Time for Resilience Leaders to Rethink Community Engagement

Why don’t efforts to build climate resilient communities involve the public more? The answer lies in acknowledging an uncomfortable truth about how local and regional agencies plan and prepare for environmental events linked to climate change.

by Rupu Gupta
Feb 4, 2020

Scientific evidence of the changing climate and its impacts on ecological and human systems is overwhelming. This has led to an emphasis among environmental leaders on preparing for and adapting to the effects of flooding, droughts, and more. “Resilience” has become a buzzword, with substantial federal, regional, and local investment driving work to better prepare, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The problem is that most of these efforts exclude the voices of those most vulnerable.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment reinforces how low income and other marginalized groups are the most affected by extreme weather events. Yet these groups are typically not at the table during the planning processes that aim to create more resilient futures for these very communities. Instead, resilience planning often features authority figures from government, business, academia, and other professional fields who have little personal experience with the debilitating effects of climate change on these communities’ health and livelihood. Professionals, business leaders, and academic experts are a critical part of the resilience planning process. And their expertise is invaluable to any infrastructure building plans. But without the benefit of communities’ perspective about the effects of climate change on their lives and homes, approaches to the work of building physical and natural infrastructure to fortify communities will be incomplete.

The term “resilience” encompasses the multifaceted human experiences of thriving under challenging circumstances. These range from individual ability to cope with a new environmental reality, to entire communities’ capacities to jointly strengthen their neighborhood, town, or city. Overlooking these fundamental aspects of people’s lives ignores that those living in environmentally volatile areas also contend with grave social challenges such as unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. Consequently, the most at risk are denied the opportunity to become fully resilient.

To truly enable vulnerable communities to thrive in the era of global climate change, the power balance within resilience planning initiatives needs to shift. It is possible for decision makers in resilience efforts to be more inclusive and attentive to the unique priorities and needs of the communities at the center of their efforts. The first step is to recognize the power differential that exists between authorities and under-resourced communities. Only by being transparent about privilege and making space for others can leaders begin to build truly effective and equitable resilience initiatives.

This kind of relationship-building work is essential to the long-term success of resilience efforts. It helps to develop trust between groups who may not have worked together in the past; creates opportunities for everyone to participate equitably; and appreciates diverse perspectives.

In summary, leaders in the resilience sector need to be honest about their social and professional standing as they embark on efforts to strengthen communities. That is the only way that everyone will be able to meaningfully join in creating solutions that will help them flourish in a changing climate. Some organizations are already taking steps to broaden the conversation to include the viewpoints and perspectives of people on the frontlines of climate change’s effects. This includes organizations such as the New England Aquarium, the CLEO Institute, and Second Nature who are working with the public to take meaningful environmental action. Meanwhile, indigenous communities around the world are taking a leading role in climate change-related planning and adaptation.

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