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What we’re talking about when we talk about resilience

October 22, 2021

How adaptation has risen up the COP26 agenda and why Willis Towers Watson is supporting the Resilience Hub.
Climate Risk and Resilience

In the early days of climate action, there was a deep – and understandable – unwillingness to talk about adaptation, for fear of lowering ambition on mitigation. Admirable though that sentiment was, it yielded neither deep enough nor fast enough climate action. It also left us unprepared to address or accommodate the devastating effects of climate change on nature, on physical assets and on livelihoods – especially the livelihoods of the least advantaged.

Much has changed over the past decade: Concentrations of CO2 have exceeded 400 parts per million (PPM) for the first time (now around 415 PPM), but there has also been a step change in positive climate commitments from countries, regions and the private sector. As recently as 2015, when I was conducting research on the U.K. corporate sector’s exposure to climate risk, it was hard to get leading businesses’ involvement. Fast forward just six years and net zero targets have become the accepted high-ambition norm.

Another, less-welcome norm can be found in the flooding and fires that have afflicted every continent during 2021. Sadly, the impact of the changing climate extends well beyond these dramatic and visible events:

  • We are losing species at an unprecedented rate.
  • Once fertile land is turning into desert.
  • Glacier sheets are disintegrating
  • Oceans are rapidly acidifying.

All these changes are “locked in” for the foreseeable future; even if we succeed in bending the emissions curve – which for all the talk, money and commitments has still not happened – these adverse effects will linger. Greenhouse gases are extremely persistent, and we have not yet figured a way to remove them at the required scale and cost. Unfortunately, we must expect – and prepare – for things to get worse before they get better.

The effects of climate damage are both magnified by and magnify other societal ills such as poverty, inequality and forced migration. The vulnerable suffer the most: This is as true of buildings and coral reefs as it is of people. It is in this context that approaches to, and the language of, climate action are shifting.

Developing countries have long been fighting for support for climate adaptation, in addition to mitigation. They tend to experience the worst effects of climate change and have the fewest resources to deploy in response. Then, starting in 2010, the term “loss and damage” began to appear in the UN Conference of the Parties (COP) process. (Expect this to be a key bone of contention at COP26.) Developing countries argue that they should receive compensation for the direct costs of climate loss and damage that has been inflicted on them by the actions of rich countries. As an example, they point to the payments that Western governments regularly make to their own flood and fire afflicted citizens; otherwise highly constrained budgets always seem to accommodate such emergency measures. All this is layered on top of the need for continued support to climate mitigation.

Resilience thinking provides a way to bring together these existing strands in a single narrative while reframing the goals of climate action. Resilience captures the idea of being able to withstand both long-term change (adaptation) and short-term shocks – either avoiding them or bouncing back from them. It is important everywhere: It applies to people and natural assets, to the financial system, to supply chains and the built environment. In fact, one of the core benefits of resilience thinking is that it requires us to rethink the value of nature and the huge benefits we reap from ecosystem services and biodiversity. These ideas have remained separate from climate thinking for too long – but are intricately interwoven at the level of both cause and effect.

Resilience thinking helps create stability by focusing simultaneously on understanding and reducing risk and creating the capabilities of responding to that risk through physical or financial buffers, and “set piece” processes that are triggered in times of crisis. Perhaps the most important thing about resilience is that – like sustainability – it is really a system-level property. It makes most sense when applied at scale and it encompasses lots of factors and variables that are not climate specific. It is hard to achieve yet inherently durable – when done right.

If this sounds all a bit idealistic and complex, it really isn’t. Most of us are already familiar with the pursuit of resilience. It’s why we buy insurance. But we are also often guilty of neglecting the need for resilience, choosing to maximize our short-term gains rather than nurturing our longer-run robustness. We frequently live to regret that, but affluence protects us from the worst impacts of our mistakes.

The example that always brings this home for me comes from agriculture, where I started my career. As a trained economist, I always imagined that farmers would seek to maximize yields, but I soon learned the value they placed on minimizing losses. You can breed crops for the former, but because they increase a farmer’s risk – and as developing country farmers seldom have risk absorbing buffers so that even minor variability in climate or precipitation variability can be catastrophic – they will utterly fail on the latter. Resilience thinking really does move us in different directions.

What are the practical steps that will help us on our journey? These are just a few:

  • Gaining a deep understanding of the nature of relevant risks at different scales – national, ecosystem, asset or household level
  • Developing a new set of approaches, strategies and products to help reduce and then manage that risk – either through actions targeted directly at climate impact or through broader social, economic or nature-focused interventions
  • Extending the range of partners and alliances to facilitate the shift to this broader way of thinking about climate action (It is important to ensure that the right people and institutions are involved; resilience requires significant mobilization of resources, both human and financial. Communities are key.)

The Race to Resilience was launched in January 2021. Its aim is to catalyze a step change in global ambition to build the resilience of four billion people by 2030. With the accelerating impacts of climate change visible all around us and the effects of that change being most keenly felt in poorer nations and poorer communities within richer nations, this campaign is both urgent and timely. Climate is making us all more vulnerable. It is only with a step change in our understanding of the nature of the risks we face and with profound innovation in our responses to them that we have a chance of keeping ahead of the wave of turbulence that is bearing down on us.

Diana Fox Carney will be moderating Risk Matters: Making Resilience Add Up in a Net Zero Transition, a Willis Towers Watson hosted event at the Resilience Hub at COP26 on Tuesday, November 2, at 9:15 a.m. (local time) Register for virtual attendance here.

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