Bouncing Forward: How Lessons From the Pandemic Can Help Us Adapt to Climate Change | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin

By R. Patrick Bixler, Paola Passalacqua and Regina M. Buono

As decision-makers and communities struggle with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the very meaning of recovery has come into question. Is the aim simply to return to normal (i.e., to bounce back)? Or can we think about bouncing forward to a new and better normal? If so, how can we transform our policies, practices, and systems to be more equitable and resilient? The answers to these questions point the way toward what we need to do to prepare for the inevitable climate disasters that are to come.

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The pandemic's impacts have been unequally distributed across neighborhoods, communities, and social groups.[1] Infection, hospitalization, and death rates are significantly higher in Black, Hispanic, and resource-poor communities. Blacks have been infected at almost four times the rate of whites, have 4.2 times as many hospitalizations, and twice as many deaths. The hospitalization rate for Latinx persons is approximately 4.4 times that of non-Hispanic persons,[2] and Hispanic Americans saw the steepest employment losses and have the most ground to make up to reach pre-pandemic employment levels.[3] The COVID-recession is the most unequal in modern U.S. history. Millions of low-paid service workers were exposed to the virus in their work or lost their jobs because of the lockdown, while professionals have been able to work at home, and the stock market has continued to climb.

All this speaks to the notion of social vulnerability, which is well-understood in climate-related hazards research. For example, the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and its variants combine multiple socio-demographic dimensions to generate a spatially explicit index that indicates the places most susceptible to the impacts of shocks like wildfire, extreme heat, drought, hurricanes, and flooding (to see Texas-specific estimates at the Census Tracts and Census Block Group visit: https://tmo.utexas.edu/texas-social-vulnerability). As with the pandemic, those stressors have unequal impacts across society. Policies and programmatic interventions can be designed to build community resilience in three broad ways, by:

  • Reducing sensitivities
  • Reducing hazard exposure
  • Increasing adaptive capacity

Increasing resilience across a range of multiple hazards requires researchers, policymakers, and community leaders to work together in ways that are problem-focused and solutions-based and aimed at equitably reducing disaster loss and promoting collective well-being. A resilient Texas—from neighborhoods to cities and across vastly different geographies—will be dependent on an enhanced understanding of the complex and nonlinear interactions of natural and social systems and the mechanisms to translate these new scientific discoveries to actionable and policy-relevant practices.

Increasing resilience across a range of multiple hazards requires researchers, policymakers, and community leaders to work together in ways that are problem-focused and solution-based and aimed at equitably reducing disaster loss and promoting collective well-being.

Given that the COVID-19 crisis has affected these same social and economic systems, what insights can we generate from the experience that might better help us prepare for the coming climate crisis? Below, we identify and discuss four key issues:

Social and Spatial Inequality

As previously mentioned, a prominent feature of climate hazards research is the different sensitivities of populations to shocks or stressors, referred to in shorthand as their "social vulnerability." If past is prologue, socially vulnerable neighborhoods and communities in Texas and beyond will be the first and hardest-hit by consequences of climate change, just as they were by COVID-19.

Economic and social policy that seeks to address historical and systemic inequality can reduce vulnerability in low resource groups. Municipal and state policy can also direct infrastructure investment, both gray and green, to these communities in ways that reduce their exposure to hazards. For example, improved drainage and enhancements to the natural absorption capacity of cityscapes can reduce acute flooding in socially vulnerable places. Additionally, policies and programs that build social capital—the networks, norms, and social cohesion of households and neighborhoods—should be advocated and promoted, because they increase the capacity for households and neighborhoods to adapt. The City of Austin's climate ambassador program[4] provides one innovative approach for building social capital.

Improved Preparation and Response

COVID-19 and climate change have similar nonlinear and temporal impact dynamics that are best-understood through scientific modeling. Such models allow us to prepare for disasters and take proactive steps to mitigate them, potentially reducing their economic and human costs. Such models are hard for the public and even policymakers to understand, as they frequently challenge short-term thinking and interests. So, scientists can help catalyze strong and early action by improving their models, particularly in ways that better integrate technical and social dimensions—and increasing the public's trust in those models.

