RMI – Microgrids, Resilience, History

Several recent blog posts from Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) highlight the resilience of energy systems based on decentralized “microgrid” electricity generation and thereby the increased resilience of all other systems that depend on electricity. They also provide a good collection of links to resources on the topic.

Not mentioned in these posts, however, is that the 1982 book (republished in 2001), Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security (download here) by RMI founders Amory and Hunter Lovins, is one of the earliest translations of ecological resilience theory into a practical public policy perspective. Chapter thirteen, “Designing for Resilience,” provides an interesting early exploration of resilience theory as an argument for decentralized energy production on environmental and security grounds.

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Genealogies and Etymologies of Resilience

A succinct tour of the modern landscape of resilience meanings is found in the following quote from a recent paper by Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper. Entitled “Genealogies of resilience: From systems ecology to the political economy of crisis adaptation” (abstract here), it is one of a growing number of works attempting to untangle the complex history behind the increasingly pervasive uses of the word resilience.

Developed within systems ecology in the 1970s, ‘resilience’ as a science of complex adaptive systems and as an operational strategy of risk management has flourished, progressively asserting itself as a dominant discourse in natural resource management (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2006). The concept of resilience has in the recent past rapidly infiltrated vast areas of the social sciences, becoming a regular, if under-theorised, term of art in discussions of international finance and economic policy, in corporate risk analysis, the psychology of trauma, development policy, urban planning, public health and national security. Since the nineties, global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF 1996, 2005) the World Bank (WB 2006), and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS 2002, 2008), have increasingly incorporated strategies of ‘resilience’ into their logistics of crisis management, financial (de)regulation and development economics. With the post-911 revolution in ‘homeland security’, resilience has become a byword among agencies charged with coordinating security responses to climate change, critical infrastructure protection, natural disasters, pandemics and terrorism (UK Cabinet Office 2007; World Bank 2008; World Economic Forum 2008; Jackson 2008; Australia21 2009), reorienting these once distinct policy arenas toward a horizon of critical future events which (we are told) we cannot predict or prevent, but merely adapt to by ‘building resilience’. Abstract and malleable enough to encompass the worlds of high finance, defence and urban infrastructure within a single analytic, the concept of resilience is becoming a pervasive idiom of global governance.

David Alexander, in an interesting recent discussion paper entitled “Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction: An Etymological Journey” (download here) goes back all the way to, literally, Pliny the Elder in tracing the roots of modern meanings of resilience. He concludes: “… that the modern conception of resilience derives benefit from a rich history of meanings and applications, but that it is dangerous – or at least potentially disappointing – to read too much into the term as a model and a paradigm.” Also see the photographs of historical documents and the diagrams found at the end of Alexander’s paper.

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Economic Resilience and Generative Ownership

In a recent article, Marjorie Kelly discusses the potential contribution to economic resilience of what she calls “generative ownership” designs, basing parts of her argument on social-ecological resilience theory (particularly the “self-organizing” aspects of adaptability). She provides the following four broad categories as a preliminary outline:

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Lest we think this is merely a niche or utopian idea, Kelly points out:

If there are more kinds of generative ownership design than many people realize, then the scale of activity is also larger than we might suppose, particularly among cooperatives. In the U.S., more than 130 million Americans are members of a co-op or credit union. More Americans hold memberships in co-ops than hold stock in the stock market. Worldwide, cooperatives have close to a billion members. They employ more people than all multinational corporations combined. Among the 300 largest cooperative and mutually owned companies worldwide, total revenues amount to nearly $2 trillion. If these enterprises were a single nation, it would rank ninth on the list of the world’s largest economies.

She notes some of the anecdotal evidence (citations available in the published article) that suggests the importance of further investigation from a resilience perspective:

While more systematic research remains to be done, there is anecdotal evidence that these models are less likely than Wall Street-owned firms to engage in destructive behaviors, are more likely to create broad benefits, and are more likely to remain resilient in crisis. This can be seen, for example, in the success of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, which because of its success in the 2008 crisis, has inspired activists in more than a dozen states to pursue similar models. It can be seen in the resilience and responsible behavior of credit unions, which generally did not create toxic mortgages, and needed few bailouts. It can be seen in the fact that workers at employee-owned firms on average amass more in retirement assets than workers at traditionally owned firms. And it can be seen in the fact that in recent times the Basque region of Spain, home to the massive Mondragón cooperative, has seen substantially lower unemployment than the country as a whole. These relatively beneficial outcomes seem to correlate with the  fundamental structure, the ownership design, of enterprise. As systems thinker Donella Meadows observed, system structure is the source of system  behavior.

Kelly’s article appears in the most recent issue of the journal The Good Society as part of a symposium on Alternatives to Capitalism.” The full set of articles is listed below and can be found (temporarily unlocked) here.

