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Climate Resiliency – How to Cope with Environmental Uncertainty

August 31, 2016
As the science behind climate change becomes nearly universally accepted as fact, climate resiliency has arisen as a popular method to cope with inevitable but often unpredictable environmental shifts. The idea behind climate resiliency is to design systems that can adapt and withstand changing environmental conditions. Examples include roads that conserve water, bridges that survive earthquakes, and buildings that combat shifting ground or sea levels.

By Sarah Hinstorff, C’18

Climate resilient designs are an investment in future infrastructure success. Upfront investment in creating more durable buildings will save money in the long-run. However, experts often struggle to convey this eventual benefit and delayed gratification to the public. Sustainability-minded consumers may request energy efficient building alternatives but climate resilient components rarely come to mind. The exception to this trend appears after natural disasters: talk of resiliency resurges when the public witnesses firsthand how non-resilient infrastructure has failed them.

Resiliency is about being proactive and not reactive. This challenge of conveying the economic, environmental, and sustainability benefits pose great challenges for champions of climate resilient design, but also presents an opportunity for reform and preparation for a stronger, more durable future.

The Importance of Cities

Possible strategies to expand awareness and attention about climate resilience focus on the small scale, rather than attempting to overhaul an entire culture at once. Climate resilience is a bottom-up movement. This means approaching individual construction projects and expanding gradually. In fact, cities are at the forefront of resilient development. Climate resilience experts see opportunity in addressing improvement at the municipal level and then using local successes to catalyze efforts at the state and federal levels.

City-level activism presents an opportunity for impactful reform. In April 2015, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched a domestic initiative to help redesign 100 mid-size American cities, using concrete data and evidence [1]. The approach has allowed a deep investigation into populations’ unique needs and has provided a guide for local governments to lay the framework for national reform. Bloomberg Philanthropies’ action corresponds to rapid global trend of urbanization [2]. According to a 2014 United Nations Study, 54% of the world’s population currently resides in urban areas, and, by 2050, this number is projected to grow to 66% [3].

This increased population within confined urban spaces puts a strain on city infrastructure and residents. Urban areas often harbor the highest levels of pollution – heavy congestion, proximity to industrial areas, and environmental regulations enforcement complications, arise as major roadblocks to improving environmental conditions. Additionally, cities combat unique stresses that do not impact other terrains to the same extent – “equity concerns” [4], diverse populations, intense regulation, and high population concentrations.

A. G. Daniere of the University of Toronto and L. M. Takahashi of the University of California, Irvine published an article in Environmental and Planning C: Government and Policy, discussing the effect of environmental factors on quality of life [5]. Daniere and Takahashi assert that, especially in cities with substantial slum populations, elements such as pollution, sanitation, and access to clean water can feel more immediate to citizens than the rapid urbanization propelling the overall economy forward. They suggest the government and the citizens’ values and behaviors must align in order to successfully accomplish environmental goals.

The growing urban population presents many organizational challenges but also provides opportunities to foster powerful centers of innovation and influence.  The large, compact populations offer a captive audience to engage in sustainability and climate resilience projects. Young people in urban areas are generally more willing to adopt new tactics, innovate, and invest in their own future. Sustainable development efforts in cities will indirectly influence those in surrounding communities. Changing the status quo in cities will cause a movement to disseminate outward to the rest of the country.

Opportunities for the Developing World

Climate change will have a unique impact on developing nations, which lack the resources to invest in climate resilience research and technology. Governments in developing nations often fall short with the tools, scope, and legitimate authority to effectively support their people. Additionally, issues such as infectious disease, access to water, and improper nourishment take precedence over climate issues – when people struggle to live day-to-day, heavy investment in future sustainability efforts appears irrelevant.

As developing nations continue to industrialize at a brisk pace, their growth will be fueled by cheap and accessible fuels that do not prioritize environmental sustainability. Nations must choose between the promise of economic viability and environmental obligations. Developing nations’ existing infrastructure configuration, often designed for an agricultural society, has failed to keep up with the new development model. Modern cities face this challenge of balancing growth and industrialization with an environmental consciousness. Potential solutions to this barrier include developing alternative fuels, regulating unnecessary production resources or byproducts such as emissions, and introducing financial incentives from wealthier nations.

Conflicting priorities between the developing and the industrialized worlds presented a major sticking point during the recent Paris Accords (COP21) Discussions. COP21 drew new attention to the subject of climate resilience [6]. The discussions set the precedence that international cooperation and division of responsibilities will lay the foundation for future climate resilience programs.

The Future of Climate Resilience

Climate resilience differs from other climate adaptation strategies in its positive tone. It is a strategy grounded in future-planning rather than overcoming past disasters. According to the Joint Global Change Research Institute, “Although research in vulnerability and resilience began by emphasizing vulnerability, the focus has shifted at least in part to resilience as a positive concept that can be more integrated with general development goals” [7]. Resilient design will help us prepare for future environmental changes, both in cities and developing areas. Smart infrastructure choices create systems that can adapt and maintain their strength, in the midst of unforeseen challenges. Although we cannot predict the future, we can utilize climate resilient design to best prepare ourselves to cope with the uncertainty.



[1] What Works About Cities. Bloomberg Philanthropies, March 2016. http://whatworkscities.bloomberg.org/about/.

[2] India Smart Cities Mission: Supporting the Design and Delivery of a Cities Challenge. Bloomberg Philanthropies, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.org/program/government-innovation/#india-smart-cities-mission.

[3] World Urbanization Prospects. The United Nations, 2014. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf.

[4] Leichenko, Robin. Climate Change and Urban Resilience. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, vol. 3.3, pg. 164-168, May 2011. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877343510001533.

[5] Daniere, A G and Takahashi L M. Environmental Policy in Thailand: Values, Attitudes, and Behavior among the Slum Dwellers of Bangkok. Environmental and Planning C: Government and Policy, vol.15, no. 3, pg. 305-327, September 1997. http://epc.sagepub.com/content/15/3/305.abstract.

[6] Elias-Trostmann, Katerina and Dinshaw, Ayesha. 5 Emerging Trends in Climate Resilience. GreenBiz, 5 July 2016. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/5-emerging-trends-climate-resilience.

[7] Measuring Resilience to Climate Change. Joint Global Change Research Institute. http://www.globalchange.umd.edu/featured-research/measuring-resilience-to-climate-change/.

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