07/24/2013 - 13:29

Improved local resilience to climate change: A global imperative

Richard G. Little

Richard G. Little

Little is a visiting research scholar in disaster mitigation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a member...

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Despite President Barack Obama’s long-awaited policy statement on carbon emissions, the depressing but pragmatic reality is that the time to reverse (or at least significantly restrain) anthropomorphic climate change during this century has probably passed. As a result, the next objective should be to protect those most vulnerable to climate impacts. Given that global climate change will affect hundreds of millions of people in the very richest to the very poorest countries, this will be no mean feat. Obviously, to the extent that wealthy cities and nations have the resources to address issues of such monumental scope and scale, they will have an advantage. However, because the poor suffer disproportionately from the effects of natural hazards—and poor nations are particularly vulnerable to climate change effects because of their geography, rapid pace of urbanization, limited resources, and large numbers of poor people—the developed world must accept responsibility to help narrow this vulnerability gap.

Because climate change will add considerable uncertainty to the magnitude and location of hazardous events such as coastal and lowland floods, resilience—the ability to absorb and recover from unanticipated shocks—has emerged as the guiding principle of disaster risk management. A general framework for improved community resilience can be summarized in three steps: avoid the hazard if possible, withstand its effects, and recover from its impacts.

Avoid the hazard. The best way to avoid extreme events is not to be there when one occurs. In the short term, emergency warnings delivered over multiple platforms, through social media that provide credible guidance for evacuation or sheltering in place, can save lives. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean provided ample evidence that one meter of elevation, or a few minutes head start, can mean the difference between life and death.

As a longer-term strategy, living outside inundation zones that are associated with storm surges and flash floods is a wiser choice. At the very least, better identification and delineation of floodways and flood-prone areas, and the implementation of appropriate land-use planning and regulatory tools, could lead to safer and more resilient development patterns. Abandoning vulnerable coastal areas and allowing them to return to a natural state may be a preferable alternative, but its practical application would have enormous social and economic impacts on property owners and communities. A balance must be struck between sustainable development practices and the needs and rights of property owners.

Withstand the hazard’s effects. Despite the inevitability of rising sea level, it is unrealistic to expect that all vulnerable populations and development will be relocated to safer ground, even over the long term. Protective floodworks, such as levees and floodgates, are one option to cope with flooding and storm surges, as are more-robust structures elevated above potential flood levels and hardened against extreme winds. Building and design codes to improve hazard resistance have proven their effectiveness through countless major events. The World Bank, European Commission, and other organizations are actively promoting “green” infrastructures such as replacement mangrove forests, wetlands, and other natural features in East Asia and elsewhere to reduce the effects of storm surge on coastal areas and restore some of the balance between natural and constructed environments. President Obama expressed his commitment to such community-led measures in his climate change speech in June at Georgetown University.

However, although physical flood defenses are effective, they create a dependency from which it is difficult or impossible to deviate. For example, New Orleans and the entire Mississippi River Basin in the United States are now hostage to decisions made at the national level nearly 100 years ago to install massive levees and flood walls. These structures require constant care (which is often not funded), increase vulnerability outside the protected zone, and also have the undesirable effect of luring new development into these “protected” areas. People need to be aware of how today’s decision-making can affect the realization of a sustainable long-term future.

Recover from the hazard. Despite efforts to avoid and prepare for natural disasters, some are bound to occur. How well communities recover from hazard events will depend on the degree to which they have invested (mentally, physically, and fiscally) in the basic building blocks of a resilient society. These include an entire suite of practices—from regulation to preparedness training to insurance premiums—that reflect the true level of risk, but the real key to resiliency is institutional commitment and competence. There must be an entity dedicated to ensuring that capacity exists at all levels (including governments, businesses, and individuals) to respond to the unexpected. Without such commitment, planning and preparation efforts will prove to be a hollow exercise. This point is critical. At this moment, efforts to improve community resilience in parts of the United States are hampered by people who seem to believe that climate change and sea level rise are nothing more than planks in a political platform, rather than an observable reality, and seek to block legislative and regulatory actions that would recognize the hazard and make people safer.

Cities will lead the way. The real work of improving resilience to climate change and sea level rise will ultimately fall to the cities, where much of the world’s population now lives. Although national governments can set broad policy direction and provide financial assistance, the world’s major cities must have access to the information, tools, and resources necessary to develop and implement geographically and culturally appropriate strategies that will work at the local level. City governments should be empowered to partner with groups that can leverage all available resources, such as: universities and government laboratories, to conduct research and to test alternatives to existing development patterns and construction techniques; business groups and private utilities, to protect critical infrastructure and ensure the continuation of vital services; and civil society organizations, to educate the public on how best to protect themselves and their property and how to aid in recovery operations.

Cities such as New York, Chicago, and Atlanta have already begun local adaptation efforts that could serve as models for other communities. Climate change will affect the global risk profile for decades to come, driving an agenda to reduce hazards to people and property. Without disputing for a moment the desirability of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is questionable that even drastic action to control emissions can meaningfully reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, lessen the number and intensity of extreme weather events, or prevent sea level from continuing to rise over the short term. How well we anticipate and prepare for these changes and their impacts will have a profound effect on the lives and economic well-being of hundreds of millions of people both now and in the future.