  • The Possibility of a Pluralist Commonwealth and a Community-Sustaining Economy / Gar Alperovitz and Steve Dubb
  • Challenging Corporate Domination: The Public Ownership Approach / Thomas M. Hanna
  • Returns to Capital: Austerity and the Crisis of European Social Democracy / Joe Guinan
  • The Architecture of Enterprise: Redesigning Ownership for a Great Transition / Marjorie Kelly
  • Constitutionalizing Property-Owning Democracy / Thad Williamson
  • Using State and Local Policies / Joel Rogers
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AESOP / ACSP Joint Congress 2013 – Planning for Resilient Cities and Regions

Every five years, the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) hold their annual meetings jointly. The 2013 AESOP/ACSP joint congress opens July 15 in Dublin with the theme “Planning for Resilient Cities and Regions.” As the program brochure puts it, “resilience is the buzzword for this conference.” The program description of the theme is similarly open-ended, mixing aspects of engineering, ecological, disaster studies and vernacular interpretations of the concept of resilience:

The Congress focuses on resilience which has become a new banner for various societal and related planning efforts in cities and regions across the globe. These efforts generally aim to sustain the urban and rural viability and improve the quality of life for their residents amidst the global economic and socio-political crisis and climate change. The concept of resilience relates to the degree to which various environments and systems can tolerate changing conditions and circumstances before adapting and reorganising around a new set of structures and processes. While the concept is sometimes understood only as resilience to climate change and geo environmental hazards, we propose its utility to planning and development be explored in broader terms – as an approach to the multifaceted nature of local and global challenges. In fact, one may consider the ability to adapt and change as an indicator of resilience.

The conference program and (1,165-page) accompanying book of abstracts (view or download both here) provide a window onto the highly diverse ways the subject of resilience is being approached by academic planners within the sixteen different conference tracks.

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Climate CoLab at MIT and Resilient Cities

The Climate Colab is a project of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. It is organized around an online forum in which people can post, comment, and vote on proposals (most are brief concept sketches) in response to various “contests” that address selected aspects of climate change. Winners get a cash prize and the opportunity to present their ideas in various forums.

Of interest here is the taxonomy developed by the project for the “What, Where, Who” of how to address climate change: see here for a collapsible/expandable hierarchical list. Also, various contests underway, some in collaboration with ICLEI’s Climate Resilient Cities program (the first three of the currently active contests listed below), generally relate to urban development within a climate adaptation and mitigation frame.

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Climate Change Assessment for Regions and Cities

Below are two good sources of research support for urban-scale climate change response agendas.

The first is the 2011 research report from the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN): Climate Change and Cities: First Assessment Report of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (referred to as ARC3).

The UCCRN is an international network of researchers with a secretariat based at Columbia University in New York. It formed in 2007 to support specific research needs at the intersection of urban development and climate change. The editors of the ARC3 report provided context for their mission in a 2010 Nature article:

For years, the focus on the world’s response to climate change has been on nation states, which have been mostly unsuccessful in brokering comprehensive agreements or taking action. Cities, by contrast, are preparing risk assessments, setting greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets, and pledging to act. Urban areas, home to more than half of the world’s people, are emerging as the ‘first responders’ in adapting to and mitigating climate change.

[…] What the world needs is the same science-based foundation for cities that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides for nations. Scientists including ourselves are now coming together to provide this information, with several groups formed in recent years and influential publications due out soon. Physical scientists, health scientists and engineers are starting to answer specific questions about how cities and the urban environment will interact in the face of climate change. Social scientists are addressing the human and economic costs, specifically for at-risk populations. And all are learning to take a more holistic approach, considering mitigation alongside adaptation and disaster planning.

Another valuable resource for urban-scale climate change work in the United States is a series of regional climate assessment reports in the process of being released. They were written to support the third National Climate Assessment (NCA), due to be completed in early 2014, but are equally valuable for the regional context they provide to state and local government actors. The regional reports are listed below, and can be downloaded at the CAKE (Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange) website as they become available.

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Rolling Stone: Goodbye, Miami

In a new article for Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell writes:

South Florida has two big problems. The first is its remarkably flat topography. Half the area that surrounds Miami is less than five feet above sea level. Its highest natural elevation, a limestone ridge that runs from Palm Beach to just south of the city, averages a scant 12 feet. With just three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses. And the waters won’t just come in from the east – because the region is so flat, rising seas will come in nearly as fast from the west too, through the Everglades.

