Adapt or Die: Why the Environmental Buzzword of 2013 Will Be Resilience

Memories of Superstorm Sandy are already fading — and with them, political will to adapt to the growing threat posed by global warming. But the need is greater than ever to establish resilient societies, cities and economies in the face of climate change

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A destroyed home sets along the beach in the Belle Harbor neighborhood in the Rockaways in Queens, N.Y., Jan. 2, 2013.

Journalists and politicians have short memories. Just two months ago, Superstorm Sandy was everywhere in the news. And it wasn’t just weather porn — there was serious debate about the impact climate change had on the storm and about the now obvious need to prepare cities for worse to come. Bloomberg Businessweek put it on the cover — “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” — and in my TIME cover story, I focused on adaptations that cities like New York could make now to ensure that the next storm wouldn’t be so destructive. Politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo emphasized the need to rebuild better from Sandy, to ensure that the billions that would go into storm response would also flow to the sorts of global-warming-adaptation initiatives that would climate-proof cities. To proponents of climate action, Sandy seemed like a last, desperate chance. If the sight of flooding streets in lower Manhattan couldn’t galvanize political will on climate-change adaptation, what would?

For the U.S. Congress, however, it seems that what is likely to be the second most expensive extreme weather event in U.S. history isn’t quite enough to spur meaningful action. There’s little indication from the White House or Congress that climate change will be a priority this term. Storm-hit states like New York and New Jersey have been reduced to begging — or in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s case, bellowing — for delayed aid from Congress. And even that money is likely to come with strings, with Republican House members questioning why funds should go not just to repair damage, but also to improve existing infrastructure. The brief moment when Americans saw and feared the effects of global warming has already been eclipsed by the long-running, intra-Washington war over the nation’s finances, or whatever is up next on Politico.

(PHOTOS: The Toil After the Storm: Life in Sandy’s Wake)

So don’t expect a whole lot from Washington in 2013 or beyond. But that doesn’t mean the need to adapt to climate change has disappeared. That’s one of the main messages of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks 2013 report, which came out today, just a couple of weeks before the group’s annual confab in Davos, Switzerland. And it’s at the heart of a hastily drafted report put out by New York’s NYS 2100 commission, established by Cuomo in the wake of Superstorm Sandy to advise the state and city government on how they should protect themselves even as the weather grows less predictable and their populations grow. The message of both reports is clear: corporations and cities alike are entering an age of intensifying environmental risks, and action is essential — now.

The NYS 2100 report, published in advance by the New York Times, recommends a range of options to blunt the impact of the next Sandy. Most notably, the study says the state should consider building vast storm barriers with movable gates that would span the Narrows, the true-to-its-name tidal strait that separates the New York City boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn. (The Verrazano Bridge, which marks the start of the New York Marathon course, crosses over the Narrows.) Cities like London and Rotterdam already have similar storm barriers — I wrote about them recently for TIME — and such a defense system would have certainly reduced the unprecedented flooding that struck lower Manhattan. But a barrier on that scale would be extremely expensive — likely in the tens of billions of dollars — and it would protect only part of New York City. Inevitably, some New Yorkers would be left out.

The commission’s report also emphasizes what might be called “soft” adaptation, including converting some of New York’s industrial coast back into oyster beds, which would provide natural protection from floods. (Oyster beds can act as buffers against flooding, while also filtering pollutants in the water.) There are also recommendations for infrastructure projects that make sense with or without another Sandy, including a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River to alleviate commuter traffic and a connection between Penn Station and rail lines that run north to New York’s Hudson Valley and Connecticut. But as the commission’s co-chair Judith Rodin of the Rockefeller Foundation noted, the key is building a more resilient New York, a city capable of bouncing back from a range of natural and man-made threats:

Research, practice, thought, conversation, debate and hard experience with disasters around the world — from post-Katrina New Orleans to post-tsunami Asia — form the bedrock of the recommendations in this preliminary report; many of which we can implement immediately, and all of which would ultimately save dollars and even lives.

(PHOTOS: Flooded, Uprooted, Burned: The Tracks of Sandy on the Shore)

Of course, the policy world is littered with the recommendations of blue-ribbon commissions that never came to be, either because of cost or political viability, and I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the NYS 2100 study never advances beyond the page. But it’s worth noting that Davos-class CEOs — people who presumably can get things done — are becoming increasingly worried about environmental extremes. In the WEF Global Risks report — developed from an annual survey of 1,000 experts from industry, business, government and civil society — respondents ranked rising greenhouse-gas emissions and water-supply crises as two of the top-five risks most likely to manifest over the next decade.

Just as the global economy has been buffeted by unforeseen and damaging shocks over the past several years, earth’s environmental system — which underpins the global economy, not to mention pretty much all life on the planet — is increasingly vulnerable. And just as the international community has worked to make the global economy more resilient in the face of major financial shocks, so we need to design cities and systems that minimize environmental shocks when they happen, as David Cole, the chief risk officer of the reinsurer Swiss Re, put it:

Coping with the economic and climate-change crises is unfortunately no longer seen as a continuum, but as opposing choices. The idea has gained ground that we can’t have solutions to both. But we need to go beyond this thinking-in-boxes approach. So because smart risk management is about taking a holistic stance on situations, we should do the same when it comes to the economic and climate-change challenges we’re facing.

It’s easy in the immediate aftermath of disaster, when the photos and the videos of loss are still fresh, to swear that this time will be the last time; that we’ll finally make the hard decisions now to head off catastrophe. It’s harder to keep those promises as the memories fade, as media and politicians move to the next crisis. In 2013, we’ll see if this time really was different.

