worsen each other, and proceed with accelerating force, like an avalanche. I still think that we could save ourselves, so great is our wealth, technology and ability when properly directed. But we must remove the road-block standing in our path-the ruling global Rightwing elites and their omnicidal operating system, neo-liberal capitalism. There is going to be a fight to the death with those forces, sometime, probably quite soon, when disaster upon disaster finally wake people up. Of course, as we already see in Europe, the Bosses will, as they did in the 1920s and ’30s, mobilise fascism and general racist and xenophobic hatreds to attempt to maintain control, but they can, and must, be defeated.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    What has happened, Super, is that the misanthropic Right have come to totally dominate the planet, and through their total control of the MSM, ‘entertainment’ and advertising incubi, have projected their psychopathology of greed and fear and hatred of others onto society.

  36. Raul M. says:

    Unfortunately, the inconvenient corner will become more of the way by climate forcing rather than cognitive thinking. It is nice to think that people as a whole will have thought to prepare for a different climate norm.
    Watched some of a description of a marine group of creatures which grow on underwater volcanos and when the volcano is done so is the marine colonies that enjoyed such at that location. I haven’t found a personal escape route from my dependence on nature to provide for my wants and needs. I have enjoyed it though.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’re paid by the word, surely.

  38. Jeff Poole says:

    I’m beginning to wonder if there’s some sort of Einsteinian Theory of Irony which might explain how humanity unerringly starts to talk about a problem in the correct language just as the problem is superseded…

    Resilience – the ability to bounce back to a former state after being stressed – would have been a fine target – in the eighties.

    Now we know that climate change already underway – currently causing a lot of damage – is irreversible in any human timescale. So ‘resilience’ was out of date well before it came into common campaigning/bureaucratic language about a year ago.

    There is no elastic in the climate, it will not contract back after stretching, it just takes a while for the full stretch to happen…

  39. Superman1 says:

    The pot calling the kettle black, surely.

  40. Superman1 says:

    Mulga, Is there a self-reinforcing positive feedback mechanism operating here, as in the climate? ‘We’ elect Reagan and Thatcher because they appeal to our greedy side, they in turn emphasize more greed and material acquisition while in office, further strengthening our greedy nature, and so on. Have ‘we’ been re-conditioned from where we were decades ago?