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Lessons from the Intersection of Coronavirus and Climate Resilience

April 7, 2020

By: Tate Williams


As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, some uncanny parallels have emerged between the acute threat before us and the longer-term crisis of climate change. One particular concept that has struck me as starkly relevant during this global health crisis is that of resilience.

Loosely defined as a community’s ability to withstand shocks and stresses, resilience is a niche interest within climate philanthropy, often related to infrastructure and readiness for climate impacts like storms and flooding. But resilience is also about closing systemic vulnerabilities and inequities, many of which have been thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic. The current health crisis has underscored the need to make communities better prepared and more equitable under a status quo with more frequent disasters.

To get a better sense of where the public health crisis and the climate crisis intersect, and what lessons we might learn from both going forward, I reached out to Shamar Bibbins, senior program officer at the Kresge Foundation, who works directly at the nexus of health, climate and community.

“We like to say that climate change is a threat multiplier, that it affects everything. Climate change is a public health issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s a poverty issue, it’s a social justice issue,” Bibbins says. “As this pandemic just keeps unfolding, we’re seeing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our systems.”

Kresge was an early funder of climate resilience in cities, and Bibbins has played a lead role in foundation initiatives focused on community-led approaches to resilience and reducing inequality in public health during climate change. I called Bibbins to discuss how the current health crisis might inform future resilience funding, and what Kresge’s learned about helping communities become stronger in the face of profound threats.

Climate Change and COVID-19

Funders, advocates and activists alike are grappling right now with how the global health crisis and climate change might interact and overlap as both play out—in particular, how to prevent COVID-19 from overshadowing the climate threat.

There have been some concrete connections, such as the debate over a $2 trillion relief package, and how plans for future infrastructure and stimulus spending might contribute to a stronger, post-carbon economy. At the same time, even the status quo needs defending as the Trump administration waives EPA regulations and rolls back auto emissions rules in the fog of pandemic.

Bibbins is quick to point out that there’s a lot of uncertainty right now as the situation evolves, but the climate advocates and funders, including her team at Kresge, are having a lot of discussions about how climate action fits into COVID-19 response. That means striking the right balance of responding to the immediate crisis, without neglecting climate impacts that are still happening. Kresge’s trying to learn what that might look like from its partners—as one public health grantee recently said to Bibbins, “Wildfire season is just around the corner.”

“They're the ones who reminded us that we have to be thinking about these things in tandem and holistically,” she says. In fact, many of the populations and systems that are now heavily strained are also the subject of climate resilience efforts.

Resilience is a field that has been around for a while in climate circles, and a set of funders has made it a high priority. The Rockefeller Foundation has been a leader, although it abruptly ended its huge 100 Resilient Cities initiative last year (some elements continue and a new nonprofit has spun off). We’ve also seen community foundations and local donors engage with climate resilience, realizing the danger of flooding, storms, wildfires and other impacts. Kresge was another early champion of philanthropic support for resilience, with an emphasis on supporting vulnerable communities in cities.

Resilience is kind of a fuzzy concept, and while it sometimes entails straightforward measures like flood prevention or green infrastructure, it’s often a more intersectional field that aims to address any number of societal threats. For Kresge, that includes combating inequality and strengthening social bonds.

One major resilience initiative that Kresge recently wrapped up was Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity (CRUO), which funded 15 community nonprofits across the U.S. for five years to ensure resilience planning is meeting the needs of low-income communities. Another especially relevant initiative, Climate Change, Health and Equity, similarly backs grassroots groups, along with public health institutions and practitioners, to serve as leaders in climate and resilience efforts.

Bibbins identifies a few key points where the COVID-19 pandemic might inform climate resilience, and the broader need to strengthen and support communities.

Urgent Action and a Long Game

Discussing one of the biggest lessons at the intersection of the pandemic and climate change, Bibbins references a recent interview by Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of Climate Interactive, who points out that if you wait until you can see the threat, it’s too late.

“The U.S. was slow to respond to coronavirus despite very early warnings and signals that were made by many public health experts across the country that we would be unprepared for a pandemic like this. And true enough, look where we are,” Bibbins says.

For her, that underscores the urgency of the work that climate funders and advocates are doing right now. “I just feel our work is so much more critical than ever.”

But it also says something important about how foundations support the people working on the ground. Acute threats often spur funders to react to needs in the moment, and in important ways, but the strengthening of underlying systems takes a long time.

“Advocates have been telling philanthropists this for a very long time—we need long-term funding, consistent funding, flexible funding, because it’s long-term work,” Bibbins says.

