From: Issue 39
Adapting to the New Normal
Page 2 of 3
As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, are corporations and governments talking enough about resilience?
Permanent volatility and resilience are two sides of the same coin. Heads is about potentially dramatic spikes in input costs and debt financing affecting social, economic and institutional spheres – the stuff of daily life. Tails represents the capacity of citizens, communities, institutions, businesses and governments to adapt to abrupt shifts in normalcy. A reduction of political, economic and financial flexibility caused by rising sovereign and consumer debt is one area that could negatively impact societal resilience. The other enemy of resilience is a lack of preparedness, where credible warnings from climate science, for example, are disconnected from political consensus and thus fail to elicit institutional commitment.
Gordon Price is director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. As a six-time city councillor he’s acutely aware of the municipal planning process and how aligning long-term risk assessment with immediate political and economic reality is an increasingly tough challenge. About two years ago, Price started hearing about resilience in planning circles. “There was recognition that with climate change we won’t be able to stop or mitigate it,” he said. “So how do cities respond to circumstances that are locked in?”
One conceptual approach is the resilient city. According to Price, “a resilient city is probably more compact, with infrastructure that is newer and well maintained, thus more able to respond to emerging threats such as sea-level rise.” Price has also explored adaptation to change through methods such as scenario planning. “I’ve been to some scenario casting, looking at implications of the opening of the Northwest Passage (due to accelerated melting of Arctic ice),” he said. “You run into problems because there’s a trade-off around what you’ll do today for an unknown risk tomorrow. “Certain actions have been taken (to counter risk), but does it match up to the scale of the threat? Probably not.”
Indeed, the scale of the threat is staggering: the most credible recent estimate of climate change impacts between now and 2060 – globally, across water, health, infrastructure, coastal zones and ecosystems – equates financially to a stunning $1,240 trillion, according to estimates from a 2009 study by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, both based in London, England. The study estimated that spending $6 trillion on adaptation during that period would reduce impacts by $350 trillion. Clearly, adaptation pays off.
Like public institutions and government, corporations must manage trade-offs between market reality and long-term strategic planning. Based on my work in corporate futurism, some business strategists do understand the long-term threats posed by permanent volatility. Yet, they’re hamstrung because organizational resources are taken up in addressing today’s challenges surrounding volatility – not tomorrow’s. Thus, as one would predict, adapting to today trumps adapting to tomorrow.
Rob Abbott is a consultant based in Victoria who has worked with clients such as Walmart Canada on corporate sustainability initiatives. “The resilience discussion is dominated by the sectors you’d expect: academia, some non-governmental organizations and governments,” said Abbott. “The question when people talk about resilience is what they mean by it. At present, just as with sustainability, the concept risks being balkanized into economic resilience, social resilience, environmental resilience, and so on, just when we’re entering a period of long-term disequilibrium and should see the bigger picture.”