Climate Action

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Building Global Resilience to Climate Change

  • Richard PagettEmail author
Living reference work entry


Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcing such as modulations of solar cycles, volcanic eruptions, and persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use. Note that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN 2012), in its Article 1, defines climate change as: “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.” The Convention thus makes a distinction between climate change attributable to human activities altering the atmospheric composition and climate variability attributable to natural causes (IPCC 2014).

Climate variability refers to variations in the mean state and other statistics (such as standard deviations, the occurrence of extremes, etc.) of the climate on all spatial and temporal scales beyond those of individual weather events. Variability may be due to natural internal processes within the climate system (internal variability) or to variations in natural or anthropogenic external forcing (external variability) (IPCC 2014).

Resilience is the capacity of social, economic, and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity, and structure, while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning, and transformation (IPCC 2014).

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action in order to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

These 17 goals build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals and include new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace, and justice, among other priorities. The goals are interconnected – often the key to success on one will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another (UNDP 2016).


Resilience applies to both the industrialized and less-industrialized parts of the world and is associated with many aspects of human activity, often responding to the effects of climate change. It could be related to food, water, land, or energy scarcities. It could relate to living by the coast and the threat of sea level rise and storm surges, or in mountainous areas threatened by glacial deluge, or in arid areas with erratic rainfall, or on small or low-lying islands facing increasingly violent storms. It could also relate to living in rural areas or in urban situations. Whenever and wherever there is threat of a natural hazard (such as flooding, drought, heatwave), then there is an associated need to be resilient to “come back” after the effects of that hazard have been endured.

Development gains can be quickly wiped out by a natural disaster directly, a surge in prices (as a consequence of a disaster), or conflict. Gains could also be undermined over time by the cumulative effects of stressors such as climate change; environmental degradation; water, food, and energy scarcity; and economic uncertainty. While humanitarian responses to crises have saved lives and helped to restore livelihoods, such efforts have not always addressed underlying vulnerabilities. A resilience-building approach helps to address the damaging effects of shocks and stressors before, during, and after crises, thereby minimizing human suffering and economic loss. The ability and capacity to “come back” is a measure of the individual or collective resilience.

Increasingly, the dimensions of gender and human rights need to feature in any resilience strategy. It is increasingly being understood that there is a causal relationship between women’s empowerment and community or household-level resilience (Masson 2016). Human rights are the interlocking elements that build resilient and confident societies – societies able to withstand and surmount threats, peacefully resolve disputes, and facilitate sustained progress in prosperity and well-being for all their members. Every step toward greater implementation of human rights strengthens the bonds and linkages between and within communities and reinforces inclusive development and peace (UNHRC 2018).

Enhancing national commitments within international agreements on climate action and sustainable development could improve current adaptation efforts and their outcomes. It could also be a cost-effective way to address water, food, energy, and land insecurity – as well as poverty, gender inequality, economic growth, sustainable livelihoods, land degradation, conflict, and other priorities within the SDGs.

Even if human resilience is developed and sustained, there is, of course, considerable uncertainty in knowing the planet-scale limits due to the intrinsic uncertainty of how these complex systems behave when faced with climate change, increasing population, and consumption of resources. It is no longer possible to envisage the limits for earth-scale processes to be independent of the preferences, values, political compromises, or socioeconomic justifications of humanity. Work is clearly needed to determine the future shape of human activities in order to stay within limits at an earth scale, if that is even possible. There is ample evidence from local to regional scale (Mumby and Anthony 2015) that ecosystems (such as lakes, forests, and coral reefs) are experiencing gradual changes (through biodiversity harvesting, soil [mis-] management, freshwater abstraction, nutrient cycles, and so on) that could trigger abrupt changes when critical limits have been breached. The latter could still occur despite enhanced human resilience (Pagett 2018).

