While the COVID-19 pandemic provides a snapshot of the fragility of our global systems, it also provides an opportunity to direct our attention towards building resilience. According to Paton (2006, pg. 8), resilience is defined as “a measure of how well people and societies can adapt to a changed reality and capitalize on the new possibilities offered.” The concept, therefore, emphasizes anticipatory, conscious, and intentional planning ahead of a future crisis (Beatley, 2012).
Climate change poses certain challenges similar to COVID-19 and some lessons learned from the pandemic can be useful in building future resilience and climate planning. Coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to many climate impacts such as sea-level rise, storm surge, and other extreme events. For these regions, Beatley (2012) suggests resilience of land use and built form; resilience of ecosystems and natural coastal environments; social resilience and economic resilience as key planning dimensions.
Resilience of Land use and Built Environment: Megacities are the hotspot of the COVID-19 outbreak. A recent study conducted by Brookings Institution found cities such as New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Miami to be the hardest hit among the US. Unsurprisingly, these cities also lie at the forefront of many climate-induced extreme events. While some are susceptible to sea-level rise due to their low elevation (e.g., New York City), others lie on the verge of extreme events such as storm surge (e.g., New Orleans, Miami).
Beatley (2012) suggests avoidance as the most effective coastal resilience strategy in these high-risk locations. While lockdown and social distancing have been pivotal in this pandemic, using hazard mitigation and other comprehensive plans combined with strong zoning regulations are necessary for physical events such as climate change.
Ecological Resilience: Habitats such as forests and wetlands are also pivotal in creating a natural buffer between humans and wild animals, a gap where the pandemic originated and thrived. Coastal ecosystems such as beaches, coral reefs, and mangroves provide many ecosystem services – the benefits people obtain from ecosystems (MEA, 2005) – in the face of global shocks. These services include provisioning services such as food (e.g., fisheries), regulating services such as flood/storm/erosion regulation, cultural services such as recreation (tourism), history, culture, traditions and supporting services such as nutrient cycling (Waite et al., 2014). Coastal ecosystems, thereby, play an important role in supporting the resilience of the built environment and social systems.
Protection and conservation of natural resources such as beaches and coral reefs provide many ancillary benefits in addition to climate change. Creating sufficient wetland buffers, ensuring the health of our beaches and dunes are some strategies to enhance future ecological resilience (Beatley, 2012).
Social Resilience: A call for strong collective action remains at the core of the COVID-19 pandemic. The root of collective action problems in the US, from personal choices such as mask-wearing to following stay-at-home orders, were brought into light during this pandemic. Institutional factors such as citizens’ trust in the government and a lack of coordination further hampered the responses towards pandemic. Climate change is no different in the sense that dealing with it will require strong collaborations between nations and individuals from global to local level.
Building strong social networks and institutions will ensure an effective response and recovery mechanism for climate-related extreme events. A recent article suggests firmer regulations and stronger social norms to tackle the pandemic and other global issues such as climate change. Supporting community-based activities such as clubs and associations, engaging community designs that encourage social interactions, locally relevant anchors such as farmer’s markets and street festivals (Beatley, 2012) go beyond their intended purpose of creating social ties that can then be tapped during a national crisis, an opportunity lost during the current crisis.
Economic Resilience: Tourism, a prominent sector in many coastal regions such as the Caribbean, is heavily impacted by the pandemic leading to a decrease in visitor arrivals as well as the employment and GDP of many countries in the region. As a result of COVID-19, World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) predicted a 45% decrease in visitor arrival in the Caribbean under a best-case scenario causing losses of USD 27 billion in GDP and 1.2 million in employment in 2020 from the previous year. Hurricanes in the Caribbean have induced similar changes in the visitor pattern impacting their economic stability and resilience. Additionally, the unforgettable toilet paper scenario demonstrated that the pandemic threatened the global supply chain in a matter of days. This is even more concerning for coastal countries and regions that lack geographical connectivity and heavily rely on external markets.
Building locally sourced economies are essential to strengthen economic resilience in coastal areas. Beatley (2012) points out that the local economies, particularly service-based businesses, are more connected to the community and thereby essential to the coping capacity of a community after a natural event. Most importantly, single sector-based coastal nations also need to consider diversifying to other sectors such as fisheries and farming to build economic resilience in the face of future climate change.
Beatley, T. (2012). Planning for coastal resilience: Best practices for calamitous times. Island Press.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA). (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well Being: Synthesis Report, Washington, DC: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Island Press.
Paton, D. (2006). Disaster resilience: building capacity to co-exist with natural hazards and their consequences. Disaster resilience: An integrated approach, 3-10.
Waite, R., Burke, L., Gray, E., van Beukering, P., Brander, L., Mackenzie, E., … & Tompkins, E. L. (2014). Coastal capital: ecosystem valuation for decision making in the Caribbean. World Resources Institute.
Arsum is a Ph.D. candidate with research interests in climate adaptation, sustainable development, and coastal resilience.