For those working in the climate world, the concept of resilience may seem straightforward. It relates to the capacities of communities, cities, countries, or systems to adapt to and reduce the impacts of the adverse effects of climate change.
However, that vulnerability depends highly on the subject upon which we are assessing resilience, the potential effect that climate change could have on their means of life and ultimately, their current ability to cope with two types of climate effects: extreme weather events and slow onset events.
In practice, climate resilience boils down to the subjects themselves. Let’s imagine a city, for instance. Climate change may be affecting it in various ways: it may be threatening its water sources (most cities in the Andean Region depend on moorlands or nearby glaciers), it may be the cause of extreme rain and floods derived from it given unprepared sewage systems, it may be suffering from extreme heat which in itself affects the health of its population, it may be threatening its food security, given effects to the agriculture sector, etcetera. Therefore, in any case, promoting resilience in the city would begin by identifying the current and potential ways (taking climate scenarios and projections into account) in which the adverse effects of climate change are and could be affecting said city and preparing its systems and its citizens for them. This analysis usually takes place through climate risk studies that will look at scientific data, exposed elements, potential threats and suggest ways to strengthen this resilience. It would be, as is known in the climate world, the “climate rationality” of looking at the issue and can be easily imagined at certain levels.
Nonetheless, the conversation becomes more complex as we look at the most vulnerable populations, like local communities, indigenous peoples, minorities, or the extremely poor. These groups have less capacities and are more sensitive to the impacts of climate change. Imagine, for example, how a heat wave affects a small child or how poor neighborhoods recover after floods. More variables are added when we focus upon slow onset events rather than extreme weather events, because the latter bring upon effects that in themselves create structural problems, like ocean acidification and fishing depletion, land degradation and crops harvested and loss of biodiversity and means of life, for instance.
The lower we would go in this pyramid, vulnerability would be determined by other factors rather than climate hazards. Vulnerability becomes more and more linked to socioeconomic and development levels, to structural poverty, discrimination and violence, gender roles, access to basic needs and rights, social inclusion, access to markets and means of life, access to information, planning capacities, access to the financial sector, availability of drinking water… the list could go on.
It then becomes clear that at these levels, climate resilience is less and less about scientific data, projections and scenarios, and more about promoting an inclusive society, with participatory and collaborative processes, predictable sources of income and sustainable management of resources. This will, as a whole, promote resilience without one single activity being able to attribute an impact at resilience building on the community level, but as a result of a comprehensive, coordinated and collaborative action.
This is where we would clash with the crux of the matter: climate funds or finance providers would begin to disagree.
This would be the line where climate projects and development projects begin to share colors, but similarly to a color pallet, it is difficult to determine which would be solely an adaptation (reduction of vulnerability and enhancement of climate resilience) effort and which, as a development project, is the responsibility of subnational or national governments to implement, regardless of support for climate action. Nevertheless, the key question is whether the capacities or resources for these actions are in place, because at the end of the day, it is unquestionable that they promote climate resilience.
Coming back to the question of what climate resilience means to local communities and how to promote it, the answer is as simple as it is complicated. On the simple side, climate resilience relates to the capacities that are needed to respond to or minimize the impacts of climate change. The complicated element is that these capacities and starting points vary greatly. Baselines from which to begin can include communities that have worked relatively well but see that their way of is life affected by climate change, or others that have not and are not working well and therefore, will see greater negative effects in an already vulnerable society, systems, or infrastructure.
So, how do we promote it?
By identifying the underlying conditions that render communities vulnerable to climate change, and strengthening them. This can sometimes be linked to future impacts, and climate risks, a baseline to determine the best course of action,and measurement and calculation of the adaptation impact of any project.
In local communities on the other side, most often than not, climate data might be less relevant as the vulnerabilities of local populations become more evident and needs are more pressing.
The meaning of climate resilience and how to get there is within communities themselves. It is often very close to sustainable development and enhancing the quality of life of people. Fighting poverty, inequality and injustice is the first and most urgent step to create resilience to external shocks. It evens conditions in the whole of society and moves those at the lowest levels of the climate vulnerability pyramid. But in a world of changing climate, creating resilience to this changing climate implies going a step beyond traditional development approaches. It is fundamental to incorporate an analysis of how climate change can affect the lives of people and adjust interventions to the best alternatives in adaptation and mitigation to climate impacts.