For example, flooding preparation and response are limited because the flood and risk maps in general use typically do not account for the interactions of pluvial, fluvial, terrain, and transportation "layers" that interact with each other, causing significant losses and displacements. Also, there are few, if any, established methodologies or workflows to link technical models to social dynamics. Combining social "layers" with technical modeling can significantly enhance the ability of state agencies and local communities to plan, respond, and adapt effectively to evolving risks, using accurate, accessible, and evidence-based tools.

Critically, we must improve the trust and actionability of new scientific insights and discoveries. One approach for doing this is knowledge co-production and collaborative/participatory modeling. Co-production—a process that iteratively connects ways of knowing and acting, including ideas, norms, practices, and discourses—involves multiple participants (scientists, policymakers, community groups and residents) to produce new knowledge and new ways of integrating knowledge into decision-making and action. Fine-resolution flood models can serve as a focal point for stakeholders across multiple levels as they build useful knowledge and tools to address flooding and other hazards.

Strengthened Multilevel Governance Mechanisms

COVID-19 is the first crisis in the current era of globalization in which nations across the world, and states within the United States, are competing directly for the same limited resources. From Western Europe's closed borders, to mandated quarantines for out-of-region residents entering New York, to the closure of Interstate 10 at the Texas/Louisiana border, institutions that have long thrived on integration show signs of fragmentation. Climate change will bring a repeat of this scenario, but at a potentially greater scale. Increasingly frequent extreme weather events and food and water shortages within the United States and beyond will cause competition for resources, and mass migration will test the limits of global integration.

The fragmentation of governance during COVID-19 can provide insights into the need to strengthen multilevel risk governance networks. Understanding and managing risk are embedded in a multilevel governance context in which decision-making at local scales is enabled and constrained by policy decisions and institutions at regional and national scales. Investments that build and strengthen these networks will make our communities, cities, and states more resilient.

Soon, we will have "recovered" from the COVID-19 pandemic, but will we have transformed the policies, practices, and systems that were responsible for our flawed response?

System Transformation

Disasters occur at the interface of social, natural, and technical (or built) environments. Researchers approach the modeling of hazard events (pandemic, flood, heat, drought) through different disciplines and technical approaches; however, increasing resilience across a range of multiple hazards demands a transdisciplinary effort that facilitates cross-hazard-type learning across the disaster life-cycle of preparedness, response, recovery, and transformation. Soon, we will have "recovered" from the COVID-19 pandemic but will we have transformed the policies, practices, and systems that were responsible for our flawed response? Will we have replaced it with one that reduces social vulnerability, improves the actionability of science, and strengthens multilevel governance? Definitions of transformation vary but generally they share one basic idea: a fundamental change in a system and its form, structure, meaning, or relationships.

Bouncing forward

The COVID-19 crisis has showed us how a shock can lead to global disruption. And COVID wasn't 2020's only shock; the year has seen a record number of wildfires in Australia and the U.S., a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, extreme heat across the American Southwest, and what looks to be record global temperatures. We need effective policies that help cities, communities, and households adapt to climate change. Transformative adaptation requires a long-term vision of what is resilient. We can use the COVID-19 crisis to bounce forward and implement strategies that reduce social vulnerability, improve preparation and response, strengthen multilevel networks and institutions, and otherwise guide a system-wide transformation.

 

R. Patrick Bixler is an Assistant Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He leads the Austin Area Sustainability Indicators program and co-leads the Planet Texas 2050 Flagship initiative Networks for Hazard Preparedness and Response. Paola Passalacqua is an Associate Professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin and the co-leader of the Planet Texas 2050 Flagship Networks for Hazards Preparedness and Response. Regina M. Buono is a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the LBJ School and a nonresident scholar at the Center for Energy Studies (CES) at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.


[1] Tai, Don Bambino Geno, Aditya Shah, Chyke A Doubeni, Irene G Sia, and Mark L Wieland. 2020. "The Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Racial and Ethnic Minorities in the United States." Clinical Infectious Diseases Forthcoming: 4. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciaa815

[4] The City of Austin climate ambassadors seek to gather and share information about climate issues with their community. Topics include but are not limited to: energy, transportation, food, and access to nature. More information: http://austintexas.gov/page/community-climate-ambassadors.