Building Personal Resilience in the Era of Climate Change

This past spring, I attended the National Adaptation Forum in Madison, WI, which included a sessions on Resilience for Climate Change Professionals. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties. Whether we’re working in a climate-related field or not, we could all use this capacity, and we need good strategies to help us.

In climate-adaptation work, resilience is about helping communities prepare for unknown threats expected from climate crises – rapid, constant change and great uncertainty. For example, should an ocean-side city build levies, or should they move businesses out of the low-elevation downtown area instead? How high will the seas rise, and when? How bad will the storms be that contribute to flooding? The opacity of the future makes planning all the more difficult.

COMM Blog KBpic LA DirtySkyline 2015 01Community planners have traditionally relied on past trends to plan for the future, but there is now a certain “unknowability” which has to be taken into account. All of the information needed to plan simply cannot be known. Instead of planning for a known amount of expected flooding, there is a need to foster resilience in the systems to be better able to react to and recover from unknown changes that are coming. Uncertainty is being built into the formal processes as we acknowledge that we “do not know”.

As mentioned, on a personal level, we also need to be able to spring back from difficulty, which includes “unknowability” and there are good strategies to help. It is important to start by acknowledging there is adversity. Climate change professionals deal with this existential threat constantly, knowing that we can expect more frequent, traumatic disruptions, and potentially transformative changes. Climate chaos is changing what we know and love and depend on: landscapes, places, plants, animals, people, and economies. Current studies are showing that there is increased grief, anxiety and growing stress over uncertainties that people are not trained to deal with. This is a collective experience, as our understanding of the situation evolves, especially among those of us addressing climate change.

Take a minute to think about what kind of climate change stress you might be dealing with. My list includes potential wildfires in the communities where those I love work and play, invasive plants in the woods where I live, and the politics of mass migrations of people and animals forced from their homes. Take a minute and think of a few things that might concern you.

These thoughts might make you feel grief, or anger or frustration. And we have chronic, repeated exposure to these experiences. Existential questions are part of climate work. Big changes are coming, we are often the bearers of bad news, and our emotions color our work. Now consider some of the people we are trying to help, those dealing with chronic poverty and a lack of resources, and then layer climate-change on top of that. How do we get to dignified lives for everyone, and the ability to respond quickly and creativity in the face of constant change, rapid shifts, and pervasive uncertainty?

This can be hard work. It is value-driven work; we are not usually in it for the big bucks. A good sense of work-life balance is important for everyone, and in this line of work, there are a lot of people on the front lines working long hours and sacrificing their personal lives. Self- care is critical and we need to hold space for fear and grief. When we step back and read the news and look down on our planet it can be overwhelming. But when we step up into our work we can feel hope.

So how do we foster this hope, how can we be resilient ourselves? What rituals can help us deal with grief and acknowledge loss? How do we free our imaginations to think outside the box? Some of the qualities we need for resilience include:

  • Strong relationships: The mutual long-lasting back-and-forth bond w/ another person in our lives.
  • Clear values and beliefs: The feelings and thoughts we have about ourselves and our lives and how effective we think we are at taking action in life.
  • Initiative: The ability to make positive choices and decisions and act upon them.
  • Self-Control: The ability to experience a range of feelings, and express them using the words and actions society considers appropriate.

We all have different talents and characteristics that will help us with these qualities, and that’s what we each have to discover for ourselves. Here is a quiz from the Devereux Foundation, adapted by the American Society of Adaptation Professionals Personal Resilience Affinity Group. It’s a quiz just for you. It takes about a minute and can help each of us identify the areas where we are strongest and areas where we may want to improve.

Click here to take the quiz.

When you are finished with the quiz, you’ll be able to see which areas you might want to focus on to improve your resiliency, and develop some strategies to help. Here are some ideas for the categories in the quiz as well as some general suggestions:

  • To cultivate relationships:
    COMM CivicSparkers Hike Cropped 2015
    • Write down a list of people you trust. o If you don’t trust anyone, maybe try to get to know someone better.
    • Hand-write a letter. 
    • Have coffee or lunch with a friend.
  • To strengthen internal beliefs:
    • Express gratitude – what are you grateful for (what do you value?).
    • Meditate – get quiet so you can hear what is important on the inside. 
    • Develop a faith practice by joining a church or sangha. 
  • To strengthen initiative:
    • Rest if you are tired.
    • Find a way to engage in a healthy hobby you enjoy (join a class?).
    • Seek out new knowledge. 
    • Practice saying no.
  • To strengthen self-control:
    • Find a small practice to develop discipline – make your bed in the morning, for example, to get the day off on the right foot. 
  • Express gratitude.
  • Spend time outside.
  • Self-care to nourish and replenish:
    • Eating good food.
    • Exercise.
    • Meditation.

I hope this has been an opportunity for you to think about an often unspoken aspect of our work, and to discover some strategies to help, which are really useful in all aspects of life.

For more information, check out The Road to Resilience and Resilience: Build Skills to Endure Hardship.

Images courtesy Kriselda Bautista