It is known that in sub-Saharan Africa there are arid and semiarid areas regularly affected by drought. Yet, these areas do not have the basic infrastructure in the first place. The basic requirements should be dealt with first as that is a fundamental of future resilience; for instance, barrages to retain seasonal water, well-constructed markets with the means to access them (roads that work during the rainy seasons), and early warning systems. Basic institutional strengthening at national and local level is critical with, of course, treasury not project support. This basic institutional development needs to be based on a professional, career-structured civil service to retain skills, knowledge, and experience. All this is essential to underpin the development of human resilience.

The universal consensus attested by the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a unique opportunity to build climate change resilience for sustainable development by addressing the structural inequalities that perpetuate poverty, marginalization, and social exclusion and thus increase vulnerability to climate hazards. To be successful, resilience, disaster risk reduction and disaster management, social protection, and adaptation strategies must all be part of a broader development framework which incrementally leads the way to the empowerment of disadvantaged groups, by improving their asset positions and access to input and product markets; by extending their access to quality basic services; and by changing the norms that foster their social and political exclusion (UN 2016).

Resilience and Food Security

Food security is a complex, multidimensional problem related to food availability, access to affordable food, the effective use by people of the food that they consume, and the stability of these elements over time (OECD 2016). There is a resilience dimension to each element of the food security problem. Fundamentally, most food insecurity is a result of poverty. Poverty is exacerbated by climate change since climate impacts will predominantly affect agriculture, typically a key sector in the poorest countries and a significant source of income, affecting livelihoods and therefore particularly the poor. By 2030, crop yield losses could mean that food prices would be 12% higher on average in Sub-Saharan Africa. The strain on poor households, who spend as much as 60% of their income on food, could be acute (World Bank 2011).

Land is the most prized asset for food production, nutritional health, and economic development. Yet, half a million square meters of land in Africa is being degraded due to soil erosion, salinization, pollution, and deforestation (UNEA 2018). This land degradation can damage agricultural productivity, nutrition, and human health. A growing population and a rise in the demand for firewood will mean that forest cover in Africa is likely to continue shrinking, declining to less than 600 million hectares by 2050. Over-cultivation, inefficient irrigation practices, overgrazing, the over-exploitation of resources, uncontrolled mining activities, and climate change will further degrade land in Africa. This will lead to reduced agricultural productivity and reduced food security, which can increase migration and spread disease; increase the destruction of infrastructure, such as roads and bridges; and result in high rates of poverty (Pagett 2018).

So, building resilience to food scarcity requires inclusive and climate-informed continuation and expansion of actions that reduce poverty while increasing capacity to prepare for, and cope with, individual shocks. These efforts will need to be coupled with targeted climate adaptation measures. These measures could be protective infrastructure such as dykes and drainage systems, or softer measures such as mangrove restoration to deal with flooding, or changing land-use regulations to account for sea level rise, disaster preparedness, or the introduction of climate-resistant crops and livestock breeds.

A resilience-building approach starts with the way the food policies, strategies, and programs are conceived, and with resilience at the center of the national development process. Enhancing capacities to absorb, adapt, and transform in the face of shocks and stressors requires a significant level of collaboration over a prolonged period and it is essential that national governments align all their development activities and plans (agriculture, land use, water resources, and so on) within an overall resilience framework.

The global population is estimated to exceed nine billion by 2050. New patterns of consumption threaten natural resources and food and energy security and cause pollution and climate change. Policy makers and investors are responding to this in terms of supporting green technology as well as developing diverse regulatory and policy measures which move society in a more “sustainable” direction. More recently, there have been moves to integrate environmental policy into general policy rather than rely on a separate environmental policy. However, to feed such a large population, global food systems will need to transform at an unprecedented speed and scale. This transformation will need to address healthy diets and nutrition; inclusion of smallholder farmers, women, and youth; market efficiency; and climate change. In essence, there will need to be a global agenda for the future of food, something that, currently, has little real traction.

