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ESPM 163AC Wiki-Project Spring 2014

Climate Resilience


Definition of Climate Resilience[edit]

Climate resilience can be generally defined as the capacity for a socio-ecological system to: (1) absorb stresses and maintain function in the face of external stresses imposed upon it by climate change and (2) adapt, reorganize, and evolve into more desirable configurations that improve the sustainability of the system, leaving it better prepared for future climate change impacts. [1] [2] It should be noted that in actuality, there is still a great deal of abstract discussion and debate regarding a number of subtle nuances associated with the precise definition of the climate resilience perspective, such as its relation to climate change adaptation, the extent to which it should encompass actor-based versus systems-based approaches to improving stability, and its relationship with the balance of nature theory or homeostatic equilibrium view of ecological systems. [1] It should be noted that currently, the majority of work regarding climate resilience has been centered around examining the capacity for social-ecological systems to sustain shocks and maintain the integrity of functional relationships in the face of external forces. However, there is a growing consensus in academic literature which argues that greater attention needs to be focused on investigating the other critical aspect of climate resilience, which is the capacity for social-ecological systems to renew and develop, and to utilize disturbances as opportunities for innovation and evolution of new pathways that improve the system’s ability to adapt to macroscopic changes. [1] [3]

Climate Resilience vs. Climate Adaptation[edit]

The fact that climate resilience encompasses a dual function, to absorb shock as well as to self-renew, is the primary means by which it can be differentiated from the concept of climate adaptation. In general, adaptation is viewed as a group of processes and actions that help a system absorb changes that have already occurred, or may be predicted to occur in the future. For the specific case of environmental change and climate adaptation, it is argued by many that adaptation should be defined strictly as encompassing only active decision-making processes and actions - in other words, deliberate changes made in response to climate change. [2] Of course, this characterization is highly debatable: after all, adaptation can also be used to describe natural, involuntary processes by which organisms, populations, ecosystems and perhaps even social-ecological systems evolve after the application of certain external stresses. However, for the purposes of differentiating climate adaptation and climate resilience from a policymaking standpoint, we can contrast the active, actor-centric notion of adaptation with resilience, which would be a more systems-based approach to building social-ecological networks that are inherently capable of not only absorbing change, but utilizing those changes to develop into more efficient configurations.

Historical Overview of Climate Resilience[edit]

Climate resilience is a relatively novel concept that is still in the process of being established by academia and policymaking institutions. However, the theoretical basis for many of the ideas central to climate resilience have actually existed since the 1960s. Originally an idea defined for strictly ecological systems, resilience was initially outlined by C.S. Holling as the capacity for ecological systems and relationships within those systems to persist and absorb changes to “state variables, driving variables, and parameters.” [4] This definition helped form the foundation for the notion of ecological equilibrium: the idea that the behavior of natural ecosystems is dictated by a homeostatic drive towards some stable set point. Under this school of thought (which maintained quite a dominant status during this time period), ecosystems were perceived to respond to disturbances largely through negative feedback systems – if there is a change, the ecosystem would act to mitigate that change as much as possible and attempt to return to its prior state. However, it should be noted that the idea of resilience began evolving relatively quickly in the coming years.

As greater amounts of scientific research in ecological adaptation and natural resource management was conducted, it became clear that often times, natural systems were subjected to dynamic, transient behaviors that changed how they reacted to significant changes in state variables: rather than work back towards a predetermined equilibrium, the absorbed change was harnessed to establish a new baseline to operate under. Rather than minimizes imposed changes, ecosystems could integrate and manage those changes, and use them fuel the evolution of novel characteristics. This new perspective of resilience as a concept that inherently works synergistically with elements of uncertainty and entropy first began to facilitate changes in the field of adaptive management and environmental resources, through work whose basis was interestingly built by Holling and colleagues yet again. [1] [5]

By the mid 1970s, resilience began gaining momentum as an idea in anthropology, culture theory, and other social sciences. Even more compelling is the fact that there was significant work in these relatively non-traditional fields that helped facilitate the evolution of the resilience perspective as a whole. Part of the reason resilience began moving away from an equilibrium-centric view and towards a more flexible, malleable description of social-ecological systems was due to work such as that of Andrew Vayda and Bonnie McCay in the field of social anthropology, where more modern versions of resilience were deployed to challenge traditional ideals of cultural dynamics. [6]

Eventually by the late 1980s and early 1990s, resilience had fundamentally changed as a theoretical framework. Not only was it now applicable to social-ecological systems, but more importantly, resilience now incorporated and emphasized ideas of management, integration, and utilization of change rather than simply describing reactions to change. Resilience was no longer just about absorbing shocks, but also about harnessing the changes triggered by external stresses to catalyze the evolution the social-ecological system in question.

