Reclaiming ‘resilience’: This climate buzzword should belong to all Floridians

The word “resilience” has generated a buzz among people working on the climate crisis.

In Florida, the word is often used to describe a response to a local impact of climate change. In January, for example, Governor Ron DeSantis announced a new “Resilient Florida” initiative, which will provide $2 billion to fortify water and wastewater systems, emergency response centers, transportation infrastructure, and public housing against the impacts of sea-level rise.

But “resilience” can mean a lot more than just protection from rising seas. Working for “resilience” in a holistic sense, and giving vulnerable communities ownership of the planning process, can help move Florida toward a safer, greener, more economically secure future for all the state’s residents.

The Resilient 305 strategy launched in May 2019. (Courtesy Resilient305)

When Governor DeSantis talks about “Resilient Florida,” he uses the word as a synonym for adaptation to sea-level rise. This is common among state elected officials.

But many nonprofits and philanthropies, as well as some local governments, take a broader definition. Resilient305 (a partnership among Miami-Dade County and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach) describes “resilience” as enabling every resident and community to bounce back from disasters and economic hardships, and “to not only survive but thrive” in the face of long-term stressors like sea-level rise, high housing costs and a lack of good-paying jobs.

While high housing costs and job market instability should not be permanent conditions of life in Florida, this definition has some merits. In particular, it recognizes we can’t address just one risk in isolation. When we do, we jeopardize the health and well-being of Floridians, particularly the state’s most vulnerable residents.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma painfully demonstrated how risk from hurricanes and climate change does not exist in a silo. Many Floridians experienced lengthy power outages, supply shortages, and evacuation traffic that exposed a need for modernizing our power grid and improving emergency planning. But low-income Floridians, particularly those in historically Black and brown neighborhoods struggled the most. Thousands of people could not afford basic emergency supplies, find transportation to safe shelter, or receive medical support when they needed it.

Distributing supplies after Hurricane Michael. (Florida National Guard via Flickr)

Likewise, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Floridians who identify as Black, Hispanic, or Latino tend to face greater risks than do white Floridians. People who identify as Hispanic or Latino make up about 24 percent of Florida’s population, but account for 37 percent of deaths, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project. Black Floridians, meanwhile, represent 15 percent of the population but account for 20 percent of hospitalizations.

Disparities like these are why “resilience”  must be holistic, addressing wealth inequality and racism alongside climate change, and empowering vulnerable residents to enter the planning process right from the start. This work is more important now than ever, as the state rebuilds from the coronavirus pandemic and looks to the climate risks ahead. From the “Resilient Florida” program and the proposed “Resilient Schools Act” in Florida’s state government to FEMA’s multibillion-dollar “Building Resilience in Communities” grant program, “resilience” is a buzzword that increasingly has dollars attached to it. For Florida communities, it’s an opportune time to advocate for the infrastructure, programs, and other investments that will ensure long-term health, safety, and well-being for all.

In Florida’s Legislature, a resolution recently introduced by Senator Gary Farmer urges the state to define long-term climate resilience as “a reduction of pollution and the development of clean energy systems, clean transportation options, flood protections, and other improvements in neighborhood livability, etc.” The definition enables communities to take a holistic view of what “resilience” is and what they need to achieve it. It empowers Floridians to make a case for additional investments in clean energy and transportation and neighborhood livability, in addition to the green infrastructure and risk mitigation measures required to respond to the climate crisis.

Overtown residents provide recommendations for the City of Miami’s climate adaptation strategy at a 2019 workshop. (Photo by Kate Stein)

The Florida Future Fund (FFF) proposed by CLEO and the Center for American Progress (CAP) takes this holistic view of resilience a step farther, to directly address environmental racism and wealth inequality in addition to the climate crisis. Grants through the FFF would support projects that reduce pollution, increase renewable energy access, create good-paying jobs, promote future-ready infrastructure and flood protection, and expand public transportation options. Such projects would benefit all Floridians by helping restore the state’s environment, promoting economic stability and access to economic opportunities, and reducing risk from hurricanes, sea-level rise, and hotter temperatures. Moreover, in recognition of the state’s ongoing equity challenges, CLEO and CAP recommend at least sixty percent of Florida Future Fund dollars go to communities of color, rural communities, and communities that are low-income. An advisory board with seats for community representatives would help ensure the project selection process is equitable and prioritizes community needs.

Ultimately, “resilience” is just a word that stands in for the kinds of change Floridians hope to see in a climate-changed future. Vast disparities because of income, race, and ethnicity only exacerbate our state’s vulnerability to the climate crisis. It’s imperative we tackle inequality and injustice as we respond to climate risks.

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