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Vulnerability and Resilience in a Changing Climate

Atticus Carnell, Climate Action Fellow, provides his insight into climate action planning.


Three years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argued that we should adopt a lower acceptable limit on warming than we previously had—1.5°C instead of 2—to avoid the worst harms of climate change. Doing so, the 2018 Report on Global warming of 1.5°C states, “could reduce the number of people exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050.”[i] It could save the coral reefs, too; at 2°C of warming, nearly all of them might be dead.[ii]


A little more than a week ago, the IPCC released its Sixth Assessment Report. Now, the Panel reports that Earth will most likely have warmed 1.5°C by 2040. Said Ko Barrett, vice-chair of the IPCC and senior climate advisor at NOAA’s Office of Atmospheric Research: “Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C will be beyond reach.”[iii]


Taken together, the upshot of these reports is that Earth’s climate is warming faster, and the consequences of each fraction of a degree of warming are more severe, than we previously had thought.


It is easy to be pessimistic. Alarm bells have been ringing since I was a small child, and louder each year. Very little has changed. And whether or not we do manage to stay under 1.5°C of warming, that much warming will still be disastrous for agonizingly many people. As fires rage the world over, 1°C—roughly where we stand today—already feels near apocalyptic. Mitigating emissions is thus only part of the solution to a changing climate. We must also adapt and rapidly build the resilience to flourish in and against our increasingly hostile climate.


I think we frequently misunderstand adaptation and resilience. In part because of the focus on emissions mitigation and in part because the climate movement is caught up in America’s long history of environmental movements (like the ones to conserve wild lands or curb water and air pollution), we’ve come to expect climate policy to be, I’ll say, colored green. By “colored green” I mean something like “having to do with the natural environment,” or maybe, “resonant of past environmental movements.”


After nine months of climate planning as GPCOG’s Climate Action Fellow, I’m skeptical. We need to adopt a broader understanding of adaptation and resilience—which I think will mean getting past our expectation that adaptation and resilience policies look, in all cases, green.


It might help to describe the approach that GPCOG is taking to climate planning, which I think does not fall into the trap of a narrower understanding. GPCOG’s approach foregrounds the ways that existing social vulnerabilities and marginalization leave some people far more vulnerable to the harms of climate change than others. We look at hazardous changes in Maine’s climate, on the one hand, and also social vulnerabilities, etc., on the other. These climate hazards and social vulnerabilities together create many of the negative impacts of climate change on humans—the impacts our planning focuses on addressing. Something like:


climate hazards --> negative impacts <-- existing social vulnerabilities


Take one social vulnerability, poverty. Poverty, quite obviously, leaves people with less money to adapt or, if climate disaster occurs, to recover. Better addressing poverty would make lots of people less vulnerable to the harms of climate change. (Pretty much everyone who will read this already knows this.)


If so, poverty is a climate problem. But antipoverty policy does not read green. Fixing culverts reads green; electrification reads green. SNAP does not read green; a living wage does not read green. And there’s this expectation among the public and among policymakers that climate policy and action be green.


We should abandon this expectation. If climate vulnerability is at least partially rooted in social vulnerability, then there’s no reason that we should expect our climate policies to look green across the board. On this understanding, a living wage is climate policy. Indeed, it is one of the best lines of the defense in and against climate disaster.


Climate change is an all-encompassing problem, everywhere in the world. The climate shapes human society so inescapably that nearly every social issue becomes a climate issue, in the sense that nearly every social issue will inevitably run into these huge, global climate-related hazards. This means the project of tackling climate change is contiguous with that older, more nebulous project of just… bettering our societies, of being kinder and more humane. Climate change is, you could say, a new twist. Hopefully the severity of the crisis makes us take more seriously that older project—which, in general, we’ve been catastrophically neglecting for too long. Because of our neglect of that one, this new one has the potential to be much worse.

[i] IPCC (2018), Global warming of 1.5°C, p. 9 [ii] ibid., p. 8 [iii] Henson, Bob (2021), “Key takeaways from the new IPCC report,” Yale Climate Connections, online: https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/08/key-takeaways-from-the-new-ipcc-report/


About Atticus Carnell



Atticus grew up in Baltimore. He received his bachelor's degree in Government from Bowdoin College in 2018 before heading to Balliol College, Oxford, for his master's degree in Political Theory. (Because of COVID, he completed his Masters from his childhood home in Baltimore last spring.) His Master’s work focused on moral reasoning; democracy; the public sphere and how the internet is transforming it; moral and political motivation; and environmental justice. He hopes to continue this research with a PhD soon, and in the long term he'd like to research, teach and do whatever he can to protect American democracy and the climate. He is very excited to help Portland develop its capacity to justly weather the climate disaster as a Resilience Corps member. In his free time, Atticus likes to hike, dance and play board games and soccer with friends. He has been playing piano for as long as he can remember and listens to music whenever he can—lots of Townes Van Zandt and Nadia Reid, these days! He recently discovered the Great British Baking Show.

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