Part 2: Catalyzing transformative change: Resistance is futile

by Lea Sabbag

Appealing to values, identity, and sense of self can have powerful implications. On a basic level, it is how many people form friendships and alliances. They effect how we process information and to some degree how we accept, support, or reject an idea. For example, deciding what team has your allegiance during the 2014 World Cup can simply be a product of your nationality. But when faced with an issue that is complex and multi-faceted, it is easier for many to accept notions from people they already align themselves with and who share similar interests, than from those they would normally not.

Enter the climate change ‘debate’. Creating effective dialog as well as support towards transformative change has been all but an easy process in the United States. Some assumed that the science would speak for itself. Few of us knew how messy even the jargon surrounding the topic would be, let alone communicating it effectively—and even ‘effective’ communication rarely spurs action. So when presented with the potential impacts of climate change, how do we catalyze resilience building? How do we realistically engage others in the most effective way? The author’s previous post highlighted the importance of appealing to a person’s or group’s values and sense of self. This post attempts to outline potential avenues for linking these values with transformative change.

When catalyzing effective dialogue and action surrounding resilience, shared learning remains a critical strategy. Fully understanding the complexity around certain issues requires multiple stakeholders who represent diverse perspectives, scales, and boundaries. Stakeholder engagement provides a platform to bridge differences and various priorities by opening dialog to better understand multifaceted problems.

In order for it to be effective, shared learning must account for not only traditional planning processes, but also autonomous adaptation occurring at the individual level. Examples of autonomous adaption include painting rooftops white in order to reflect heat from the sun as well as raising a house’s plinth level to avoid flooding. As the impacts of climate change begin to manifest, traditional planning processes will not suffice in mitigating or adapting to the potential challenges future generations face. If individuals and households are able to use their decision-making power to lessen these shocks, then they will. In some cases, doing so can be beneficial, in others not so much.

With the 2013 flooding in Colorado, residents in Boulder took individual action to mitigate risk on personal property by creating barriers to divert water from their homes. Their actions were a response of their assessment of the situation. By diverting water, however, they increased flood risks for their downstream neighbors by displacing damage from one place to another. Autonomous adaptation, whether protective or harmful, will continue to occur. Acknowledging its impact and creating dialog on the best way to manage it will not only increase capacity and resilience, but also strengthen social networks within a community.

In addition to effective dialog and incorporating autonomous adaptation processes into mainstream planning, innovation and technological adoption will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in catalyzing resilience in the United States. Assessing hazards and applying resilient ingenuity involves various sectors and stakeholders, thus creating an excellent avenue for opening dialog and initiating transformation. In addition, technology can and should be a part of autonomous adaption. As innovative research and advancement continue to occur, it is imperative that we find a way to shift behaviors around technological adoption so that it becomes mainstream and more accessible to those other than the wealthy.

A wonderful example of this occurred earlier in the month when Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, opened the company’s patents to competitors and the public. Frustrated by the lack of progress in mainstreaming electric vehicles, he hopes that making his patents open-source will help catalyze a movement in the auto-making industry. Investing in research and technology that builds off Tesla’s patents will help breakdown cost and infrastructure barriers that prevent electric vehicles from becoming mainstream and accessible to a wider market. And in doing so, we will inevitably see a shift in behavior and transformative change.

While this is a great first step, additional research and financial support must continue in the automotive industry and elsewhere, specifically in urban environments. Cities not only breathe ingenuity and technological advancement but they also have greater risk for vulnerability due to a number of factors, including system failures and other various hazards. Exploring these vulnerabilities, along with realistic solutions, will help to highlight avenues for transformative change.

A recently published study by Arizona State University demonstrated that air conditioning use increased outdoor nighttime temperatures in metropolitan Phoenix by 1°C. This can have serious implications on human health, and will further exacerbate the urban heat island effect. But in the United States, where air conditioning is widespread and mainstream, convincing people to minimize use seems highly unlikely. In light of this, ASU researchers advised sustainable development strategies that use the heat produced by air conditioners for other purposes such as heating water. This and additional strategies for reducing the urban heat island effect have the potential to save more than 12,000 MWh of energy per day.

People are not opposed to change as long as their values and interests are not compromised. Therefore, appealing to a community’s sense of self may be the most effective way to catalyze resilience and transformative change. In order to do so, dialog and shared learning become essential. Engaging stakeholders provides a platform for better understanding priorities and complex systems. It involves traditional planning processes, but also acknowledging autonomous adaption and providing assistance when necessary. And because our diverse interests can make it difficult to accept or encourage change, we must continue to support research that is innovative and advances various technological fields. Resistance [to do so] is futile.

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