Resilience and Adaptation
The second panel of the workshop was asked to discuss the key environmental threats and opportunities communities face. Climate change is one obvious challenge over the longer term, but in the near term communities will continue to face natural disasters and related environmental challenges, the impacts of which can be catastrophic. Panelists focused their remarks on notable research efforts into environmental impact reduction, resilient infrastructure, and adaptation measures.
From Recovery to Resiliency
For Glen Daigger, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, CH2M Hill, Inc., the key term is not “sustainability” but “resiliency.” "What will it take," he asked, "to create resilient cities?" This is no small matter, as the devastation inflicted on New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina tragically showed.
Walter Peacock, Professor of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning and Director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University, noted that U.S. coastal areas, which are home to half of the nation's population (more specifically, 50 percent of all Americans live within 50 miles of an ocean coastline), are at risk to storm surges and rising sea levels due to climate change. "We need science-based information," he observed, "to help us assess the extent of the risk and to develop effective strategies” both to mitigate and adapt to the likely impacts.
Pointing to Howard C. Kunreuther's (2009) book, At War With the Weather, Peacock asserted that "we are in an age of new catastrophes." We may think of "hurricanes, tornadoes, land slides and earthquakes as acute events that strike only rarely," Peacock said. But in truth, mega-catastrophes have become "chronic challenges" that must be addressed in much the same way we have addressed and planned for inevitable increases in traffic or demand for housing. He also noted that our lack of foresight in planning for and responding to natural disasters makes them “man-made catastrophes.”
Peacock observed that between 1950 and 2000, coastal areas in the United States grew in population by more than 100 percent while the rest of the country grew by 75
percent. Consequently, coastal areas have experienced enormous increases in housing and infrastructure. As he lamented: "Katrina was a horrific event. Yet, the $85 billion in property losses and damages spoke as much to a human miscalculation as it did to a natural disaster.” We have developed in places where we should not have and we have paid a steep price as a result, he warned.
Peacock cited the coastal hazard planning tool kit developed for the Texas coast as an example of how ‘visualization tools’ could be used to convey valuable information to citizens and policy makers alike that could help make urban communities more resilient.
The tool kit, which was funded by the Texas Sea Grant Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Texas General Land Office, has helped shed light on the development difficulties likely to be faced by policy makers and the public residing along the rapidly developing Texas coastline. The challenge is how to make room for this growth without undermining the coastline’s ecology and the irreplaceable ecological services that it provides.
Perhaps most importantly, the tool kit can be used to help policy makers and the public plan for natural disasters in areas that are prime targets for devastating hurricanes in the short term and relentless sea-level rise in the long term. In such regions as these, efforts to build more resilient communities should be of the highest priority.
Peacock, however, was not optimistic that things were about to change for the better. He noted that historically a predictable series of responses have followed on the heels of natural disasters in the United States. These responses, which have become all too familiar, have more to do with poor decision making than with inadequate technology or even insufficient information.
The emergency response, he stated, begins with an outpouring of heartfelt concern backed by a profusion of resources to aid in the recovery. Yet, from the start, the response is uneven, with wealthier, more politically astute segments of society invariably receiving more assistance. Equally disturbing, as the impact of the disaster fades into memory, old patterns of development return. As a result, many of the same risks and vulnerabilities recur. And, when disaster strikes again (as it inevitably will), the cycle of deadly destruction, generosity and willful forgetfulness plays out once more.
How can a sustainable path to development take hold, Peacock asked, when we continue to repeat the same mistakes? What we really need to do, he asserted, is to focus not on recovery but on “reducing vulnerability and enhancing resilience.” He went on to note that the half-hearted solutions put in place during the recovery tend to be technological and/or “brick and mortar” fixes—for example, sea walls and dikes—and that long-term solutions—for example, prohibiting development in high-risk areas—are invariably eclipsed by short-term economic considerations. He regretted that "environmental preservation and restoration were rarely high on the agenda of the reconstruction projects that follow in the wake of a natural disaster."
A solution to this vicious cycle, Peacock maintained, lies in focusing on resiliency and vulnerability—that is, concentrating on preventative measures. In Florida, for example, only 19 percent of the people live in coastal communities that engage in comprehensive planning. Even more worrisome, less than 30 percent of the state’s coastal residents live in communities where floodplain and storm-water management are integral parts of the political decision making process when it comes to development. "Let's face
it," Peacock lamented, "powerful economic interests win, especially at the local level, because land use and local economic development issues are what drive the economy."
