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A pair of Obama advisers advocate for proactive climate solutions

Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption

Alice C. Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz
Oxford University Press
250 pp.
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In Building a Resilient Tomorrow, Alice Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz have put together a superb primer on responding to the impacts of climate change. The writing is simple and tight and should appeal to anyone interested in how to prepare for the future of our physical world.

Hill is a senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, while Martinez-Diaz is the global director of the Sustainable Finance Center at the World Resources Institute. Both played senior roles in the Obama administration.

The book’s first section—“Systems for Large-Scale Change”—addresses topics such as how to rebuild in response to natural disasters (where, when, and to what standards); legal liability when losses occur; and market approaches to help improve resilience, including disclosure requirements, capturing climate risk in bond and real estate markets, and strengthening standards to obtain or maintain insurance. Here, the authors point to “no more” moments that can bring about large-scale, decisive action, but they acknowledge that “the rest of the time we largely fail to learn from our experience.” Take, for example, their stunning observation that 8 of the 18 most hurricane-prone states in the union have no mandatory, statewide building code.

Why does this happen? In their view, the reasons are many and include prohibitive construction costs, the potential for lost tax revenue, a fear of litigation, optimism bias (our tendency to believe that situations will resolve favorably), and inertia.

The second part of the book deals with finding ways to pay for resilience, gathering data and making it more usable, and getting around human biases that make us reluctant to act. Here, they describe the staggering costs borne by the federal government for disaster relief ($130 billion between 2005 and 2008, for example, spent mostly in response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma). The authors cite former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s argument that if Republicans really care about limited government, they should care about controlling climate change before it results in never-ending climate bailouts.

The book’s final section—“The Upenders”—deals with strengthening the healthcare system, addressing inequality and improving community, relocating entire communities and immigration, and reconceiving national security. Here, Hill and Martinez-Diaz deal sensitively with issues of inequality. “[M]obility in the age of climate change is not just about escaping an imminently approaching storm or wildfire. It’s also about having the option to change your permanent address as climate conditions change,” they write.

Each chapter is packed with specific examples, and the authors include hopeful innovations and approaches as well. In chapter 1, for example, they describe the “Dome of a Home” in Pensacola, Florida, that incorporated resilient design features, enabling it to withstand Hurricane Ivan in 2004 largely intact.

Particularly gripping is chapter 9, which focuses on relocating people in harm’s way. For years, the issue of displacement and relocation was something of a taboo subject in international climate debates, both because it is so sensitive and because solutions are not readily apparent. Hill and Martinez-Diaz tackle this issue head-on, dealing with it in a sensitive but clear-eyed manner.

“Of all the hard lessons in this book, managing climate migration may be the hardest,” they argue, acknowledging that even the Obama White House dropped “managed retreat” for more politically palatable alternatives. “Our political leaders will need to begin a national conversation on this sensitive topic, and the sooner the better,” urge Hill and Martinez-Diaz, arguing that “[t]he earlier we start, the easier, and less costly, and less traumatic building resilience will be.”

The end of each chapter includes a short section featuring policy recommendations. Surprisingly, these are sometimes less pointed than the suggestions put forward in the chapters themselves. In chapter 6, for example, they discuss the idea of “institutionalizing imagination,” arguing that, “Part of the answer lies in making the exercise of imagination a regular, even mandatory practice … It’s not about predicting the future, but about considering what different futures might look like regardless of how likely or unlikely they may seem.” The granularity and urgency of this point seem lost in the subsequent policy recommendation: “Federal, state and local governments, as well as businesses should integrate regular climate-risk scenario analysis into key strategy processes.”

Still, Hill and Martinez-Diaz have organized complex material across multiple disciplines in a way that makes their narrative accessible and stimulating. This book is a great entry point and a very welcome addition to the resilience literature.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904, USA, and is the former deputy assistant secretary for environment, U.S. State Department, Washington, DC 20520, USA.