Though very real and significant progress in reducing global hunger has been achieved during the past 30 years, expanding food production and economic growth have often come at a heavy cost to the natural environment (FAO 2017). The 2050 population will call for a greater global demand for agricultural products, perhaps by 50%, and at the same time greater numbers of people will be eating fewer cereals and larger amounts of meat, fruits, vegetables, and processed food. This will further exacerbate pressures on natural resources, driving more deforestation, land degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, without serious additional efforts to promote pro-poor development, reduce inequality, and protect vulnerable people, more than 600 million people could still be undernourished in 2030, contrary to the SDG 2 of Zero Hunger (FAO 2017).

Resilience and Water Security

We seem to have a lot of freshwater, yet there is no “new” water on the planet. The available water is recycled through a well-connected system between the earth and the atmosphere. This means that, despite a rapidly growing population, the available and accessible freshwater is roughly the same as it always has been. Population growth, competing for water resources, and climate change are intertwined. All too often, people are living in marginal areas, areas that may have poor soil or poor access to water for subsistence-level farming. They may be remote with little access to roads or means of transportation. Climate change is yet another issue which adds to that burden. While water security is a key survival issue in rural areas, it is also a daily concern to those in peri-urban and urban situations where piped supply can be periodic and insufficient. Climate change and lack of opportunity is driving the traditional rural-to-urban migration, swelling towns and cities beyond their infrastructure and management capacity, and exacerbating water scarcity.

While the world population has got everything to do with the whole nature of water availability and its use, the importance of population is not the only factor to consider. The challenge of climate change resulting in changes in rainfall regimes, threatening surface water and the regularity of aquifer recharge, and the contamination of aquifers in expanding urban areas are other factors that contribute to making water scarcity a reality, driving the need for resilience.

Before the industrial revolution, it was possible to withdraw and consume water as required. The world is in a different place now: 1 billion in 1800, 2 billion in 1900, 7 billion at the end of 2011, and 9–10 billion by 2050. This no longer allows for the management of water without cooperation. Accessible water is unequally distributed, and population growth varies on every continent. Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where access to clean water is already a challenge for the current population, present a high risk of increasing, and irreversible, water scarcity. The way governments have mismanaged water for decades does not auger well for future management. Yet in almost every region, population growth, rapid urbanization, rising levels of consumption, desertification, land degradation, and climate change have combined to leave countries suffering from severe water scarcity.

So, building resilience to water security in rural areas requires a recognition that, as climate change increases the unpredictability of the weather, some marginal areas in which some populations could just about manage may become unviable. Migration from parts of the Sahel may become far more acute. In those rural areas where there is still potential to manage, increasing reliance will be put on climate-smart agriculture as part of a rural-resilience strategy. In urban areas, improving efficiency of water supply and reducing climate change-related risks would be possible through integrated management of water, sewage, solid waste, and storm water management across household to city scales.

Typically, current planning, legislation, and management mechanisms would need to be transformed toward integrated management of water through collaborative management by multiple stakeholders. Decentralized water management should be emphasized by empowering and devolving the responsibilities to formal and informal institutions, especially in peri-urban areas (ACCCRN 2013). Given that some local governments have not been able to deal with the most basic of human needs such as clean water, sanitation, health, and education, it is not safe to assume necessarily that they will be able to deal with one of the largest challenges to humanity.

So what of water security in the near future? By 2020 about 30–40% of the world will have water scarcity; and according to the researchers, climate change could make this even worse. Water is used around the world for the production of electricity, but new research results show that there will not be enough water in the world to meet demand by 2040 if the energy and power situation does not rapidly improve (Aarhus University 2014).

Resilience and Land Security

Land-use change, driven primarily by agricultural expansion and intensification, contributes to global environmental change, with the risk of undermining human well-being and long-term viability. Humanity may be reaching a point where further agricultural land expansion at a global scale may seriously threaten biodiversity and undermine regulatory capacities of the planet (by affecting the climate system and the hydrological cycle). Indigenous peoples and local communities are estimated to hold 65% of the world’s land area under customary systems (Rights and Resources Initiative 2015). Yet, many governments formally recognize their rights to only a small fraction of those lands. This gap, between what is held by communities and what is recognized by governments, is a major driver of conflict, disrupted investments, environmental degradation, climate change impact, and cultural extinction.

