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Sundlee '16: The future of American resilience

On the morning of March 22, one million cubic yards of earth slumped off of a hillside in Snohomish County, Wash. The wall of mud has taken the lives of 30 people so far.

The immediate cause of this horrific tragedy is unseasonably warm weather accompanied by heavy rainfall. The area had recently been logged, and the sudden downpour left the soil oversaturated and unstable, dealing a crippling blow to the hillside’s structural integrity. Landslides such as this one are not usual for the region. But rising temperatures, accompanied by heavier rainfall in decades to come will ensure that mudslides like this will no longer be aberrations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded in its report that, when it comes to the climate changing, the worst is yet to come.

This latest catastrophe comes in the wake of a slew of foreboding climate-induced disasters that underscore the notion that global warming may not be just a looming spectre somewhere in the distant future. Many members of the scientific community believe we are witnessing the phenomenon now, and that is too late to entirely reverse the effects of global warming. The best course of action now is to focus on making sure our society will hold strong in the face of impending climate hardships. In addition to pursuing paths towards sustainability, we need to work on bolstering our resilience.

Resilient responses to disaster are something that Americans need to be especially concerned about. We have prided ourselves on being hardy in the face of adversity in the past. But as we approach what may be one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, this American flintiness has shown signs of softening. Our society is reliant on a fragile electric grid and decaying infrastructure. When our power is cut off we are rendered practically helpless. Nine out of 10 Americans live in an area that puts them at significant risk of natural calamities, a risk that will only grow with climate change. Great nations will be the ones that attempt to effectively deal with these changing conditions.

It is not just physical unpreparedness that is leaving the United States brittle. Above all, resilience requires unity. For this reason, it is imperative that all citizens recognize the threat and respond with solidarity as well as the confidence that we can weather the storm. Republican obstinance to climate-related policy will fade eventually — it’s just a question of time. The study by IPCC found evidence that governments are beginning to make preparations to adapt to the changing climate in spite of opposition from conservatives and nay-sayers. But partisan gridlock in the face of these environment challenges will cost lives if it persists, making it essential that our politicians find paths to compromise over the issue. The key to ensuring our country is united in facing this threat will be to appeal to the resilience of the American spirit — something we take pride in and share.

Stephen Flynn, the founder of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University, has identified several factors through which resilience is achieved. One is robustness — the strength to withstand and continue functioning in the wake of disaster. This means investing heavily in infrastructure such as bridges, roads and dams, and devising substitute systems in the case that our main ones fail.

The second is resourcefulness — being able to roll with the punches. It requires that our emergency personnel be properly equipped and prepared to respond efficiently to the type of challenges that will accompany climate change. Third is rapid recovery — the ability to get everything back to normal as quickly as possible. Some communities are working to establish disaster-proof communication networks. Others are training civilians as auxiliary emergency responders. All will help communities bounce back quicker and stronger.

Finally, resilience depends on learning from the past. Reflection on the causes of the Washington landslide can help ensure that future damage is mitigated or minimized. Obviously, land degradation must be halted, but people must also come to terms with the possible need for relocation. We must be flexible and willing to pay whatever cost it takes to endure. By being physiologically and psychologically ready to cope with high-stress situations we stamp out feelings of fear and helplessness.

Thankfully, President Obama’s administration is finally starting to show signs of stepping up to the plate. The president recently announced a $1 billion resiliency fund to assist communities in combatting storm surges and flooding. This is an important move toward bracing the United States for impending climate change, but the effort will have to come from the grassroots as well as state and national government. Maintaining a robust society in the face of hardship requires individuals, companies and local communities to take all measures within their span of control. Some climate change activists have protested this approach, arguing that it will draw funding and research away from halting the source of global warming. This claim raises a valid concern, but it is one that fails to comprehend the immediacy of the threat to human life. This latest report from the IPCC makes it clear that if efforts aren’t made to prepare for climate change as well as waylay it, human suffering and damage will be compounded in the next decade.

It is likely that facing the effects of climate change will be our generation’s World War II. It will be an effort that will take all of us. Building resilience to oncoming climate change challenges should be a bipartisan effort, because it draws on traditions of volunteerism and grit that both parties can agree upon. It is important that we support President Obama’s resilience initiatives so that we may be more prepared as a society for the next Sandy, Katrina or Oso. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the intergovernmental panel, noted soberly that “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” The situation is clear — we’re all in this together.


Robyn Sundlee ’16 loves talking about the weather. She can be contacted at


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