Initial Publication Date: October 9, 2017

What do we Mean by Risk and Resilience?

Modified from David Hassenzahl, Dean of Science, California State University, Chico, formerly Dean, Falk School of Sustainability, Chatham University (through July 2014), Alana Edwards, Florida Atlantic University, and Leonard Berry, Director, Florida Center for the Environment, Florida Atlantic University as part of the Teaching about Risk and Resilience workshopheld in May 2014.

Risk – the likelihood that we or our property will be harmed, and the consequences of that harm – is a part of our everyday lives. How much risk we expect to face helps inform many of our daily decisions, such as whether to drive in the snow and where to buy food. Our instinctive and learned behaviors typically serve us well for managing these day-to-day risks.

Successfully dealing with more complex and long-term risks, however, requires more sophisticated assessment and decision processes for both individuals and groups. This includes such choices as where and how we build homes, plant crops, and generate energy. Risk can inform how much income we save for the future and whether we invest in insurance.

In recent years, hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and flooding have become increasingly destructive in terms of financial costs, as well as loss of ecological and human well-being. Unavoidable natural events are amplified by long-term changes such as sea level rise and shifting climate patterns, and exacerbated by decisions—for example urban planning and building codes—made years or decades ago. How we plan for these uncertain risks will determine how great the impacts could be for us and future generations.

Resilience is essential to living in a world filled with risk. Resilience has historically been defined as the ability to return to the status quo after a disturbing event. However, in the face of a changing climate and growing population, resilience cannot be based on the capacity to recover from the sorts of disasters we have faced in the past, but requires that we build capacity to avoid damage and/or recover from to the sorts of disasters we can expect to face in the future. If our goal is a sustainable future, we must understand the risks we will face and prepare for those risks through adaptation and mitigation measures. Resilience is crucial in this endeavor, as it is our capacity to cope with both expected events and surprises. To this end, it is critical that we identify, assess, communicate about, and plan for risks that the future will bring.

Risk and Resilience Across the Disciplines

Understanding risk and resilience is inherently interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, and requires diverse perspectives. Stakeholders include policy makers, businesses, communities, and citizens, and effective communication among scientists, decision makers, and other affected parties—including those who can speak for future generations—is essential to establishing societal resilience in the face of diverse and changing natural hazards.

All of this work is underpinned by the hazard itself and geoscience is one of the several scientific disciplines required to understand the risks in the natural world. Having expertise in geoscience is important to developing successful adaptation and mitigation strategies. Geoscientists use data and observations to understand the past, and develop computer models to predict the future. They can provide critical information about when and why hazardous events will occur, and what their impacts are likely to be. Geoscience is most useful for developing resilience capacity when it informs the needs of vulnerable communities, businesses, governments, planners, and others. These needs in turn inform what questions society most needs geoscientists to study.

Recommended Readings

Adger, W. N. (2006). Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16(3), 268-281.

Borden, K. and S. L. Cutter (2008). Spatial patterns of natural hazard mortality in the United States. International Journal of Health Geographics 7(64): (31 pp.).

Bouwer, L. M. (2011). Have disaster losses increased due to anthropogenic climate change? Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 92(1), 39-46.

Cutter, S. L., M. Gall, and C. T. Emrich (2008). Toward a comprehensive loss inventory of weather and climate hazards, in H. F. Díaz and R. J. Murnane (eds.), Climate Extremes and Society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 279-295.

Cutter, S. L. (2010). Social science perspectives on hazards and vulnerability science. In Geophysical Hazards (pp. 17-30). Springer Netherlands.

Gall, M., K. Borden, and S. L. Cutter (2009). When do losses count? Six fallacies of natural hazards loss data. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 90(6): 799-809.

Hultman, N., Hassenzahl, D. M. and Rayner, S. (2010). "Climate Risk: A critical review of tools, techniques and approaches." Annual Reviews of Environment and Resources.

McBean, G., & Rodgers, C. (2010). Climate hazards and disasters: the need for capacity building. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(6), 871-884.

McBean, G., & Ajibade, I. (2009). Climate change, related hazards and human settlements. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 1(2), 179-186.

Preston, B. L., Yuen, E. J., & Westaway, R. M. (2011). Putting vulnerability to climate change on the map: a review of approaches, benefits, and risks. Sustainability Science, 6(2), 177-202.

Stern, P. C. and Feinberg, H. V., Eds (1996). Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society. National Academies Press, Washington DC.

World Economic Forum (2014). Global Risks 2014. 9th Edition. Geneva, Switzerland.

Zhou, H., Wan, J., & Jia, H. (2010). Resilience to natural hazards: a geographic perspective. Natural Hazards, 53(1), 21-41.