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Published: 27 May 2024
Contributors: Alexandra Jonker, Amanda McGrath

What is climate resilience?

Climate resilience refers to the ability of an ecosystem, society or business to anticipate, prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change. It is built on understanding climate-related risks and vulnerabilities and implementing the necessary measures to manage these risks effectively.

Climate-resilient systems are able to maintain essential functions while adapting to new climate-induced conditions. Strategies and actions used to achieve this resilience might include strengthening natural systems, diversifying supply chains or investing in resilient infrastructure and technology. The goal of climate resilience is to support communities and business operations so they can better withstand changing conditions in both the short term and the long term.

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What is the history of climate resilience?

The concept of climate resilience emerged in the late 20th century, coinciding with the growing awareness of global warming and its potential impacts.

The movement gained momentum in the 1990s and 2000s with the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which recognized the need for adaptation to the impacts of climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement, which called for urgent action and set new global goals to combat climate change, further emphasized the importance of enhancing adaptive capacity and strengthening resilience.

Over time, climate resilience has evolved from being a purely scientific concept to a key part of decision-making processes across various sectors, including policymaking and business operations.

Why is climate resilience important?

Establishing climate resilience is critical to mitigating the effects of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, the Earth's average temperature has risen by approximately 1.1°C (33.98°F) since preindustrial times due to global warming.1 This rise in temperature is leading to increased variability in climate patterns and more frequent and severe climate hazards, including extreme weather events, heat waves, wildfires and sea level rise.

These changing climate conditions pose significant threats to ecosystems, biodiversity and people’s livelihoods. For instance, they disrupt food security, water supply chains and the well-being of low-income communities who are often most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Therefore, building resilience in the face of the climate crisis is crucial for risk management and reduction, and for supporting the sustainability of natural systems and human societies alike.

What can climate resilience achieve?

Efforts to build climate-resilient communities and business operations can help with several key objectives:

Reduced vulnerability

By anticipating and preparing for climate change impacts, communities and systems can reduce their vulnerability to climate-related risks and hazards.

Greater adaptive capacity

Climate resilience strategies help build the capacity of communities, ecosystems and economies to adapt to changing conditions and recover from climate-related shocks.

Continuity of essential functions

Resilient systems are able to maintain essential services and functions, such as food production, water supply and healthcare, even in the face of climate disruptions.

Environmental protection

Climate resilience measures can help safeguard critical infrastructure, such as buildings, roads and power grids. They can also protect natural systems such as forests, wetlands and coastal areas.

Improved sustainability

By reducing the impacts of climate change and enabling adaptation, climate resilience contributes to the long-term sustainability of communities, economies and ecosystems.

Reaching global goals

Building climate resilience is essential for achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and other global targets that are related to poverty reduction, food security and environmental sustainability.

Enhanced equity and inclusion

Climate resilience efforts can prioritize the needs and perspectives of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, promoting a more equitable and inclusive approach to climate action.

Methods for building climate resilience: Adaptation and mitigation

Building climate resilience requires a combination of mitigation and adaptation strategies that addresses both the causes and consequences of climate change.

Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which will limit future climate change. These efforts include transitioning to renewable energy sources, improving energy efficiency and promoting sustainable land use practices.

However, climate adaptation focuses on adjusting to current and anticipated climate change impacts, which involves:

  • Early warning systems that provide timely alerts for extreme weather events and help with community resilience and preparedness.
  • Infrastructure upgrades such as seawalls and flood barriers that can withstand extreme weather and sea level rise.
  • Nature-based solutions, including restoring and protecting ecosystems (like mangroves, wetlands and forests) that provide natural buffers against climate hazards and support biodiversity.
  • Climate-smart agricultural practices, such as drought-resistant crops and water-efficient irrigation systems, that are resilient to changing climate patterns.

Building climate resilience also requires thorough risk assessment and management. This process can involve conducting climate vulnerability assessments, developing risk reduction plans and integrating climate considerations into decision-making processes.

Finally, helping individuals, communities and institutions to understand and respond to climate risks is crucial for building resilience. This process can involve training, education and knowledge-sharing initiatives, and partnerships and collaborations between different stakeholders.

Examples of climate resilience strategies and actions

Countries, local communities and companies around the world are implementing a range of strategies to build climate resilience. Some examples include:

National adaptation plans

Many countries are developing national adaptation plans (NAPs) to identify and prioritize adaptation needs and strategies, and to integrate climate resilience into national development planning processes. For example, Fiji’s NAP includes relocating communities from low-lying areas, strengthening infrastructure and promoting sustainable agriculture practices. Its action plan reflects the island nation’s vulnerabilities to rising sea levels and other climate change impacts.

Local resilience planning

Cities and communities are also developing local resilience plans to address their specific climate risks and vulnerabilities.

For example, following the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the city of New York developed a comprehensive climate resilience plan. It includes measures such as improving critical infrastructure, protecting coastal areas from sea level rise and preparing communities to respond to extreme heat and other weather events. Similarly, California offers a toolkit for local governments to assess their climate vulnerability and devise appropriate adaptation strategies.

Nature-based resilience

Companies and organizations are increasingly recognizing the value of nature-based solutions for building climate resilience and mitigating natural disaster risk. For example, the insurance company Swiss Re invested in the restoration of coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico to reduce the impacts of storm surges and flooding.

Supply chain resilience

Companies are also working to build resilience in their supply chains, recognizing the potential for climate-related disruptions to affect their operations and bottom line. This resilience can involve measures such as diversifying suppliers, improving supply chain transparency and investing in resilient infrastructure.

Challenges and limitations of climate resilience

Climate resilience efforts come with various challenges. Effective resilience planning requires access to reliable and up-to-date climate data and climate information. However, many regions lack the necessary monitoring and observation systems and the capacity to analyze and use climate data for decision-making.

Planning efforts also require significant investments in infrastructure, technology and other areas. But many countries and communities, particularly in developing regions, lack the financial resources to implement resilience measures. As a result, these efforts face concerns about the equitable distribution of resilience-building benefits, particularly for low-income communities who often bear the brunt of climate change impacts.

Beyond data and financial resources, climate resilience faces the broader challenge of scope. The conversation around resilience often focuses on climate change adaptation, but there is a growing recognition of the need for larger transformative change. This transformation involves rethinking existing systems and structures to address the root causes of climate vulnerability, rather than merely coping with the effects of climate change. 

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¹ "Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report" (link resides outside ibm.com), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), March 2023.