Millions of people across the Sahel of Africa, the “Dry Corridor” in Central America, and across India face increased temperatures and variable rainfall patterns leading to both drought and flooding. This, with the ensuing geographic spread of crop pests and diseases associated with climate change, has led to cycles of drought and debt, and millions have abandoned their land. International commitments on climate action have tended to focus on mitigation rather than adaptation. However, women, men, and communities do not have the time to wait for funding pledges to be fulfilled, and certainly not for global mitigation efforts to take effect, which could be several decades.

Adapting food systems to the new climate reality is an urgent challenge to which developing countries and their communities need to respond immediately. Smallholder farmers could adopt a variety of practices to increase agricultural production: investing in irrigation technologies, building terraces, intercropping, adopting agroforestry, and fallowing land. While it is commonly cited that limited resources and access to information are two key barriers to these practices, these are relatively easily solved.

The primary factor that affects the ability of small farmers to be resilient is insecure land rights. Unless smallholder farmers feel secure enough in their ownership and management of land they are reluctant to invest in adaptation inputs and practices. Women farmers, who face these same barriers, are additionally burdened by gender-based discrimination in cultural norms and traditions that determine how land is owned and managed.

With secure land tenure, women and men in rural communities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America could take action to adapt to a changing climate. Secure land rights, especially for women, could encourage farmers to make investments and adopt practices that conserve soil and water, improving short- and long-term food security. Most importantly, tenure security could provide a more enabling environment and access to resources for women, men, and communities to make land-use decisions that are best for them, their families, and successive generations (FAO 2018).

When local communities and indigenous peoples lack formal, legal recognition of their land rights, they are vulnerable to dispossession and loss of their identities, livelihoods, and cultures. Pressures are increasing as governments issue concessions for forestry, industrial agriculture, large-scale mining, and oil and gas production on community lands. Disputes over land and natural resources are also a contributing cause of armed conflict. Secure community tenure contributes to economic development and community livelihoods, conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, and reduction in carbon emissions from deforestation. Lands governed under community-based tenure systems often have well-established local institutions and practices for the stewardship of land and resources. These institutions and practices have historically helped to sustain large, intact ecosystems such as tropical forests, rangelands, and large-scale rotational agricultural systems. These ecosystems, in turn, provide a vital foundation for the livelihoods and food security of the estimated 1.5 billion local communities and indigenous peoples around the world who govern their lands through community-based tenure (Pagett 2018).

The unpredictability inherent in the dynamic interplay between customary land tenure system and formal land tenure systems has increased as agricultural land scarcity attracts greater numbers of investors seeking access to large tracts of agricultural land, generally within the customary land system. Non-recognition of customary claims has enabled instances of property transfers without just compensation for land rights or the value of crops on the land, often without notice and an opportunity for dialogue. For many countries, the separation between formal and informal systems has resulted in stifling unpredictability for investors and rural communities alike. This has to change.

Resilience and Energy Security

Energy security has many dimensions: long-term energy security mainly deals with timely investments to supply energy in line with economic developments and sustainable environmental needs. Short-term energy security focuses on the ability of the energy system to react promptly to sudden changes within the supply–demand balance. Lack of energy security is thus linked to the negative economic and social impacts of either physical unavailability of energy or prices that are not competitive or are overly volatile. Between 60% and 80% of global energy is consumed in urban areas (UN HABITAT 2016); and given the projected increase in world’s urban population, this share is expected to increase significantly in the future. Continuity of energy supply in cities is affected by climate change and a growing array of other threats such as cyber-attacks, terrorism, technical deficiencies, and market volatility. Determined efforts, acknowledging the interactions and interlinkages between energy and other sectors, are needed to ensure resilience by avoiding adverse consequences of disruption in energy supply.