As the issues of global warming and climate change have gained traction and become more prominent since the early 1990s, the question of climate resilience has also emerged. Considering the global implications of the impacts induced by climate change, climate resilience has become a critical concept that scientific institutions, policymakers, governments, and international organizations have begun to rally around as a framework for designing the solutions that will be needed to address the effects of global warming.

Climate Resilience and Environmental Justice[edit]

Applications of a Resilience framework: Addressing Vulnerability[edit]

A climate resilience framework offers a rich plethora of contributions that can improve our understanding of environmental processes, and better equip governments and policymakers to develop sustainable solutions that combat the effects of climate change. To being with, climate resilience establishes the idea of multi-stable socio-ecological systems. As discussed earlier, resilience originally began as an idea that extended from the stable equilibrium view – systems only acted to return to their pre-existing states when exposed to a disturbance. But with modern interpretations of resilience, it is now established that socio-ecological systems can actually stabilize around a multitude of possible states. Secondly, climate resilience has played a critical role in emphasizing the importance of preventive action when assessing the effects of climate change. Although adaptation is always going to be a key consideration, making changes after the fact has a limited capability to help communities and nations deal with climate change. By working to build climate resilience, policymakers and governments can take a more comprehensive stance that works to mitigate the harms of global warming impacts before they happen.[2] [7] Finally, a climate resilience perspective encourages greater cross-scale connectedness of systems. Climate change scholars have argued that solely relying on theories of adaptation is also limiting because inherently, this perspective does not necessitate as much full-system cohesion as a resilience perspective would. Creating mechanisms of adaptation that occur in isolation at local, state, or national levels may leave the overall social-ecological system vulnerable. A resilience-based framework would require far more cross-talk, and the creation of environmental protections that are more holistically generated and implemented. [2] [8]

Climate Resilience in Practice[edit]

The building of climate resilience is a highly comprehensive undertaking that involves of an eclectic array of actors and agents: individuals, community organizations, micropolitical bodies, corporations, governments at local, state, and national levels as well as international organizations. In essence, actions that bolster climate resilience are ones that will enhance the adaptive capacity of social, industrial, and environmental infrastructures that can mitigate the effects of climate change. [9] It should be noted that currently, research indicates that the strongest indicator of successful climate resilience efforts at all scales is a well-developed, pre-existing network of social, political, economic and financial institutions that is already positioned to effectively take on the work of identifying and addressing the risks posed by climate change. Cities, states, and nations that have already developed such networks are, as expected, to generally have far higher net incomes and GDP. [10]

Therefore it can be seen that embedded within the task of building climate resilience at any scale will be the overcoming of macroscopic socioeconomic inequities: in many ways, truly facilitating the construction of climate resilient communities worldwide will require national and international agencies to address issues of global poverty, industrial development, and food justice. However, this does not mean that actions to improve climate resilience cannot be taken in real time at all levels, although evidence suggests that the most climate resilient cities and nations have accumulated this resilience through their responses to previous weather-based disasters. Perhaps even more importantly, empirical evidence suggests that the creation of the climate resilient structures is dependent upon an array of social and environmental reforms that were only successfully passed due to the presence of certain sociopolitical structures such as democracy, activist movements, and decentralization of government. [11]

Thus it can be seen that to build climate resilience one must work within a network of related social and economic decisions that can have adverse effects on the success of a resilience effort given the competing interests participating in the discussion. Given this, it is clear that the social and economic scale play a vital role in shaping the feasibility, costs, empirical success, and efficiency of climate resilience initiatives. There is a wide variety of actions that can be pursued to improve climate resilience at multiple scales – the following subsections we will review a series of of illustrative case studies and strategies from a broad diversity of societal contexts that are currently being implemented to strengthen climate resilience.

Local and community level[edit]

Housing and workplace conditions[edit]

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Improving housing conditions in Kenya is a prime target for local climate resilience efforts

Housing inequality is directly related to the ability for individuals and communities to sustain adverse impacts brought on by extreme weather events that are triggered by climate change, such as severe winds, storms, and flooding. Especially for communities in developing nations and the Third World, the integrity of housing structures is one of the most significant sources of vulnerability currently. [12] It should be noted however, that even in more developed nations such as the US, there are still multitudes of socioeconomically disadvantaged areas where outdated housing infrastructure is estimated to provide poor climate resilience at best, as well as numerous negative health outcomes. [10]

Efforts to improve the resiliency of housing and workplace buildings involves not only fortifying these buildings through use of updated materials and foundation, but also establishing better standards that ensure safer and health conditions for occupants. Better housing standards are in the course of being established through calls for sufficient space, natural lighting, provision for heating or cooling, insulation, and ventilation. Another major issue faced more commonly by communities in the Third World are highly disorganized and inconsistently enforced housing rights systems. In countries such as Kenya and Nicaragua, local militias or corrupted government bodies that have reserved the right to seizure of any housing properties as needed: the end result is the degradation of any ability for citizens to develop climate resilient housing – without property rights for their own homes, the people are powerless to make changes to their housing situation without facing potentially harmful consequences. [13]

Grassroots community organizing and micropolitical action[edit]

Modern climate resilience scholars have noted that contrary to conventional beliefs, the communities that have been most effective in establishing high levels of climate resilience have actually done so through “bottom-up” political pressures. “Top-down” approaches involving state or federal level decisions have empirically been marred with dysfunction across different levels of government due to internal mismanagement and political gridlock. [10] [11] As a result, in many ways it is being found that the most efficient responses to climate change have actually been initiated ted and mobilized at local levels. Particularly compelling has been the ability of bottom-up pressures from local civil society to fuel the creation of micropolitical institutions that have compartmentalized the tasks necessary for building climate resilience. For example, the city of Tokyo, Japan has developed a robust network of micropolitical agencies all dedicated to building resilience in specific industrial sectors: transportation, workplace conditions, emergency shelters, and more. [10] Due to their compact size, local level micropolitical bodies can act quickly without much stagnation and resistance from larger special interests that can generate bureaucratic dysfunction at higher levels of government.

Low-cost engineering solutions[edit]

Equally important to building climate resilience has been the wide array of basic technological solutions have been developed and implemented at community levels. In developing countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania, the construction of concrete “breaker” walls and concentrated use of sandbags in key areas such as housing entrances and doorways has improved the ability of communities to sustain the damages yielded by extreme weather events. Additional strategies have included digging homemade drainage systems to protect local infrastructure of extensive water damage and flooding. [12]

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An aerial view of Dehli, India where urban forests are being developed to improve the weather resistance and climate resilience of the city

In more urban areas, construction of a “green belt” on the peripheries of cities has become increasingly common. Green belts are being used as means of improving climate resilience – in addition to provide natural air filtering, these belts of trees have proven to be a healthier and sustainable means of mitigating the damages created by heavy winds and storms. [10] [14]

State and national level[edit]

Infrastructural development disaster preparedness protocols[edit]

At larger governmental levels, general programs to improve climate resiliency through greater disaster preparedness are being implemented. For example in cases such as Norway, this includes the development of more sensitive and far-reaching early warning systems for extreme weather events, creation of emergency electricity power sources, enhanced public transportation systems, and more. [15] To examine another case study, the state California in the US has been pursuing more comprehensive federal financial aid systems for communities afflicted by natural disaster, spurred in part by the large amounts of criticism that was placed on the US federal government after what was perceived by many to be a mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy relief. [16] [17]

Additionally, a key focus of action at state and federal levels is in improving water management infrastructure and access. Strategies include the creation of emergency drinking water supplies, stronger sanitation technology and standards, as well as more extensive and efficient networks of water delivery.

Social services[edit]

Climate resilience literature has also noted that one of the more indirect sources of resilience actually lies in the strength of the social services and social safety net that is provided for citizens by public institutions. This is an especially critical aspect of climate resilience in more socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, cities, and nations. It has been empirically found that places with stronger systems of social security and pensions often times have better climate resiliency. [10] This is reasoning in the following manner: first of all, better social services for citizens translates to better access to healthcare, education, life insurance, and emergency services. Secondly, stronger systems of social services also generally increase the overall ownership of relevant economic assets that are correlated with better quality of life such as savings, house ownership, and more. Nations where residents are on more stable economic footing are in situations where there is a far higher incentive for private investment into climate resilience efforts. [10]

Global Level[edit]

International Treaties[edit]

At the global level, most action towards climate resilience has been manifested in the signing of international agreements that set up guidelines and frameworks to address the impacts of climate change. Notable examples include the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, and the 2010 Cancun Agreement. [18] In some cases, as is the case with the Kyoto Protocol for example, these international treaties involve placing legally binding requirements on participant nations to reduce processes that contribute to global warming such as greenhouse gas emissions. [19] [20] In other cases, such as the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, proposals for the creation of international funding pools to assist developing nations in combating climate change are seen. [21] It should be noted however, that enforcement of any of the requirements or principles that are established in such international treaties has ambiguous: for example, although the 2010 Cancun conference called for the creation of a 100 billion dollar “Green Climate Fund” for developing nations, if and how this fund will actually be created still remains unclear. [22]


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