Echoing the observations made by Peacock, Keelin Kuipers, Manager of the Coastal Storms Program at NOAA, also pointed to a sophisticated ‘visualization tool’ that her organization, in partnership with the USGS and Delaware Department of Natural Resources, has devised to help policy makers "see the future contours of the coastline" in and near Wilmington, Delaware, based on past and current patterns of development. More specifically, the tool has been designed to help officials better understand the impact that climate-change-induced sea-level rise could have on the city’s economy and ecology.
Kuipers contended that this is more than a tool used for the protection of the natural environment (important as that is). It is also a tool that lets policy makers and planners determine where infrastructure should be built so that it can remain out of harm’s way during a hurricane or storm surge. It is, in effect, a tool designed to help create an investment strategy for more sustainable growth.
NOAA and the USGS, Kuipers stated, have forged a partnership with the Chamber of Commerce in Mobile, Alabama. The goal is to “provide critical information that is credible and science-based but, at the same time, can highlight significant gaps in knowledge.”
Like other participants, Kuipers proclaimed that coastal communities in the United States face a unique set of challenges because of the enormous investments that have been made in infrastructure and the high risks this infrastructure faces due to storms and rising sea levels. The challenge is to provide these communities with science-based information and services that can help them “make better decisions.”
As one example, Kuiper spoke about how public officials in Wilmington, Delaware, would like to build a new wastewater treatment facility. But they would also like to know whether the facility would be there 100 years from now—or whether it would it be swept away by storms or flooding. The research conducted by NOAA and its partners, Kuipers said, could help them make a wise investment decision that would retain its value over the long term.
At a more general level, Kuiper cited two critical problems that researchers and public officials must contend with when advancing science-based responses to the risks posed by natural hazards such as hurricanes and storm surges. First, she noted that the “benefits derived from redevelopment” in the aftermath of a natural disaster often accrue locally, while the costs of redevelopment “are borne by the nation.” And second, she observed that we do not yet have a sufficient understanding of the “cultural perceptions and attitudes” that come into play at the regional, state and local levels” in discussions of adaptation and resilience. Greater understanding of this type of “people-in-place” information, Kuipers believed, might make it easier to formulate successful strategies for coastal management that would help promote “good decision making” and ultimately sustainable growth.
Denice Wardrop, Assistant Director, Institute of Energy and Environment at Penn State University, pointed to the “25-year-old experiment in sustainability” in the Chesapeake Bay as a possible model for others to follow. She noted that the progress the
project has been able to achieve has rested on framing discussions on questions of ecosystem services—the Bay’s ability (or lack of ability) to provide recreation, seafood, commerce and biodiversity—to area residents, and on what would be lost if they allowed the Bay to continue to be exploited beyond the ecosystem’s limits of resiliency and recovery. Wardrop noted that ecosystem services have aided discussions of sustainability “by providing a way for people to talk about tradeoffs.”
Recreating a pristine environment, she said, was not possible, but developing a strategy based on tradeoffs and short-term sacrifices to attain long-term benefits was. Historically, discussions had focused on the level of resources that could be extracted— that is, on the “eco-demand-side” of the equation. Today, discussions are more likely to focus on the level of resources that must remain in place to ensure a healthy ecosystem into the future—that is, on the “eco-supply side” of the equation.
For all of its detailed analyses, broad-based discussions and comprehensive policy actions involved in the Chesapeake Bay initiative, a change in mindset may have been its greatest achievement: that is, its success in transforming the drivers of policy from one based on the notion of unlimited resources to one based on a firm conviction that we live in a region (and a world) of limited resources. That means we cannot have it all now, but must instead think in terms of tradeoffs and what ought to be protected and conserved for the future. Find the right balance for managing competition between land, water and biodiversity, she seemed to be saying, “and we will have begun to map a proper course for sustainability.”
Sophisticated computerized tools, Wardrop said in comments that closely tracked those of Peacock and Kuipers, are now available to accurately project what the ecosystem tradeoffs will be when pursuing specific land use policies. But she quickly added that “there has often been a mismatch between the scale at which we describe the ecosystem benefits when pursuing these measures and the scale at which we describe the socio-economic benefits.”
Put another way, we have yet to develop an analytical tool that can consistently illustrate how “smart” ecosystem management will render short-term impacts for social well being. “What we forget as scientists,” she cautioned, “is to talk to people at a scale that is meaningful for them.”
Wardrop raised an even more general challenge for the scientific community when she asserted that “scientists must learn to separate interesting problems from meaningful problems,” if they hope to play a key role in devising a more sustainable future. She observed that scientists are often encouraged to develop their own research agendas and find their own disciplinary niche. Moreover, they are inherently curious about the natural world around them and “find everything interesting.” As a result, we should not be surprised to discover that many scientists have difficulty tailoring their research agendas to problems that have been defined by others, particularly if “the others” are not part of the scientific community.
