For some cities, the issue of going “green” is becoming less important than going “resilient.”
Officials in New York City – a municipality already well known for many green initiatives – are putting a new emphasis on becoming more storm-resistant since Hurricane Sandy caused billions in damage this past October. New strategies are also clearly needed in a city like Beijing, where major investments in clean-energy transport, renewables and increased green space haven’t offered much protection from deadly record floods or extreme pollution over the past year.
“Eco” programs, after all, might be good for a city’s public image … but there’s nothing like a climate-related or environmental disaster to provide motivation for deeper, wider-ranging action.
There’s a growing recognition that improving overall resilience is probably a better strategy than simply planting more trees, adding more solar to the local energy mix or encouraging commuters to take the train instead of driving to work.
The Post Carbon Institute, for example, recently renamed its long-time online publication – formerly The Energy Bulletin – to Resilience. Over time, the Post Carbon team says, articles about energy evolved to cover “other resource depletion-related issues, and articles which describe, encourage or educate on meaningful responses – in essence, the task of building resilience.” It seemed like a natural progression to move from worrying about one major societal problem to trying to find solutions for multiple problems coming down on us all at once.
The good news is, myriad solutions can be found … even if they create other challenges along the way. How, for example, to answer the post-Sandy question raised for many devastated waterfront areas: Rebuild or retreat? (Similar questions were asked about New Orleans after the failure of the levees during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Many residents, willingly or not, did end up retreating, while some have rebuilt with the support of organizations like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in more sustainable, resilient ways.)
Ultimately, the biggest problem with making resilient-city solutions work tends to come down to two issues: money and will.
Justifying the expense
Resilience, by definition, suggests long-term planning and preparation rather than short-term payoffs. In a global economy where investors are looking for quarterly returns, that can make it difficult to find funding for resilience-focused improvements. And it’s getting harder year by year, because – as Sir Nicholas Stern warned out in his pivotal 2006 report on the economics of climate change – the longer we wait, the more expensive such improvements become.
“Successive editions of this report have shown that the climate goal of limiting warming to 2°C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes,” the International Energy Agency noted, once again, in its 2012 World Energy Outlook.
Still, some projects offer, if not immediate, definite short-term rewards, such as Mozambique’s $100 million vision for improving climate resilience. For the port city of Beira – a town of over a half-million that already experiences frequent flooding as well as periodic outbreaks of cholera – that vision includes engineering to reduce beach erosion, upgrading the drainage system and strengthening the sanitation agency. Improvements like these promise clear life-saving, as well as bottom-line, benefits in a country that’s lost more than 100,000 people in 68 natural disasters over the past 50 years. (In 2000 alone, flooding killed some 800 people in Mozambique and cost the country 20 percent of its GDP.)
The improvements in Beira and other parts of the country are being funded through the Climate Investment Funds’ (CIF) Pilot Program for Climate Resilience. Approved by the World Bank in 2008 as a way to provide stop-gap funding for improvements ahead of the next global agreement on climate change, the Climate Investment Funds focus on helping countries achieve the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals.
Finding the will
When you look at a city with open sewers where cholera is still a problem, it’s easy to conclude that any improvement – if it improves lives – is well worth the effort and expense. But sometimes, even when money is made available, the will to build resilience is lacking.
How resilient, for example, is Port-au-Prince … which remains packed with thousands of poor people living in temporary shelters or dangerous housing three years after the massive 2010 Haiti Earthquake?
One reason is that, while much relief money was pledged after the deadly disaster, some didn’t reach the ground where it was needed at all while lots more was spent in unaccountable, uncoordinated ways. Forget relocating the nation’s capital to a safer, more sustainable location, as some advised – Port-au-Prince hasn’t come anywhere close yet to returning to the less-than-ideal circumstances of pre-quake times.
Building resilience takes not just determination but new ways of thinking, says Andrew Zolli, co-author with Ann Marie Healy of the new book, “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.” Changing from a business-as-usual mindset isn’t easy … but when we view the future from the perspective of the many challenges headed our way, it’s clearly anything but a business-as-usual picture.
“There’s a deepening appreciation that we’re living in a time of increased, intrinsic volatility,” Zolli recently told Forbes. And, perhaps surprisingly, the relentless push for efficiency these days is leading to more – not fewer – risks in volatile times.
“There is a correlation between efficiency and fragility,” Zolli said. “We love efficient systems, but for many systems, peak efficiency brings with it peak fragility. Things like carrying insurance, and having redundant systems impose carrying costs on an organization. They make the system less than perfectly efficient, but safer when things go wrong. The tradeoffs are inevitable – it’s just a matter of making the right ones.”