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Getting Real

Why companies should lean in on community resilience

“Think globally, act locally.”

I used to hear that frequently, but the refrain seems to have faded lately, perhaps sidelined by its age and simplicity. It’s time we brought it back in the context of climate change and, especially, climate resilience. 

Think globally: Nothing is more global than the climate crisis. One Earth, one atmosphere, one planetary water system. I’m heartened by how far leading companies have evolved in their approach to climate mitigation, many explicitly framing their ambitions around the IPCC target of 1.5°C. Not that it’s enough — so much more is required to advocate for the policies that are so desperately needed to achieve the goal. But they’re definitely thinking globally.

Act locally: Nothing is more local than climate impacts. Last week, I had the privilege of attending the two-day ICAR conference — the Initiative on Coastal Adaptation and Resilience — in south Florida, on the frontlines of sea level rise. The news was in California, on the frontlines of wildfires. People fleeing, houses burning, streets flooding. Lost work, lost homes, lost lives. How much more local can it get?

There were no big companies speaking at this conference, and only one I could find that had a representative in the audience. There were researchers and educators, local and state governments, civil society, community organizers and concerned citizens, some of whom had already moved to higher ground.

One of the professors put up a slide of those that needed to be involved in planning for community resilience. It included the county, the city, the state, the neighborhood, the families. One of the speakers touted another summit with people from more cities, more counties, more NGOs. Maybe a local business owner or two, but no big companies. Not one.

It’s not that companies never engage with the local community. I recently attended a GreenBiz Executive Network meeting and was impressed by investments some companies are making in their communities, from addressing food insecurity to job re-skilling to education. Many of our offices at EMC got involved in community concerns, from building sanitation in schools in Bangalore to training in restorative justice in Massachusetts.

But what we apparently are not doing much of is figuring out our companies’ role in community climate resilience.

Obvious though it may be, let’s take a moment to remember how dependent we are on our communities — for power and roads, water and communication, education and healthcare, employees and customers. Clearly, it is in our interest to help them become more resilient in a decreasingly predictable world.

But even more, we need to ask what resources we can bring to the table. One speaker from the city’s urban affairs department spoke of “comfort centers” being established for those who have been driven from their homes but have neither local alternatives nor the wherewithal to leave. Where are they? In schools, and sometimes (although sadly, apparently not often enough) in religious venues.

All I could picture were those big business spaces, up on the hills of corporate campuses, with large conference room, wide cafeterias and clean bathrooms. Okay, I admit security could be a challenge were they opened to the local community. But planned in advance, it is not an insurmountable problem. 

The New York Times had a story recently about people in California living out of their cars in a Walmart parking lot. The store, to their great credit, brought in portable toilets and washing stations. They called it “an urgent and highly unusual situation.” I have news for them: it’s going to become less unusual.

Or, maybe more accurately, the unusual will be less unusual as we move from old normal to new normal to no normal. 

When we think of vulnerable communities, we may be speaking of those most exposed to rising seas or burning forests. But as the conference made painfully clear, the breadth of communities at risk is much greater when the map is overlaid with one considering the ability of the residents to withstand the physical and financial shocks of weather disasters, or the more insidious effects of pollution, heat, drought and job loss.

Companies get hit, too, but they have disaster plans. And they may still have a role to play, offering facilities, shuttle buses, backup power, plumbing, food and Internet access to communicate with banks, employers and loved ones. 

Companies have voices, too, and influence. They need to speak up against the forces working to entrench the status quo — not just on a national scale, or at the state or provincial level, but locally.

And not just on policy that is obviously about climate change. One oft-mentioned fact at the conference was that home sellers in their region are under no obligation to disclose flooding history, or how many times flood insurance had been paid out. Savvy owners are selling out, moving to high ground, and leaving naive buyers to discover on their next claim that there’s no more flood insurance payout to be had due to the three previous events.

How the heck would you know that? Or know what the community may need in the event of a catastrophe? 

Easy: engage. Go to the town meetings. Volunteer to participate in resiliency planning. Listen. And act. Locally.

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