Resilience and its curses

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - March 9, 2021 - 12:00am

Internationally, the Philippines has the reputation of a disaster waiting to happen. We just have so many of them. There’s a narrative that celebrates people’s ability to clean up the mess and keep going, praising resilience, but it’s a curse just as much as it’s a blessing.

This week I’m hosting a few sessions for the 7th Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum, the primary regional platform for adaptation practitioners to meet, share their learning and experiences and work together towards the outcomes and practical solutions that are needed to address the challenges of climate change. It’s become the venue for scientists, donors, youth and representatives from over 50 countries to meet, converse and work together for adaptation action partnerships.

Its theme is “Enabling Resilience for All: The Critical Decade to Scale-up Action.” One of its aims is to formulate a set of recommendations on how to magnify current efforts on adaptation in the Asia-Pacific region and provide the basis for the region’s contributions to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, United Kingdom and the 2021 United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Kunming, China.

On Monday I moderated a panel discussion on “Policy and Climate Governance” (towards equity and inclusion), after the keynote speech that was delivered by Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda, who is also a UN champion on disaster resilience and climate change and spoke in depth about the Philippine experience and linking them to the challenges facing the Asia Pacific region and the world.

She said: “The urgent task at hand is to reduce our communities’ vulnerability to disasters and the impacts of the climate crisis by ensuring they have the needed resources and knowledge. Strengthening resilience in the context of a changing climate has become synonymous to securing humanity and achieving the future we want for all.”

Afterwards, in typical UN style, there were five panellists with perspectives from very different backgrounds. From Pakistan, the Deputy Director General from the Climate Change Department could only speak briefly because of internet issues. From Mongolia, the former Environment Minister, who has worked extensively on the global effort to address climate change, was able to link the international efforts to national and subnational plans. From Malaysia, Sunita Rajkumar spoke about the private sector work she’s done on climate change adaptation, having founded the country chapter of the World Economic Forum’s Climate Governance Initiative in May 2019. The Malaysian chapter was the second in the world and to-date, still the only country chapter in Asia. She said it has been a steep learning curve for her but as a professional director on boards of businesses, she is realizing that directors are responsible as long-term stewards of the organization to manage climate risks and to build the resilience of businesses.

Speaking from Dhaka in Bangladesh, lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan, of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, spoke about “climate justice” which has been her focus with the group. Her perspective was probably the most challenging. Despite the fact that equity and inclusion are well-established principles in global climate policy, she said her experience of the reality was different. Her words reminded me of the terrible devastation caused by Typhoon Yolanda or Haiyan, and the huge ship that was washed inland in Leyte. By the time the pope visited a few months later, graffiti had appeared on the side spelling out the words “Climate Justice.”

Rizwana also brought up the problems with the term “resilience,” of which Filipinos are all too aware. It has been used as a kind of compliment to a people battered by a disaster always cleaning up and getting on with it, but it’s become increasingly problematic.

“After a series of typhoons in the Philippines in late 2020, for example, there were calls for more accountability and questions about the relevance and utility of ‘resilience’ to the lives of ordinary Filipinos,” a UNEP briefing document notes. “Civil society organizations want to stop ‘glorifying the narrative of Filipino resilience,’ which they call a ‘myth’ as millions continue to suffer due to natural hazards every year. Others have called resilience a ‘shroud to cover a downfall.’ The backlash will continue unless resilience-building efforts address the causes of people’s suffering head-on.”

In other words, describing people as “resilient” should not be an excuse not to help them; besides people have no choice but to clean up and get on with life, no matter how much they’re grieving.

As a speaker from a previous meeting, Dharini Priscilla, of The Grassrooted Trust, put it: “When working with the marginalized, inclusivity is not a choice: we have to do it. We need to be unified. Resilience and climate change adaptation is better when we work together. Inclusivity is not up for debate.”

There’s evidence that suggests if existing efforts do not meet the expectations of vulnerable communities, it can undermine the effectiveness of resilience-building efforts. Failing to ensure that resilience-building is equitable, inclusive and accountable can lead to a backlash.

Overall, while countries at the global and national level have been enacting new legal frameworks for climate governance, a shift is still necessary “from forming a climate governance system to a functioning climate governance system” which allows institutions to work at all levels.

It’s clear that climate change impacts are already being felt, but the voices of local communities (at the frontline of victims), women and marginalized communities are often unheard and excluded from climate governance at almost all levels.

Nevertheless, the resilience of human and social systems cannot be built without an inclusive governance system in place.

These were huge challenges facing the whole world even before the pandemic hit us. COVID-19 has exposed in the most cruel way the way climate change, bio-diversity and public health are linked. Every economy is reeling from the shock of having to shut down for so long but I would like to think that this crisis presents a remarkable opportunity to give fresh impetus to the challenge of adapting to climate change. Now everyone knows just how important it is.

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