MORE: Climate Change and Sandy: Why We Need to Prepare for a Warmer World


Man-made climate change is occurring, and will continue even if the world goes carbon neutral today, due to actions and decisions made since the Industrial Revolution. The massive accumulation of scientific evidence, field work, and historical, current, and future mathematical modeling have exposed a strong correlation between the alteration of the Earth’s natural cycles and processes and man-made climate change. Scientists have predicted a sea level rise of 1-4 feet, which would greatly impact the lives of 5 million Americans who live within four feet of their local high-tide level [1]. Increased prevalence of extreme weather events, destruction of natural coastal protective barriers (i.e. reefs, mangrove forests, salt marshes, etc.), and an overall warming of the planet will lead to even greater challenges for the people, infrastructure, and economies of coastal urban areas. We must stop wasting time arguing ‘if’ climate change exists and instead, shift the conversation to planning and adapting for increased resilience, flexibility, and strength.

American society is currently lacking resilience in development ideologies, methods, standards, and laws. These flaws are tied to the undeniable and unsustainable dependence of the country’s economic vigor on development and real estate. Continued coastal and high risk development in current and future flood plains is not only short-sighted, but expensive for both homeowners and tax payers. Building codes desperately need updated to plan for the unavoidable future increase in extreme weather patterns. Allowing and even encouraging coastal development is just one tell-tale sign that policy makers and citizens are not aware of the very real threat climate change poses to human health, economy, and social stability. Andrew Revkin’s article encourages the requirement of environmental impact surveys for development which would require developers to consider environmental impacts and potential threats [2].

Too many legislators and American citizens are still denying nature’s dominance over humanity. Modest attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change on coastal development, without requiring fundamental societal changes, include expensive storm barriers and ‘soft’ form of adaptation (i.e. converting land back into natural flood protection). It would be a mistake for these temporary solutions to lull citizens into a false sense of security. Although these mitigation techniques will benefit the city in the short-term, city planners need to be determining the safest and more resilient locations for future habitation. Urban development needs to be transformed and structurally strengthened, and in some cases of extreme environmental sensitivity, relocated to resilient geographic locations.

If Obama doesn’t act this term he will not be remembered for HealthCare, Afghanistan, or his race, but instead his vital error not to address the largest threat currently facing humankind- climate change. Although America’s system of government historically reacts to emergencies instead of planning to prevent them, serious financial investment in our country’s future would undoubtedly save money, resources, and lives. He needs to follow through on his Inaugural climate commitment claims and continue to use the timing of severe drought, Hurricane Sandy, and other extreme weather patterns of 2012 to help rally the country behind creating a sustainable future. I believe author Elizabeth Edwards put it best, “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you've lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that's good.” Obama, this is your chance to do something good.

[1] NCADAC Executive Summary:

[2] Andrew Revkin’s article:


"The future of a company is less about the nature of its issues, and more about its capacity to create social structures able to solve them.  That is, the irrelevance of command and control mechanisms to manage large organisations of people".

"There is a spectre haunting the world, the spectre of peer-to-peer".

Keeping with the buzz word: ... Savitri has to do her work;   'A solitary mind, a world-wide heart,                                             

To the lone Immortal's unshared work she rose.


They mean in an otherwise normal world, common sense to weather - i.e., don't build communities in a flood plain, or below sea level?  Common sense has been absent since hippie intellectualism (liberalism) covering for communism has taken root in our communities, counties, states, and federal government.  Solution:  rid this country once and for all of all socialism, communism, fascism, statism, progressivism, and liberalism.


Bryan Walsh is pushing the manmade global warming ghost. New sandys will come and it is nothing you can do to prevent it. Because it is nothing you can do to have an impact on global warming. It is no evidence (sientific proof) that it is manmade. Remember, the cycles of summer and winter. New ice is produced every year. Something to think about if the ice in the artc is melting the effect is lower sealevel! :-)


Should read tropical heat towards the poles.


Convert the power behind storms like Sandy to productive use. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion saps the energy of tropical storms and prevents them from moving tropical storms towards the poles where they exacerbate sea level rise by melting the icecaps. This heat is also melting permafrost with potentially disaserous results. OTEC reduces sea level rise in two additional ways. One by converting heat to work in accorcdance with the First Law of Thermodynamics and by moving surface heat to a region where the coefficient of expansion of water is half what it is at the surface. There is twice the energy potential in the ocean as we currently consume. Capitalizing on it will save trillions in damages to coastal infrastructure.


I really cannot envision the federal government having the will to fund such extensive preventive infrastructure.  We are for all intents and purposes bankrupt with overpromises on Social Security, government pensions, expensive high technology medical treatment for all, and a vast worldwide empire of military complexes.  State and municipalities are going bankrupt.  We can't even get one political party to admit that the oceans are going to rise.  Further, if we do it for one city, every city on each coast will feel entitled to the same.   

Sorry, can't be optimistic at all on this. 


All this goes to show how profoundly stupid makind is. (Or perhaps just us in the U.S.)  On the whole, the earth is NOT experiencing climate change.  It is experiencing global warming...that is having all the effects predicted in Al Gore's documentary.  Seas are rising.  Tornados, hurricanes & the like are growing exponentially stronger & more devastating.  Snow & ice are striking in areas harder in areas that have rarely experienced them before.  Every indication is that these changes have arisen due to the incredible amount of C02 poured into the atmosphere globally by industry and transportation.  And what do we do about it?  Next to nothing.  To what can one attribute such inertia if not downright greed, self-interest and when you come right down to it...stupidity.  To all those opponents to far-reaching energy changes, I say this...when  the water rises up to your necks and it's your homes that get wrecked and collapse, that is the only kind of evidence that is likely to change your minds.  (Certainly reason, data & science will have no impact.) But by then it will be too late.  No thanks to our gutless politicians who can only see no farther than the next election.