Climate resilience: Deconstructing the new buzzword

“Climate resiliency” is a new buzzword in environmental communications. Buzzwords are exciting because when they're successful, they convey important concepts in a compact and compelling way. At the same time, it's easy to assume audience understanding and for terms to be co-opted over time.

In March, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating the Climate, Cities and Behavior Symposium (CCB) at the Garrison Institute, a gathering of municipal and community leaders involved in climate and sustainability planning. The focus was on understanding the intersections between resiliency, sustainability and climate issues. It quickly became clear that while use of the term resiliency is rising, there are still a lot of issues to consider about what resiliency actually means and the pros and cons of using it to advance public understanding and engagement.

At CCB, Missy Stults from the University of Michigan proposed (“Fostering Resilience: From Theory to Operation”) that resiliency is a subset of the larger umbrella of sustainability; it's the foundation (or handle) that keeps the umbrella strong. There are different types of resiliency to consider such as economic, ecological, community, climate and social, so being clear on what you are building resiliency for is key.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, resiliency is defined as “the ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy.” This is appealing because “climate resiliency” conveys both an inherent recognition of a threat that needs to be responded to, as well as a sense of efficacy – that it is possible to respond to that threat.

On the other hand, the other meaning of “resiliency” is “the property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed; elasticity.” This is problematic because when used in the climate context, it can feed into the desire to return to the status quo as quickly as possible.

Next page:  If not the status quo, then what?

Photo of green umbrella provided by 2happy via Shutterstock.