et’s say you live by a large river, and one day you see someone splashing in the water and calling for help, so you dive in and save them.
The following day, another person falls in and needs saving. And the next day, another.
So, asks professor of public policy Dr Lisa Gibbs, having laid the ground for this thought experiment: what do you do?
Do you keep watch and make sure nobody drowns? Or do you go upstream, and figure out what’s causing people to fall into the river in the first place?
Gibbs enlists this analogy to capture the challenge confronting humanity as the fallout of the climate emergency begins to hit hard. The former choice, to keep watch and ensure nobody drowns, captures an increasingly controversial method employed by aid and development agencies, governments, and corporations responding to the climate crisis – building resilience.
Some experts fear the emphasis on resilience is directing too much precious time, money and effort into treating the symptoms. That the resilience agenda distracts from actions that might ultimately reduce the level of threat and harm. That it allows big polluters to continue to slide off the hook while asking vulnerable communities to fix problems not of their making, with the added odour that failure to do so reflects something lacking in their character or capabilities.
“Turning around to those (vulnerable) communities and asking that they become resilient in the face of these incredible structural inequalities … it is simply removing the responsibility from where it rightfully belongs,” argues Siobhan McDonnell, a legal anthropologist and senior lecturer at the Australian National University.
The latest advice from the recently published UN IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report collating the work of thousands of climate scientists and reports is that humanity faces a “code red” emergency. While the models also show that there is still scope to initiate global actions to make climate heating less catastrophic, even the best-case scenario means living with changes like higher sea levels, hotter summers and more extreme weather events.
Gibbs argues building resilience in the face of climate change is about helping people recover from disasters, and setting up infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather.
“The reality is, the changes are already here. Anything we do, there’s a lag before we see the benefits. In the meantime we’re going to be dealing with disasters, and we have to live with that,” says Gibbs.
But the problem with resilience is that no one can agree on exactly what it means. It’s a word resonating far and wide as the climate emergency bites – and an increasingly contested and controversial one at that.
McDonnell, a lead negotiator for the Republic of Vanuatu in major forums like the United Nations and a passionate advocate for Indigenous communities impacted by climate change, argues championing resilience is problematic in that it puts the onus for dealing with the problem on the people suffering the fallout, not the ones who created the problem.
Resilience rhetoric mandates that those vulnerable must simply learn to tolerate worsened conditions, she says.
“There is a way in which these ideas of resilience are mobilised that can really change the space of responsibility.”
Gibbs and McDonnell are both experts in their fields, and each grapples with a different legitimate concern. But far from being at odds, they are in fact tackling different elements of the same problem.
Gibbs devotes her time to dealing with the fallout, facilitating community-level adaptation to climate change, but she’s not absolving those who caused the problem. That’s where McDonnell comes in: fighting through policy and advocacy, and holding those leaders to account.
But governments are plugging resilience as a singular solution, rather than a piece of the puzzle, and that’s when things get confusing.
McDonnell unpacked some of these concerns in a recent discussion with Gordon Peake on his podcast, Memorandum of Understanding.
Peake initiated the discussion because he wanted to unpack the ambiguity around resilience.
“Certain words kind of fill me with dread, because I just don’t know what they mean,” Peake says. “One of them is resilience. How do you build resilience, can you get it in a shop? We wanted to explore that.”
His questions reflect growing scrutiny on the “R” word as it becomes ubiquitous in government, corporate and NGO responses to the climate emergency.
Leading climatologist Michael E. Mann identifies “resilience” as a tactic of what he calls ‘non-solution solutions’ to the crisis in his book, The New Climate War.
It’s a scathing, no-holds-barred critique of the way leaders are dealing with the climate crisis. He’s heavy-handed in his criticism of the Australian government’s insistence on adaptation and resilience.
“Don’t worry about mitigation and decarbonisation, we’ll just adapt to the ‘new normal’. Perhaps we’ll evolve to develop gills and fins. And fireproof skin.
“There is no amount of resilience or adaptation that will be adequate if we fail to get off fossil fuels.”
In other words, the drownings in the river won’t stop until we go upstream, and prevent people from falling into the water. Gibbs sees her role in disaster recovery as analogous to the rescuer on the banks.
“I’m down river, trying to help people deal with what’s happened. But we need to focus our attention up river, to stop the progression of climate change.”
But that doesn’t mean she fails to recognise what’s going on upstream. Her work is one important piece of the puzzle, and other actors are working elsewhere to fulfill other crucial pieces.
“I have an important role to play, but the other role is actually the one that’s going to make the biggest difference,” she says.
Timor-Leste is one of many places already impacted by climate change. Earlier this year, heavy rains caused flooding and landslides, killing over 40 and displacing tens of thousands.
Sea level rise and increased storm surges will also impact the country. The IPCC AR6 report found this will intensify around small island states like Timor-Leste as long as emissions from the countries most responsible for climate change remain high.
Timor-Leste is a place Gordon Peake knows well, having worked there for half a decade. He was deeply affected watching the flooding and landslides unfold from Australia.
“Sometimes the system just snaps, and that’s what happened in places like Timor Leste where all these ‘resilient’ projects were set up,” he said. “The reality is the city of Dili will be uninhabitable in 20 to 30 years.”
So resilience efforts are needed, but they become problematic when they’re presented as a solution to climate change.
In Australia, this is evident in the rhetoric around the Black Summer bushfire crisis.
The problem isn’t that we didn’t see events like the Black Summer bushfires coming, McDonnell argues, the problem is that we did, and failed to take action.
“We had a lot of warning from climate scientists that it was going to be one of the worst summers on record. Six months in advance, I taught that it would be one of the worst summers on record.”
But after the Black Summer bushfires, Scott Morrison said Australia’s commitment to emissions reductions was sufficient, and that a greater focus on resilience was needed to prepare for the future.
McDonnell argues wealthy, industrialised nations haven’t done enough to curb the carbon-propelled damage that will hit developing countries and Indigenous communities the hardest.
But rather than submitting to a future of extreme weather events, mass displacement, famine and disease through a resilience lens, she says it’s not too late to prevent them altogether.
“Well no, actually, we don’t need to live in this apocalyptic world. Let’s actually take steps to challenge the global polluters who are causing this status quo. Let’s hold them to account.”