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Risk and Resilience in the Face of Global Change

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Session Description: 

Global change has always presented challenges requiring the integration of big ideas, collaboration among disciplinary communities and across the science-policy interface, and occasionally it has lead to paradigm shifts in our fundamental understanding of the Earth system and the approaches through which it should be examined. Climate change is an extreme example, representing broad interdisciplinary connections unlike any faced by humanity in recent history. It is comprised of a suite of impacts which may already be outside of the realm of human control, despite its likely anthropogenic onset. Climate change may be irreversible and will impact all facets of society, especially given increasing global complexity and interconnectivity. Climate change impacts span sectors and domains, hindering society’s ability to undertake long term planning due to uncertainty and intricacy.

To assess and reduce this threat, many have turned to risk analysis. Risk analysis has held a central and ubiquitous place in informing long-range decisions and is one example where an integration of knowledge and methods are used for both research and application. Risk analysis-derived determinations are built into regulations and policies of organizations, corporations, and nations. Risk management often relies on probabilistic risk assessments that characterize what can go wrong, with what likelihood, and to what consequence. The methods require data about the range of possible outcomes and the condition that some degree of stationarity and predictability exists in historical outcomes. Despite our improving ability to monitor and model systems, identifying and rectifying the vulnerabilities to a range of insufficiently characterized threats in our complexly interconnected global system is a daunting task. But what if the threats fall outside the familiar and cannot be assessed within a probabilistic framework? Uncertainties associated with emerging threats, societal and ecological systems’ vulnerabilities, and the range of climate-induced impacts necessitate new tools and the creative integration of traditional ones.

In the face of pervasive climate change uncertainty, there is growing recognition of the short-comings of risk analysis and conventional risk management approaches. Risk management is often focused on hardening those components of a system that have high probability of failure, often without any consideration of how fast critical functionality of the system can be regained. An urgent need exists to complement the existing risk knowledge base by further developing frameworks and models enabling system-wide analysis. A promising lens is resilience which, like risk, is concerned with understanding and weathering impacts resulting from adverse events. However, resilience – as understood, e.g., in engineering and social-ecological systems theories – is a system property that describes its ability to self-organize, plan for an adverse event, absorb a shock, recover and adapt. Resilience can be planned for, built, and managed even if the nature of the expected adverse impacts or system vulnerabilities are not fully understood. Where risk management helps prepare and plan for known and predictable adverse events by strengthening components of the system, resilience management goes further to consider the capacity of a system to absorb and recover from adverse events, and then adapt in a way that is better adjusted to changing conditions.

Beyond the various disciplinary understandings of resilience, in practice, "resilience" has become an attractive, widely used term, denoting simply an often ill-defined, but generally positive goal, namely to preserve what people love in the face of change. At the same time, policy-makers and managers struggle to define with any specificity what it is they are managing their places and assets for, and how to get there or how to track progress toward the elusive goal. Numerous initiatives are underway to develop frameworks and indicators of climate resilience and adaptation success.

Given these large but important challenges, this workshop aims to make two critical advances:
(1) To clearly delineate how and when to use traditional risk-based planning tools and when their shortcomings demand different ways of approaching decision making under climate change uncertainty. To reach this goal, the workshop will ask questions such as when are risk-based approaches appropriate and when is there use impractical? How can resilience as both a concept and approach be used to augment traditional risk analyses? When is building resilience the optimal course of action for large complex systems?
(2) To identify core dimensions of resilience that are scientifically grounded but also practically relevant and clearly actionable, so that practitioners across sectors have clear guidance on key strategies and interventions that can help them build climate resilience in their communities.

The workshop will bring together scientists from various disciplines, engineers, program designers and practitioners to delineate and integrate methods of risk assessment and resilience and help translate them into actionable frameworks for application.

Workshop Topic (s): 
  • Climate Variability and Change (including Climate Modeling)