6 April 2018

A primer on resilience

The March/April issue of the Bulletin magazine (free-access until June 2018) explores resilience and the climate threat. The issue is guest-edited by Alice C. Hill, research fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution and former senior director for resilience policy for the National Security Council. Hill’s work focuses on building resilience to destabilizing catastrophic events, including the impacts of climate change, and she brings her considerable expertise to this special issue.

So what is ‘resilience?’ Why is it a useful term? And what are the political and financial costs to make it a priority? We asked Hill to explain.

What is resilience?

Resilience is a difficult term to define. We find that there are many definitions out there, but they all center around this idea of bouncing back — that you can prepare yourself, your character or your infrastructure to be ready for shocks, absorb those shocks, and then bounce back from the shock. 

“Resilience” is particularly attractive to many people. In fact, the use of the word has just exploded in recent decades because it allows a common vocabulary for sometimes difficult issues. Climate change is one of those issues. If you have a risk of flooding, you can talk about an effort to prepare for flooding risk by being resilient, versus talking about "climate adaptation".

When you have politicians who are working with communities that may have a polarized electorate—some of whom don't believe or subscribe to the science that has indicated climate change is occurring—those politicians will use the word resilience as well as other community members to build a coalition, to take action, to better prepare the community.  

Is resilience expensive?

There’s a recent study (built on prior work) that says that for every dollar we spend [on resilience] we'll save $6 in recovery costs. That’s a remarkable cost benefit ratio. It’s a higher figure than we had from the earlier study, which said it was $4 for every $1 spent.

This study is not widely known yet. I think it's because most people don't think in terms of cost-benefit analysis. But as we plan for the future impacts of climate change, we necessarily have to judge whether a particular investment—for example, to raise a road—makes sense in the light of the risk that's faced. This ratio will help us better understand what is a worthy investment and what is not. 

Are we investing enough in resilience? Why not?

We are underinvesting in resilience. There's no question about that here in the United States as well as worldwide. Some countries simply don't have the funds at hand to invest in resilience. They're challenged too much by poverty and other drivers that prevent them from focusing on resilience.

In other nations, including our own, we are underinvesting in resilience because it's difficult for people to understand the cost-benefit analysis that, if they take measures now to better protect their home, they could save themselves a lot of damage and money if a bad event—for example, a hurricane or wildfire—were to occur. For many ordinary citizens, that's not a common analysis. They assume that if their house is built to the building code, that's sufficient. What they do not realize is that we have a compounding future risk in climate change that will make it difficult for all of us to remain resilient. 

Another thing that we see in terms of resilience, and whether public monies are spent on resilience, is that politicians are faced with many very urgent demands: crime, schools, transportation challenges. So, for them to focus on the important issues of building resilience, which may not present as urgent as other issues, sometimes we see they may focus on the urgent, rather than the important. I've heard this described as NIMT: Not In My Term. The politicians will focus on the immediate things to be fixed and leave the longer term challenges for the next person that will be leading the community.

So what can be done now to achieve resiliency?

We best achieve resiliency by speaking with one another, looking at the best available science, applying our best decision-making skills to determine what our future risk is. Once we determine our future risk or risk scenario, we're better able to plan how we can prepare ourselves against that risk.

Politicians can use this format to bring along other members of the community who may be hesitant to talk about climate change or may not want to actually discuss the issue, to talk about the immediate problems in their community, and what they can do to address those. 

Share the full video of Alice Hill's primer on resilience, and learn more about the topic in the March/April issue of the Bulletin magazine.