Thursday, December 4, 2014

Steps Toward a Resilient and Sustainable Future

Resilienceby Alan Hecht, Ph.D., EPA:

The connection between sustainability and resilience - defined as the capacity to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change - is an emerging theme among a host of environmental organizations.

I was happy to explore that important connection further with thought leaders from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Council for Science and the Environment, the Ohio State University Center for Resilience, and the United Nations Foundation as part of a panel at The Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington last month.

The event also highlighted the release of a special issue of Solutions Journal devoted to resilience. Our discussion emphasized pressing global challenges, including population growth, urbanization, and climate change.

Such pressures increase the risk of economic and environmental disruptions, including natural disasters, regional conflicts, and technological failures. To reduce their vulnerability, businesses and communities need to improve their resilience, enabling them to cope with stresses and recover quickly from unpredictable shocks.

Together, we talked about how sustainability and resilience are connected. Joseph Fiksel from Ohio State suggested that short-term resilience is a prerequisite for long-term sustainability, but he cautioned that there are trade-offs between resilience and sustainability.

We agreed on the urgency of taking positive action, including development of new business models; technological innovation; flexibility in regulations and policies; breaking down silos in government; and collaborative partnerships between business and government.

We were happy to note recent developments in that direction, including the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, pioneered by the Rockefeller (look for a blog about our brand new partnership to support that initiative shortly).

Other examples include the President’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience which provides recommendations for how the Federal Government can effectively respond to the needs of communities dealing with extreme events and other impacts of climate change.

New tools are available, including a web-based “Climate Resilience toolkit” that provides access to dozens of federal tools designed to help community decision makers.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has also announced a $1 billion program for disaster recovery, called the National Disaster Resilience Competition.

This initiative will make $1 billion available to 67 communities that suffered a Presidentially Declared Major Disaster between 2011 and 2013. The money will fund “the implementation of innovative resilience projects to better prepare communities for future storms and other extreme events.”

In the research arena, the National Science Foundation has launched a grant program on Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Processes and Systems (RIPS). It aims to (1) foster an interdisciplinary research community (2) enable the design of disaster-resistant critical infrastructure systems, and (3) create the knowledge to support infrastructure innovation.

Finally, here at EPA we are developing metrics and indicators for resilience and sustainability, as well as related decision support tools. Many other federal agencies are engaged in coastal protection, enhancement of ecosystem services, and reduction of stresses due to the energy-water-food “nexus.” 

To be effective, agencies will need to reach across traditional boundaries and take an integrated, systems approach toward managing these issues.

Today’s problems and pressures are daunting, but events such as “Superstorm” Sandy have served as a wake-up call. It is evident that we have begun the first steps to creating a resilient society, one that is fit for the long and winding journey toward sustainability.

About the Author: A leader in sustainability research, Alan Hecht, Ph.D. is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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