As a result, she urged scientists concerned about sustainability issues to focus on this critical question: “What is the science that will change decision making?”
Wardrop seemed to be suggesting that scientists seeking to address the issues of sustainability, including urban sustainability, would be wise to turn to the emerging subdiscipline of sustainability science (Clark, 2007) and be willing to frame their research agendas around questions that are posed by those who are not members of the
scientific community—that is, to allow their research to be “demand driven.” She concluded by noting that this is largely the path that scientists studying the Chesapeake Bay have taken over the past several decades with encouraging results.
Translating Knowledge into Action
Bill Werkheiser, Eastern Regional Director at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), concentrated his remarks on his agency’s efforts to analyze and respond to the risks posed by such natural hazards as coastal storms, droughts, floods, landslides, volcanoes and wild fires. He emphasized the importance of the USGS’s recent initiatives to unite research in the natural sciences with research in the social sciences so as to inform effective evidence-based strategies for mitigating and responding to such catastrophes.
Specifically, Werkheiser pointed to a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary project in southern California dedicated to earthquake preparedness—the “great shakeout,” as it was called. The region that served as the site of the project lies on the infamous 1,100-kilometre (800-mile) San Andreas fault, which runs through an area in southern California that is home to more than 5 million people.
The project not only involved 25 percent of the region’s population but also enlisted the services of some 300 professionals, including seismologists, public health specialists, economists, sociologists and even writers and art designers. The latter prepared messages that could be easily understood by the public and that would capture its attention. For example, instructions for reacting to an earthquake were reduced to this: “drop, cover and hold on.”
As Werkheiser explained, project organizers wanted to alter the “mindset” of the people living on the fault line from the prevailing passive attitude of “we live here and accept earthquakes as inevitable,” to an attitude of informed resolve: “we live here and want to prepare for earthquakes, because we know they will occur.”
In the parlance of the scientific community, the USGS hoped the project would help shift discussions from a focus on “vulnerability” to a focus on “resilience" —to transform residents’ fatalism that “we can’t do much about earthquakes” to a conviction that “though we can’t prevent earthquakes, we can mitigate their impacts.”
Scientists working for federal agencies, Werkheiser contended, could make significant contributions to this proactive strategy. For example, using sophisticated modeling techniques, they could forecast the ground motion that would accompany an earthquake of a given magnitude in a given location. They could then project the damage likely to be caused by the earthquake. The goal would be to identify critical vulnerabilities and then propose solutions that would enable communities to prepare and respond to the risk.
In the past, Werkheiser said the USGS would “go deep into the science.” Now, the agency tries to “focus on relevance and on devising strategies that allow communities to avoid or absorb the shock created by a natural disaster and ultimately to build resilience” that enables them to face the future—however uncertain it might be—with confidence.
He cited the catastrophe in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina as providing an important lesson for federal departments and, more generally, state and national risk management agencies. “Scientists had accurately predicted that a tragedy would take
place some time in the future." They had even "developed scenarios that turned out to project almost exactly what happened there.” Indeed the scenarios pinpointed the city streets that would suffer the greatest damage and loss of life.
But this knowledge, he said, was kept within a small cadre of experts and not shared with the larger population. “People in New Orleans,” he observed, “didn’t know how vulnerable they were.” What good is scientific information, he asked, if it cannot be put to use to save lives and protect property?
As a result of this experience, USGS now wants to ensure that critical information concerning risk does not remain closeted among experts. Instead, it wants to widely share this information with policy makers and the public. “What we had in New Orleans,” Werkheiser stressed, “was a communications, not scientific, problem.” And, he and his agency do not want poor communications to obscure good science in the future.
Denise Stephenson Hawk, an environmental and educational consultant and Chairperson of the Atlanta-based Stephenson Group, concurred with Werkheiser, in noting that “we need to make sure that scientific data and information are used by the people” to help them make informed decisions on critical issues.
She added that data and information, particularly information that can help break down the disciplinary silos that have characterized and constrained problem-solving research (especially in universities and government agencies), must drive research efforts in the future. Scientific data, she observed, also is essential for establishing baselines against which changes in resource use can be measured over time. The gathering of data is essential, Stephenson Hawk noted. Nevertheless, like Werkheiser, she emphasized that science-based sustainable development will ultimately depend on moving scientific data and information beyond scientific circles to the larger policy community and lay public.