Even worse, South Florida sits above a vast and porous limestone plateau. “Imagine Swiss cheese, and you’ll have a pretty good idea what the rock under southern Florida looks like,” says Glenn Landers, a senior engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This means water moves around easily – it seeps into yards at high tide, bubbles up on golf courses, flows through underground caverns, corrodes building foundations from below. “Conventional sea walls and barriers are not effective here,” says Robert Daoust, an ecologist at ARCADIS, a Dutch firm that specializes in engineering solutions to rising seas.

Goodell imagines a series of cascading failures that will likely characterize south Florida’s future due to a combination of exposure, political denial, and a gradual process of disinvestment. This is surely the opposite of resilience, but it is also a case where a local option of resilience has probably already expired.

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Mosaics of Adaptation – Resilience, Transition, Transformation

The IPCC SREX report (discussed earlier) situates disaster risk management and climate change adaptation within the overall context of development. The figure below zooms in and elaborates the adaptation part from the perspective of Mark Pelling, a professor of geography at King’s College in London who served as a coordinating author for the SREX report.

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Pelling’s 2011 book, Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation argues that in the current climate change context, “it is too easy to see adaptation as a narrowly defensive task – protecting core assets or functions from the risks of climate change,” and that “adaptive actions can deny the deeper political and cultural roots that call for significant change in social and political relations if human vulnerability to climate change associated risk is to be reduced.”

The adaptation framework he develops distinguishes between resilience (stability), transition (incremental change based on existing rights) and transformation (regime change and new rights).

He describes the three levels of adaptation as nested and compounding in these terms:

Nesting allows higher-order change to facilitate lower-order change so that transformative change in a social system could open scope for local transitions and resilience.

Compounding reflects the potential for lower-order changes to stimulate or hinder higher-order change.

Building resilience can provoke reflection and be upscaled with consequent changes across a management regime, enabling transitional and potentially transformative change – but it could also slow down more profound change as incremental adjustments offset immediate risks while the system itself moves ever closer to a critical threshold for collapse.

On the ground, he finds that “mosaics of adaptation are generated from the outcomes of overlapping efforts to build (and resist) resilience, transition, local transformative change and remaining unmet vulnerabilities.”

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Brutal Numbers

Whether the question is one of climate mitigation, adaptation or resilience, the numbers matter. Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester and recent past director of the Tyndall Centre, the UK’s leading academic climate change research organization, provides an unvarnished assessment in his 2012 article, “Climate change going beyond dangerous – Brutal numbers and tenuous hope.” (Download article here; a recorded slideshare presentation of the information can be viewed here.)

He begins by reviewing the widely held goal of holding global warming below 2°C, then points out that the estimation of impacts from this level of warming has changed over time (click on figure below to enlarge): “More recent impact analysis suggests 2°C represents the threshold between dangerous and extremely dangerous, rather than between acceptable and dangerous climate change.”

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Following a discussion of the almost incomprehensibly massive and rapid decarbonization of economic activity that is needed to stay below 2°C (greenhouse gas emissions reductions on the order of 10% per year, assuming a peak around 2020), he discusses the equally incomprehensible implications of the 4°C warming we are now widely understood to be heading for this century as global greenhouse gas emissions not only fail to decline, but accelerate.

It is fair to say […] that there is a widespread view that a 4°C future is incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community.  A 4°C future is also beyond what many people think we can reasonably adapt to.  Besides the global society, such a future will also be devastating for many if not the majority of ecosystems.  Beyond this, and perhaps even more alarmingly, there is a possibility that 4°C world would not be stable, and that it might lead to a range of ‘natural’ feedbacks, pushing the temperatures still higher.

In a 2009 article, “Rethinking adaptation for a 4°C world,” Mark Stafford Smith, science director for CSIRO’s climate adaptation program and colleagues explore large-scale adaptation decisions with long lifetimes. A “decision lifetime” is defined as the sum of the lead time involved, and the consequence time of the decision:

Decisions may have a short lead time and short consequence period, such as the choice of which existing wheat cultivar to plant, a decision that can be adjusted every year. Alternatively, they may have a short lead time and long consequences, as with building individual houses, or a long lead time but short consequences, as with developing a new cultivar of wheat for planting. Finally, they may have a long lead time and long consequences, as with the location of suburbs, which are very hard to move once developed.

The figure below shows the lifetimes of different types of adaptation decisions, in the context of anticipated 2 and 4°C world timelines.

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The Relationship Between DRR and CCA

The figure in the last post, taken from a 2012 IPCC special report, sets disaster risk management and climate change adaptation within the broader context of development. The figure below elaborates the relationship between DRR and CCA.

drr and cca

This figure is taken from Toward Resilience: A Guide to Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation, a recently published handbook created by the Emergency Capacity Building Project (ECB). ECB is a consortium formed in 2004 by emergency directors from major international humanitarian aid agencies.

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