Climate Resilience: What It Means and Why It Matters

Cities and organizations everywhere need effective climate resilience plans.

Aerial view of road intersection
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Climate resilience is the ability to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Local governments use resilience planning to develop tailored strategies to minimize the risks from climate change to cities. However, because communities are often the most affected by climate change, the strategies that go into resilience planning are included in decision-making processes, as well.

The National Association of Climate Resilience Planners (NACRP) states, “The opportunity for increasing community resilience is in the very process of developing a plan when those who are most vulnerable are at the heart of society’s efforts to build a resilient future.” Effective resilience planning lessens the societal impacts of climate change. Examples include preparing a city for a flood by increasing stormwater infrastructure or managing the heat island effect in a city by planting shaded trees. The private sector also uses climate resilience planning to manage risks and benefit from new opportunities.

Calculating Risks

Risk is defined as the combination of the likelihood and the consequences of an adverse event. In other words, it is the product of probability and damage (risk = probability x damage). The process for calculating climate risks includes:

  1. Developing a list of all of the different types of climate hazards (e.g. hurricanes, floods, and droughts) that could have a serious impact on a particular asset (e.g. a property) in an area.
  2. Defining scenarios for each type of climate event that range from scenarios with low impact to scenarios with high impact and then creating a probability of that scenario occurring annually. For example, mild flooding, extreme flooding, and unprecedented flooding. The probability of the mildest scenarios would be high, and the probability of the most extreme scenarios would be low.
  3. Identifying all assets (economic, social, and physical) that could be impacted both directly and indirectly for each scenario. Direct impacts include property damages, displacement costs, and loss of business revenue. Indirect impacts include job losses, increased insurance rates, and reduced home value.
  4. Assessing the potential damage on each asset for all the climate hazards and all the different scenarios. For example, a risk assessment would be needed to estimate the potential damage to a house caused by a tropical storm of high intensity. This information is used to determine the level of vulnerability of each asset.
  5. Using the data from above, the annual and cumulative risk of exposure can be calculated by creating risk curves using modeling software.

Creating a Climate Resilience Plan

After the risks from climate change are quantified and calculated, priority areas are often identified by creating lists of the high-probability event types, the most affected areas, and the most vulnerable assets. Risk mitigation strategies are then created on a property-by-property basis. These strategies have costs and benefits associated with them; thus, through cost/benefit analyses, the strategies that reap the highest benefits at the lowest cost are often the preferred options. Climate resilience plans include information on climate resilience design strategies, policies and incentives, and investments in infrastructure.

Examples

Cities, communities, businesses, and groups around the world are recognizing the importance of creating climate resilience plans. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey released Climate Resilience Design Guidelines in 2018 to maximize the long-term safety, service, and resilience of their assets as climate conditions change. The main objective of these guidelines was to include climate projections, specifically sea level rise, in their engineering and architectural design standards to ensure that when climate events inevitably strike, that their facilities and infrastructure are designed to handle the impacts. Some design strategies included the development of levees and berms to protect the coastline, the placement of structures on higher ground, the development of flood walls to limit the flood risk in a particular area, and wet/dry floodproofing. 

In 2014, the Department of Defense published a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap in recognition of the threat that climate change has on the Department’s activities. The Roadmap noted that the climate threats that are most likely to affect the department are: rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. The Roadmap also included a plan for their operations such as being prepared to increase disaster relief overseas, a plan for carrying out training sessions if climate events strike, a plan to minimize the impact on natural and built infrastructure, and a plan for the Department’s acquisition and supply chain.

Overcoming Barriers to Resilience

There are often barriers to overcome when developing a climate resilience plan. For example, political interests and viewpoints change as administrations change overtime. However, many resilience infrastructure projects are implemented over multiple administrations. Additionally, infrastructure may need to be continually retrofitted as climate conditions change. The key to effective resilience planning is ensuring that the implementation of infrastructure projects is not disrupted across policy cycles. Another barrier to resilience is that many of the benefits of infrastructure implementation are difficult to monetize, which makes the perceived risk higher for investors. Blended finance can be used to overcome this issue, as it makes the investment decision less risky for one party. Infrastructure projects can be funded by multiple parties including both public and private institutions.

An additional challenge includes the lack of financial resources of small and medium-sized organizations and local governments. These entities often have limited funds to spend on climate-related issues, and the funds that they do have are prioritized to more pressing issues. Having an effective climate resilience plan helps with this as it would identify actions that could be funded through existing programs, actions that are low cost but deliver high benefits, and how actions can be prioritized. This climate resilience guide for business owners, produced by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in 2015, is a toolkit for business owners to find ways to implement climate resilience into their businesses, even when it might be financially difficult. Lack of local information about potential climate impacts is also a barrier that is faced by many.  This is usually the result of a limited amount of technical expertise in a local area and can be overcome by hiring consultants to support resilience planning efforts.

Overall, climate resilience efforts improve the economic competitiveness of a city. For example, the City of Oslo in Norway is more resilient when compared to other Norwegian cities. The city’s Climate Adaptation Strategy includes a clear plan for how it will deal with more extreme rainfall, higher temperatures, stronger winds, and increased flooding due to climate-related events. This makes it more attractive for businesses and communities to settle there, increasing jobs, tax revenue, and services. In addition, it saves the local government money by reducing the damage from climate events. Planning also improves community resilience to climate change by reducing their vulnerability. This refers to improvements in their ability to “bounce back” after a climate event and “bounce forward” by preparing for a climate event. Therefore, climate resilience planning is not only beneficial for cities, communities, and businesses socially but also economically.