Definitions and Distinctions

Second Nature’s definition of resilience is built on a foundation of scholarly work and pragmatic considerations. To see some other definitions and sources of our research, see the ‘Additional Resources’ section at the end.

It is increasingly essential that in addition to greenhouse gas reduction actions, we must also ensure that our decisions are smart in the face of expected and unexpected changes and extremes. These decisions should not only reduce our vulnerability, but also increase opportunity and value.

Our definition of resilience is therefore as follows:

  • Resilience is the ability of a system or community to survive disruption and to anticipate, adapt, and flourish in the face of change

The important components of this are that it incorporates both short-term disruption and long-term trends, that it is important to understand and anticipate as much as we can about the challenges and opportunities, and that it is not just about survival and bouncing back, but about being able to thrive. The key concept in resilience is that in an era of change, it is critical to develop adaptive capacity, about which we discuss more below.

A Few Key Characteristics of Climate Resilience For Campuses and Communities


Rigidity often imposes brittleness (e.g. it’s easier to ‘break’ a material when it can’t bend, or in the case of a community, if it operates inflexibly, it can cause harsher impacts when shocks occur). To this end, adaptive planning should form the heart of a resilience approach. Since we will never know the future with absolute certainty, a resilience approach incorporates and enhances system flexibility so that planning and management can adapt as we understand more, and so that a range of impacts and possibilities can be accommodated.


Assessing resilience rests on understanding the adaptive capacity of a system or community. In this planning framework, we break down adaptive capacity into five different categories (social equity & governance, health & wellness, ecosystem services, economic, and physical/infrastructure). Just like a strong natural ecosystem will often have a large diversity of flora and fauna (it is biodiverse) in order to withstand a wider variety of potential impacts, human systems also benefit from diversity. In addition, often the most vulnerable elements of society are those that are underrepresented in civic processes, yet it is precisely these needs that must be incorporated into a resilience plan in order to reduce overall vulnerability.


An adaptive process requires dynamic learning and allowing actions to be responsive to changing knowledge or circumstances. While it is the goal to be as proactive as possible and anticipate the range of climate impacts you might face, it is not possible to have absolute certainty about the future or to know precisely how successful each activity will be. Therefore it is necessary to build learning and knowledge-sharing processes into adaptive systems. This is part of the reason why we require an annual evaluation of progress within the Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments. You have regular opportunities to adapt and reflect on this adaptation based on your changing knowledge. Sharing knowledge across different institutions and scales is also important so that everyone can learn through shared experience.

Prevention and management:

Resilience is not just about adapting to a changing climate, it is also about ensuring that we do as much as possible to prevent impacts in the first place. Resilience blends mitigation activities (those that reduce the likelihood of major climate disruption) with adaptation – managing the consequences of a changed and changing climate. A resilient community will be one that offers low carbon energy solutions as well as reliable power supply, for example.

Resilience and Sustainability


Sustainability and resilience often go hand in hand and mutually support each other, but there a are a few key differences that are useful to bear in mind. For example, while sustainability is focused on supporting actions that can perpetuate without rendering the future less ‘prosperous’ overall (economically, socially, or environmentally), resilience is the capacity to operate in the context of change and disruption, overcoming problems in the short-term and preparing for a different and continually changing future.  So what does this mean in practice? One example a distinction can be found in a focus on efficiency. If we can be more efficient with our use of energy (for instance), the demand for limited and polluting fossil fuels will be lower. This is unquestionably true and a critical climate and sustainability goal. Yet, it’s also important, if we were looking at energy from a resilience perspective, to ask whether we need reliability in energy systems to the point that redundancy (in addition to efficiency). In hospitals, for example, it is often more important that the power is never absent rather than having the most efficient use of fuel. With resilience as a framing, we add another question to the mix (reliability in this case), that helps us determine a more complete path forward that serves multiple stakeholders with short and long-term needs.

Joseph Fiksel and colleagues at the Ohio State University illustrate some of the distinctions through the diagram above, which was published in Solutions Magazine.

The diagram is intended to illustrate that if we ask additional resilience-related questions,  we reduce the likelihood that solutions might inadvertently compromise our ability to weather unexpected or extreme events (take rainwater harvesting, for example). The more we can understand the multiple implications of our decisions, the more resilient AND sustainable we’re likely to become.

Rainwater Harvesting Example:

During normal rainfall years, a proportion of residents might use rainwater harvesting to water their yard, (sustainably saving water). However, when a drought occurs and there is less rainfall, some residents’ rain barrels will run dry and because they now have a yard that needs water, they must use city water to irrigate. The city then sees an unpredictable and unexpected spike in water usage just as water availability is already low.