Extreme weather events have increased by a factor of four over the past 30 years and, since 98% of power supply depends on the availability of water, resilience is no longer merely about returning single assets to full operation after a disruptive event (World Energy Council 2015). When interdependent parts of a system are blacked out, the system as a whole is at risk of being deadlocked. Restarting the energy system can be delayed by days, possibly weeks, if critical system parts cannot be restarted autonomously. Increasing competition for water and water stress – as experienced in parts of Latin America, the Middle East, and other world regions – exposing the sector, which in terms of its water intensity is exceeded only by agriculture, to a multitude of operational vulnerabilities across the entire value chain. Neglecting a deeper understanding of the shifting resilience landscape will expose short-sighted investment strategies (World Energy Council 2016).

Providing access to electricity in rural areas of the world is a major challenge. The fuel is generally of poor quality, and energy is used inefficiently; the power supply is unreliable and access to it is limited, with about a billion people in rural areas still unable to benefit from modern energy services. This not only has an adverse effect on economic productivity; more importantly, it also affects people’s quality of life and is having a strong impact on the environment. Locally based measures that use renewable energies to secure the rural power supply could open up new opportunities for economic productivity, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and local pollutants resulting from the extensive usage of fossil fuels.

Planning for urban resilience requires a framework for bringing together fragmented and diverse polices, capacities, and finance to facilitate a system that is capable of planning and preparing for, absorbing, recovering from, and adapting to any adverse events that may happen in the future. Integrating these four abilities into the energy management system enables ongoing availability, accessibility, affordability, and acceptability as the four sustainability-related dimensions of energy (Ayyoob and Yamagata 2016).

For rural communities, the lack of energy is an existential threat; yet they often lack the resources to tackle this specific issue. During the last few years, there has been increased activity to establish mini-grids (based on solar power and batteries). While renewable energy is generally cheaper than running diesel generators, there is a challenge with sustainability. On the one hand, generators create emissions, yet on the other, they can be repaired and spares and expertise are usually available. With mini-grids, although potentially cheaper and cleaner than diesel generators, they are usually difficult to repair and require replacement, yet the initial source of the equipment may no longer be available. In terms of resilience, counter-intuitively, diesel generators may be better than solar-based renewable energy. Perversely, solar power is being provided to some Pacific atolls yet the longer term option in terms of resilience is to assist migration.

In the past, geopolitics and the supply of oil and gas were the dominant factors determining energy security. Today, a broader and more complex spectrum of elements are interacting to both stabilize and threaten energy security.

Resilience and Governance

Resilience requires good governance at regional and national levels to ensure robustness, redundancy, recovery, conservation, sustainability, and risk mitigation – all critical dimensions of resilience. National and regional governance is essential for appropriate policy, infrastructure, finance, and rule of law – again (Bedi et al. 2014), all critical threads of resilience. Only national governance systems are capable of long-term planning for addressing recurring crises arising from climate-driven factors and resulting issues such as migration; food, water, and energy insecurity; and ethnic conflict.

Although resilience has become a central concept in government policy, local government is often used to managing complex shocks and stresses. For instance, it is generally agreed by practitioners that resilience requires decentralized, multi-stakeholder, adaptive, and participatory governance (ODI 2018). Yet, to build a resilient future requires governance that is autonomous, accountable, and flexible and there is often a miss-match between devolved responsibilities and devolved resources and power.

While the technical challenges to building resilience are understood and, to a certain extent, relatively straightforward to address, political challenges are typically less publically articulated, although they are clearly recognized. National governments are cautious about the activities of areas or cities that are not part of the ruling party because they recognize the threat that a resilience success locally could be a springboard for national office. Because the effects of climate change and its many consequences do not conveniently fit within national borders, the need to work collaboratively with neighbors is an imperative. Coastlines and resources often need to be shared, and while there is a record of cross-boundary collaboration at river basin level, further elaboration can become problematic. Even when national and local governments share ambitions for a low carbon, resilient future, there can be a marked difference between the effectiveness of more complex, national government and the more nimble local government.

