She kept coming back to The Gap. It was, in fact, the very first thing she pointed to, in answering my opening question:
“When we think about the resilience gap,” said the global resilience guru and president of Climate Resilience Consulting, “that is, the gap between what we need to do to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and what we need to do to adapt” to climate impacts that are now inevitable…
Days after the interview, Joyce Coffee’s words would return again and again. The resilience gap. The resilience gap.
In our conversation, which you can see below, she dissects the entire adaptation space to spot several subgaps, or reasons why THE gap remains so large, and offers a dizzying array of spot-on ways to close all of them. You’ll find yourself doing lots of pause-rewind-play to make sure you catch the speeding gems.
Back at the office, she’s coming off co-authoring the landmark Rising to The Challenge Together report built on what is, in effect, an umbrella or parent gap, that between the severity of climate change and the timidity of resilience action thus far to deal with it.
While the name Rising to The Challenge applies to everyone involved in closing the resilience gap, the report is actually focused, a bit more nichely, on the state of the adaptation profession in the United States, including how to close several gaps therein: standards, communications, practices, not having enough professionals to begin with, getting city and corporate officials to follow the advice of the ones we do have, among many other gaps.
Plenty of Coffee
I reached out to her for this story to address acceleration triggers, or steps companies and cities can take right now to move faster, given the little time they have before the climate s___t really hits the fan. As it turned out, acceleration triggers to her have long been part of closing The Gap, and that made the difference in giving the whole exchange a fantastic coherence right from the get go.
It was at that point, only minutes in, that I thought to myself, “man, I really called the right person!” Writing about climate change as long as I have, I’ve come across her name often, but it wasn’t until I researched her for this post that I realized just how “everywhere” she has been.
The MIT urban-planning grad is/has been an advisor to 100 Resilient Cities, the World Bank, the UN, FEMA, countless cities and companies, universities, the Kresge Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, National Science Foundation…the list goes on.
She’s the former head of the influential Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND GAIN) and sits on the board of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. Oh, and her blog and Twitter feed have become resilience bibles. Heck, she literally wrote a resilience bible in her City Adaptation Tool.
But what I find to be the coolest part of her background — and this is more a personal note — is as spearhead in the mid-to-late 2000s of the head-turning Climate Action Plan of Chicago, where she still lives and where I grew up. In May 2015, I returned to the Windy City on a family trip and interviewed city officials for this column, which rained praise on the CAP, and here I am three years later discovering and interviewing the lead author!
Plenty of triggers
I first asked Coffee about ways to accelerate corporate action and then pivoted to city accelerators. As she navigated both, critical similarities emerged.
There are strong benefits to companies and cities from taking faster action now, and helping them see those benefits is an acceleration trigger in itself.
“In adaptation, the benefits come to you and me today,” she assured. “When we plant a tree to mitigate urban heat, or when we increase the number of health clinics, those adaptations are giving benefits to constituents today,” as are a range of gains to companies “of all sizes.”
Yet another is assigning resilience to a person and team that manages risk, more than those who work only in sustainability or finance.
The emergence of stand-out leaders is a trigger, as well. In the city space, several have emerged, but not so among corporations.
“Who’s going to be the star of resilience in the corporate realm,” asks Coffee. “That is an open seat for someone to claim and be crowned.”
Outside pressure, long applied successfuly in the carbon-reduction space, will also be key in accelerating action on resilience both by companies and cities. BlackRock’s highly reported 2016 climate guidelines, which Coffee helped draft, is the leading example on the corporate front, while a similar step by credit rating agencies has put the heat on cities.
“Cities live and die by their credit rating, and [speaking] with them about what resilience would mean in terms of stabilizing their rating and ensuring they never go on watch, is a reasonable conversation to have.”
Time scales need to be managed, as well, to accelerate resilience, or the gap between short-termism to please corporate investors and city voters, and the longer-term returns of some climate-adaptation measures.
Both, to be sure, apply, since there are short-term and long-term climate risks and issues. So what Coffee recommends is The Portfolio, or an inventory of all the things already done by a company or city that contribute to resilience and can therefore be ramped up far more easily when assigned to that adaptation team.
“Wow, look at all the adaptation stuff we’re doing already,” Coffee says is a typical reaction to this exercise. “and we weren’t even expecting this to be called adaptation.”
“I can pull together a whole portfolio and [identify] what we need to do now. This is how we’re going to turbo-charge the existing portfolio of adaptation actions to make [the city or company] resilient for the next generation.”
One painful gap
There is one hugely hyper important area where Coffee says the portfolio approach does not work as well.
“There is a failing in this system, because it doesn’t address the seemingly insurmountable challenge of equity,” she laments, her pace slowing notably now when reflecting on the point.
“It doesn’t address these two challenges, equity and climate change, together, because if we continue mainstreaming what we’ve been doing all along, we’re still creating inequities. Cities are filled with inequities. So what I have come to appreciate much more in a way I didn’t know earlier in my career, is that there is a significant transformation needed. Closing the resilience gap will only happen on a bedrock of equity, and the only way to make equity work is to work from within a community.”
That is, not with a top-down portfolio solution, but rather listening, REALLY listening to community leaders, who are often part of an environmental-justice movement. In a field brimming with the thrill of transformation, this is one change tempered by the shrill of voices crying out from the bottom.
“Equity is the same thing as resilience,” she continued — a gripping, monumental realization. “It is not a separate category. What we do needs to be done primarily for those who are less resourced, and we then create a more resilient place. It is not very typical that [cities] think in those terms.”
No, it is not. What we do needs to be done primarily for those who are less resourced. A transformation, indeed.
The recency of this dawning adds to the drama of the moment. “There is a major transition happening among adaptation professionals,” particularly following hurricanes Harvey and Maria.
“We have clearly failed, because the less resourced are so much less able to be resilient. The systems are not set up properly.”
The question needed not be asked at that point: how many more Houstons and Puerto Ricos will happen by the time we all wrap our arms around this megachallenge, set up those systems, and save the weak and vulnerable from future climate-turned-human disasters.
I leave you, now, with Joyce Coffee in her own words.
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