Communities need the resources and flexibility to respond to crises, but also to pass and implement the policies necessary to mitigate and be ready for them in advance. Bibbins points out that in the course of Kresge’s community nonprofit funding through CRUO, it became very clear that the team needed to be thinking about the full life cycle of policies, including the critical rollout of new regulations and spending. Six of the groups from the five-year CRUO initiative are still Kresge grantees through the foundation’s new climate and health initiative, continuing aspects of the climate resilience work they started.

“These organizations who are up against so many things need long-term, flexible funding to be able to shift, to be able to adapt, to be able to not only win a policy, but to be able to actually work on the equitable implementation of it,” Bibbins says.

Community Ties, Leadership, and Expertise

The hyper-local tools and relationships people are developing during the COVID-19 crisis have mirrored past responses to climate impacts and will likely be important to withstanding future threats. In fact, one element of Kresge’s definition of climate resilience is “social cohesion and inclusion.”

Bibbins recalls, for example, that after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, ad hoc response efforts among residents and local organizations sought to meet local needs in low-income neighborhoods and public housing where people were not getting the official support they needed.

“So organizations kind of were scrambling, and they became the first responders for many of these people,” she says.

One study documented that the lower-income neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, for example, relied on strong social ties among community members, anchored by local nonprofit Red Hook Initiative, to meet residents’ needs during Sandy’s aftermath. Bibbins says that kind of neighbor-to-neighbor-level emergency response influenced grantees funded through Kresge’s CRUO initiative when it formed in 2014, including Catalyst Miami, which worked with a coalition of groups to create a Community Emergency Operations Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

Similar volunteer first responders and community support networks emerged during Puerto Rico’s recent hurricanes and subsequent earthquakes, supported by local foundations and nonprofits. In response to COVID-19, with travel restricted and access to supplies and care limited, comparable neighborhood mutual aid efforts have popped up across the country, responding to immediate needs and facilitating exchanges of resources.

Bibbins says one thing Kresge is thinking about is how this social connectivity in difficult times might be ramped up by philanthropy and government. One of the core tenets of Kresge’s resilience funding is the idea of lifting up the overlooked expertise of people in communities.

“As money continues to go into supporting community networks and grassroots work, we're finding, oh wait, these folks actually know what they’re talking about. They’re experts because they have lived experience,” she says.

But the foundation also supports building capacity in local government, and has learned that connecting government to the grassroots can build resilience in exciting ways.

“The community has all of this knowledge and all of these assets and all of these relationships,” she says. So when the city is doing emergency response planning for the future, “it feels like there’s a really important way to connect back to all of those resources and assets that the community already has been doing in their own right.”

Interconnected Issues, Underlying Inequality

Another major lesson COVID-19 has driven home is that so many of the societal threats we are up against are interconnected, with deep racial and economic inequities underlying them. Certainly, she says, more funding for resilience is needed to prepare for emergencies.

“But more important than that, I think that philanthropy—whether you’re a climate funder, whether you’re a human service funder—we need to think about our solution sets in a much more comprehensive, holistic and cross-sectoral way,” she says.

Just as climate change acts as a threat multiplier, straining every other system, COVID-19 has had similar cross-cutting impacts, and the weaknesses they exploit are often the same.

For example, Bibbins points out, populations hit hard by COVID-19 often overlap with populations already struggling with poverty, heat island effects, air and water pollution and pre-existing respiratory problems.

Indeed, a New York Times analysis found that low-income neighborhoods of New York City are being hit the hardest by the pandemic. Early data in other cities is showing that communities of color are experiencing alarmingly disproportionate numbers of cases and deaths from COVID-19. Research has found that respiratory viruses, asthma and air pollution can compound to increase the risk of serious symptoms, even among children. Meanwhile, the crisis has also shone a spotlight on weaknesses in the social safety net by exposing how people without access to healthcare and worker benefits are at greater risk.

Bibbins worries that once we get through the COVID-19 crisis, society will simply move on to the next threat that arises without examining the vulnerabilities that exacerbate these impacts.

“I just feel like it’s so critically important that we use this opportunity to really deepen our understanding of how the historical and institutional racism and inequity impact policy and planning across all levels,” she says.

“More than ever, we really need to acknowledge that, we need to address it, and we need to make sure our policies that we’re putting forth seek to correct those structural inequities that affect climate change, that affect COVID-19, and any other environment or public health crisis.”

This story originally appeared in Inside Philanthropy


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