So, any blueprint for building global resilience needs to address the following (Pagett 2018):
  • Strengthen intergovernmental coordination at the regional and sub-regional level and confront mediocre national governance issues

  • Improve gathering, processing, and sharing of data and information to inform decision-making

  • Enhance sustainable consumption and production to reduce environmental pressures by critically addressing drivers associated with manufacturing processes and consumer demand

  • Harness natural resources, so that there is no further depletion of ecosystems

  • Implement measures to minimize and halt pollution and other environmental pressures

  • Invest in urban planning: infrastructure and clean transport

  • Insist governments decouple economic growth and resource consumption

  • Aggressively reduce dependency on fossil fuels and diversify energy sources

  • Establish greater foresight processes to identify, and plan for, possible future risks, opportunities, and conflicts

  • Enhance meaningful international cooperation on population, climate, air quality, and other planetary issues

  • Respond to planetary risk

  • Build resilience to natural hazards and extreme climate events

Fundamental to the above, is the recognition that worldwide low-carbon, climate-resilient choices in infrastructure; energy, water, and waste management; and food production coupled with effective and sustainable natural resource governance are key to protecting the ecological assets that underpin a healthy society that maintains a planetary and societal balance.

Resilience Tools and Techniques

A critical dimension of building resilience is recognizing that it is essential to develop a better understanding of the range of potential complex social responses to climate change, so that these risks can be integrated into national development. High quality social analysis is essential to guide effective poverty reduction and equitable resilience based on realistic mitigation and adaptation strategies.

At the global level, social analysis underpins the understanding of transboundary social, environmental, and political processes, including migration, conflict, and the role that scarcity of natural resources plays in these processes. At the national level, it is necessary to understand the country context in order to identify the key sociopolitical barriers to equitable and efficient interventions in response to climate change. At the local level, it is necessary to ensure that climate change-related projects and policies build the resilience of the poor and improve their welfare.

Consequently, it is necessary to use participatory strategies to engage communities in the design and implementation of resilience and to devise community-based solutions for relevant areas such as disaster risk reduction and natural resource management. Also critical, is the need to promote solutions with equitable impacts in order to address any potential political and social risks and to ensure, where relevant, that the rights of indigenous peoples and other forest-dependent communities are protected. So, techniques for building resilience should focus on inclusion, cohesion, accountability, and good governance so that the capacity of local institutions is enhanced to adapt to the uncertainties associated with climate change.

As with any relatively new area of interest, there is a burgeoning list of tools to assist in adaptation planning and resilience building at many scales, and also in urban and rural areas.

For urban situations, a good starting point is to scan the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, which is a global network of cities, towns, and regions committed to building a sustainable future:

The EU research project RESIN (Resilient Cities and Infrastructures) (EU RESIN 2018) has delivered a couple of practical tools that have been developed together with practitioners from cities:
  • A European Risk Typology, that gives cities and regions access to indicators of their risk components

  • A standardized guideline to create a risk assessment, including a few supporting software tools

  • A database of urban adaptation measures, with harmonized information on their effectiveness, costs, and related technical standards

  • An e-Guide to creating an urban adaptation strategy

All are easy and freely accessible via:

For resilience in rural areas, a good overview is (Douxchamps et al. 2017) which reviews tools for monitoring and evaluation of climate resilience for agricultural development. In response to the social imperative for enhanced emergency planning in “forgotten communities,” a suite of simple and effective indicators, tools, and resources was designed for decision makers/practitioners to assess capability and resiliency of rural health care systems and communities (Justice Institute of British Columbia 2012). These tools were developed to enhance organizational all-hazards response planning. The training curricula, tools, and web-assisted networks provide rural, remote, and coastal communities with fully operational protocols and resources to anticipate and mitigate risks.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.European Centre for Peace and DevelopmentUnited Nations University for PeaceBelgradeSerbia

Section editors and affiliations

  • S. Jeff Birchall
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Urban and Regional Planning, Department of Earth and Atmospheric SciencesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada