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Increasing Resilience to Climate Change

As the climate continues to change in dramatic and more-or-less permanent ways, policymakers everywhere are increasingly tasked with cultivating resilience – preparing communities for natural disasters and social change. “It’s now more clear than ever that climate change is here, and it’s real, and it’s happening, and people are really feeling the impacts,” said Cathleen Kelly of the Center for American Progress at the Wilson Center on April 23.

Date & Time

Apr. 23, 2014
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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According to NASA and a team of scientists from the University of California, significant portions of the West Antarctic ice sheet have begun an unstoppable slide towards oblivion, slowly melting in warmer-than-usual ocean currents that have been eating away at their bases.

As the climate continues to change in dramatic and more-or-less permanent ways, policymakers everywhere are increasingly tasked with cultivating resilience – preparing communities for natural disasters and social change. “It’s now more clear than ever that climate change is here, and it’s real, and it’s happening, and people are really feeling the impacts,” said Cathleen Kelly of the Center for American Progress at the Wilson Center on April 23.

Kelly sees incorporating resilience into development as an answer to this challenge, especially as the aid community debates successors to the Millennium Development Goals, set to expire next year. “The more you look at what it means to build resilience, you see that if it’s done right, it can actually help local leaders address other pressing challenges, so it doesn’t have to be this standalone thing, it actually can be integrated.”

Back to Normal No Longer Good Enough

“Climate change is actually really expensive,” Kelly said. “[In the United States] there were 34 extreme weather events between 2011 and 2013, each costing at least $1 billion…together these events caused 1,221 fatalities and $208 billion in damages.” A Center for American Progress report released in March found there has been a 30 percent increase in presidential disaster declarations since 2010 versus the average from the last decade.

When responding to disasters, it’s no longer enough to simply build back lost infrastructure, said ECSP’s Roger-Mark De Souza; policymakers need to find ways to strengthen and improve to prevent the next one. “We survive, we cope, we recover, we learn, we transform,” he said. But, “do we bounce back better, which is what a lot of the resiliency programming talks about? Do we even bounce back?”

The moment immediately following a natural disaster is often a time of “heightened awareness of the risk” and can be an opportunity, said Kelly. “Leaders are going back to the drawing board, they want to quickly rebuild their city and infrastructure on the ground, but also there’s a moment to really re-think how we design infrastructure and communities.”

The Flexibility of Resilience

Whatever the context, in order to build resilience, it needs to be defined, said De Souza:

Globally, a lot of the international development efforts that are focusing on resilience, particularly on climate resilience and tying to that disaster mitigation and planning, talk about four key components of a resilience framework: being able to contextualize that resilience, making it very locally specific, responding to disturbance, and…looking at long-term stressors.

The definition of the world may be different in different places and in different sectors, however (e.g., beyond disaster risk reduction). For example, De Souza pointed out that while sub-Saharan Africa is home to many of the climate “hotspots” in the world, it is also in a unique position to capitalize on the demographic dividend and is already receiving a great deal of aid. Existing development efforts could be shifted to encourage the opportunities that come with changing age structures while also addressing environmental vulnerabilities to build resilience, he said.

“There is a very specific window of opportunity that the African continent has right now, it’s probably about the next 20 to 25 years, to think about climate resilient development while coupling it with the age structure of Africa and thinking about what that means for investing in meaningful educational opportunities,” said De Souza. Reaching more areas with voluntary family planning would not only accelerate the demographic transition but also improve the mobility, health, and overall adaptability of women.

For the University of Maryland’s Donald Boesch, the fluid definition of resilience is a strength, giving it the flexibility to bridge the gap between adaptation and mitigation. “We can’t choose one or the other,” he said; any development effort that aims to build resilience to natural disasters and other short-term shocks must also address structural issues.

The biggest of these structural issues is energy, he said, “to decouple the economy from fossil carbon.” That has proven difficult in China and India, where growth has been reliant on rapidly expanding coal power, and it’s difficult for Western governments to encourage a different path, given their own actions. “There is a perception in many of our developing country counterparts that talking about economic development limits the kind of economic development they can pursue,” said De Souza, “whereby we in the United States are not prepared to curtail the kind of economic development that we are asking them to entertain.”

But Boesch called U.S. action a “responsibility of leadership.” “We have to actually act like we want others to act, and that goes not only for mitigation but adaptation too,” he said. “Here we are, in one of the most powerful nations on earth, responsible for the majority of the greenhouse CO2 in the atmosphere…if we don’t lead, who will?”

Next Year: MDG Successors and the Paris COP

Without a systemic shift to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no adaptation-based resilience strategy will work as a permanent solution to reducing the physical and capital costs of climate change. “We can act now to reduce emissions and pay a little bit,” Kelly said, “or we can wait and really face crushing costs to our economy, and we basically have 15 years to really move and move fast…to ambitiously cut carbon pollution.”

The remainder of this year and the next will be critical, as the Millennium Development Goals expire and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change meets in Paris. “2015 is going to be a very, very big year for tackling climate change and ending poverty at the global level,” Kelly said. There’s an opportunity for global policymakers to shape a new, more resilience-minded agenda, both for developing and developed countries.

De Souza believes it would be a wasted opportunity to not incorporate an understanding of population dynamics and continuing unmet need for reproductive health into resilience programs. “I see a sort of a realization that if we want to talk about resiliency, we need to be talking about population dynamics,” he said. “We need to recognize the short-term shocks from climate change but also plan for these long-term stressors and also take into account the food-water-energy nexus.”

“I think there’s a huge opportunity in crafting these goals and setting the global development agenda to really make sure that it fully integrates and embraces the need to – and the opportunity, really – to build resilience,” said Kelly, “particularly in the most vulnerable countries…who are the least responsible for climate change.

Event Resources:

Drafted by Donald Borenstein, edited by Schuyler Null (ECSP).


Hosted By

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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