One enduring consensus in the climate-change debate has been the need for endurance, or the ability of people to absorb the impact of erratic storms, severe droughts, or rising seas. On Tuesday, President Obama made that point strongly, not only for the United States but for the world.
At the United Nations climate summit in New York, he announced a US plan to strengthen “global resilience” to climate change. Other countries will soon receive US help in forecasting weather risk, anticipating floods, and developing techniques to adapt to global warming. All US foreign-aid projects will now be screened for how well they help poor countries in weather adaptation.
The plan is just as ambitious as the effort to head off a rise in atmospheric temperatures. But it may be that building up resilience is much more doable and agreeable. And perhaps if global unity can be achieved in protecting individual countries from global warming, then it might be easier to achieve unity in cutting carbon emissions.
Many places have recently experienced “weird weather,” such as superstorm Sandy, which struck the Eastern seaboard in 2012. Such experiences have persuaded more leaders to jump on the resilience bandwagon. On Monday, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York signed the Community Risk and Resiliency Act to assist local communities in preparing for severe weather or sea level rise.
Two years ago, Obama kicked off a climate-resilience campaign for the US. His latest effort, announced in July, is a $1 billion competition for states and localities to come up with innovative ways to prepare for natural disasters – and to recover from them.
Yet as many disaster-hit communities have discovered, material preparations are not enough. Dikes can be built, dams reinforced, electric grids made solid, and storm shelters put on every block. Yet, according to a recent report called “Toolkit for Resilient Cities,” “Changing social, political and economic conventions is as fundamental to the success of city resilience initiatives as is upgrading physical assets.”
The best preparation is strong community ties, the kind that compel people to respond to others during a weather crisis and to restore a city or town after a storm – often making it better than it was.
Resiliency campaigns may be the best way to fight the popular fatalism toward climate change. Knowing that a community can bounce back from erratic weather could provide people with the confidence needed to join others in a global push against greenhouse gases. Endurance in one effort is often transferable to another.