Updated October 7, 2019. Originally published July 5, 2016

This is part one of a two-part series by Gina Blus. Part Two is here.

If you are one of the 73% of Americans who believe global warming is already happening, it doesn’t really matter what got you to this point or how long it took. The big question now, especially for decision-makers, is: what can you do about it?

If you’re reading this blog, you already see the value of embedding sustainability into your organization’s strategy and operations. But chances are, you’ve not yet been able to fully understand or prepare for the impacts of climate change on your business, education or government agency. You’re not alone: very few institutions have yet grappled with this issue because climate change manifests itself in complex and unpredictable ways, over extended time frames. But as weather patterns shift and impacts are increasingly felt both environmentally and economically, you can’t afford to wait any longer before starting to build a climate resilience plan.

What exactly is “resilience”?

Normally, resilience refers to the ability of an object under stress to bounce back or recover from challenges. In the climate context, it describes the capacity of a system (or an asset) to keep functioning despite disruptions and throughout evolving conditions. Being able to withstand ongoing change is critical for climate resilience, since natural systems are already in flux and will remain that way for decades – maybe centuries – to come.

Forward-looking organizations already take steps to improve their resilience to disruptions caused by power outages and extreme weather. Climate change will increase the frequency of familiar disruptions and introduce many new ones, from more intense wildfires to shortages of key materials. Climate-caused disruptions run the gamut between short-term inconveniences to catastrophic losses, with everything in between. Creating a plan of how you’ll prepare and respond to this new category of risk will complement and enhance your existing sustainability efforts.

Resilience is more than risk management

Risk is often defined as the combination of the likelihood and severity of negative consequences. The worse a potential outcome and the more likely it is to occur, the higher the risk. Organizations usually rely heavily on past experience to predict both the probability and the severity of future risks as a way to prioritize their risk management efforts.

Unfortunately, climate change by its very nature means historical data isn’t relevant or helpful in predicting future conditions and may even be misleading. Although climate models are continually improving in their ability to account for and even predict some of the phenomena we are experiencing, they can’t yet pinpoint exactly when and where specific climate impacts will be experienced.

So assessing climate risk focuses less on probabilities and more on identifying potentially devastating effects on an organization or community’s most valuable assets. By knowing which ones could suffer severe or even catastrophic harm, it’s possible to take action to make them more resilient. Even if the likelihood of harm is relatively small (or is truly unpredictable), the risk of losing the asset may be unacceptably large. Here’s a quick overview of how to get started with your analysis.

Step 1: Identify what’s most important

Begin by considering which specific systems, assets and activities are absolutely essential to your operation. Management teams should be able to identify these vital elements with input from subject matter experts. For a hospital, providing emergency room services might be a core function, but performing elective surgeries is not. Be sure to think holistically, and include the auxiliary components necessary for the critical systems to operate. If running the ER is a vital activity, be sure to think about how staff, patients and ambulances can get there, as well as the equipment, supplies and environmental conditions necessary to provide services. Those elements should be part of your analysis, too.

Step 2: Assess vulnerabilities

Next, assess how each critical system (asset, activity) might be vulnerability to climate change – the degree to which it would be unable to cope with specific impacts.
Vulnerability depends on:

  • Sensitivity — the extent of harm that could be experienced
  • Potential exposure — whether or how much the system might be affected
  • Adaptive capacity — the ability to adjust in ways that reduce exposure and/or sensitivity.

Government entities provide critical services regardless of conditions, and are expected to operate when all else fails. Accordingly, a significant number of government-directed vulnerability assessments begin at the broadest possible point, and attempt to document and understand all the climate impacts that could affect their community, campus or military operations. The list of exposures is staggering, since it includes not only extreme natural events like storms and heat waves, drought, wildfires, flooding, but also the resulting human effects of injury, disease, property damage and displacement.

Business may prefer to start by identifying their sensitivities to climate change and then seeking to understand the extent of their potential exposure. For example, a maker of personal care products is highly sensitive to any disruption in water supply and degradation of water quality. Every industry heavily dependent on water for its product — breweries, wineries, food manufacturers, computer chip fabrication plants, utilities — is similarly sensitive to water availability, quality and price.

After recognizing this sensitivity, a team conducting a climate risk analysis gathers data on the amount, quality, cost and location of water needed for its operations, identifies its current suppliers and sources, and then investigates how climate change is expected to alter those conditions. This is the exposure part of the analysis; it will yield different results for facilities in California and New England, based on their specific needs, supply, and predicted climate impacts.

Finally, the team looks for options to increase the system’s adaptive capacity, which might include locating alternate sources and suppliers, shifting production from one region to another, and/or changing product formulations to rely more heavily on non-water lubricants.

Going through this process often reveals opportunities that make sound economic sense even without counting the climate resilience benefits. Taking the time to understand how climate change may threaten your critical operations before any disruptions occur enables leaders to bolster their organization’s resilience and sustain it through the challenging times ahead.

In future posts, we’ll look at how to integrate climate change into business continuity planning, then explore how change management methodologies can be used to embed climate resilience into organizational systems and structures.

Gina Blus teaches classes on organizational change, climate law and policy, and greenhouse gas accounting for the Association of Climate Change Officers. She is the Principal of Climate Ready Solutions, which helps organizations assess and address the impacts of climate change on their operations.