In other words planning for extreme events can be made harder in some cases by something that is otherwise sustainable. To be clear, we’re not suggesting that rainwater harvesting isn’t a good solution in many cases (it is!), but unexpected implications of sustainable behavior in the face of extremes are important to consider in a resilience context.

Resilience and Climate Adaptation

While resilience and adaptation are often used interchangeably and from our perspective, there is not a great deal of harm in doing so, resilience for us is a broader concept than climate adaptation. Typically adaptation involves specific actions taken by decision makers in response to a current or anticipated threat that exceeds a threshold of acceptable impact. For example, if a community currently experiences a significant and impactful heatwave a couple of times a century on average, it might choose not to invest in major infrastructure or changes in practices because the impact is relatively infrequent. However, if heatwaves are predicted to become more intense, longer, and more frequent, and this is deemed an unacceptable impact, then there are specific adaptations to consider, including accessible cooling centers or increased urban canopies for shade.

Resilience folds climate adaptation into the process, but also considers the overall adaptive capacity of the community and the ongoing ability of the system or community to increase that capacity. A resilient community is one that isn’t just capable of absorbing impacts and change, but using those changes to develop more positive and regenerative capacity. In other words, it has the ability to self-renew even as it becomes better able to prevent disruption. In the heatwave example, a resilience focus might also facilitate considerations of how cooling centers could also increase participation of underserved communities in a variety of activities (as well as provide shelter in other emergencies) – making them less vulnerable and better connected. Another example would be how weatherization of low income residential neighborhoods can reduce overall cost for each family as well as increase the efficiency of cooling and heating their homes. It’s not that climate adaptation activities wouldn’t consider these options, but resilience offers a broader and long-term focus on building capacity at the same time as reducing specific impacts.

Even if we were not undergoing a period of human-induced climate change, resilience would be a useful planning framework, but it becomes especially useful when it can incorporate specific climate adaptation activities into our long-term goals as we recognize the threats.

Resilience and Disaster Preparedness

Some people equate resilience only with bouncing back after a disaster. Disaster planning and emergency management is an important component of resilience and knowing how to prepare before an event, manage operations during an event, and recover after an event is certainly part of a resilient approach. Planning around the long-term trends of climate change and the associated acute or extreme impacts, also builds capacity in the event of other catastrophes (earthquakes, grid failures, terrorist attacks etc). Resilience planning differs, however, when you begin looking beyond managing and recovering from negative impact events and additionally building the opportunity to thrive under different and changing conditions. In other words, resilience is also about facilitating positive change to enhance the overall well-being, engagement, and prosperity of a community (making it stronger overall), and reducing the community’s impact on the surrounding environment while conserving natural resources (making it sustainable in the long-term).

For example, engaging a diverse population in civic planning (a desirable component of resilience efforts), not only invests residents in the community overall, but ensures different segments of the population are considered in terms of resources and amenities (increasing equity), and allows greater social cohesion and smarter resource distribution in the event of an unexpected event. The residents involved in this process are more likely to help, communicate to others, know what to do, financially survive, and to return after ‘the storm’. Therefore the city as a whole is more financially and socially resilient.

While the disaster component is critical (minimizing impact and maximizing recovery) in resilience, the overall goals go far beyond managing acute or catastrophic impacts. Resilience also focuses on eliminating chronic stresses, and maximizing the dynamic potential of citizens and economic and natural resources.

Criteria for Success in Resilience

We outlined a few characteristics of resilience above, but it’s worth spending a few words on some core elements in a successful approach to resilience.

The first element is based on the premise that it is significantly more challenging to be a resilient campus without also being part of a resilient community. All campuses (rural, urban, suburban etc) interact with some form of non-academic community and share resources with the citizens of the city or county, as well as the natural systems of the region. So a specific requirement in the Commitments is the coordination of planning, and to the extent possible, development of indicators of progress, across campus-community boundaries.

While your local community is not required (nor eligible) to sign commitments through Second Nature, many already have resilience-focused efforts independently or as part of a national network. If they don’t, it is an opportunity for higher education to demonstrate local leadership and to facilitate interaction. In either case, it is important to consider options for campus-community coordination around planning, goals, and progress so that resilience is built broadly.

Another necessary element of a successful approach is assessment and evaluation. Not only is it necessary to start with understanding your current baseline – assessing your resilience capacity as well as where you are currently vulnerable to existing climate threats – but also routinely evaluating your progress and learning is critical. In order to be flexible and adaptive (core criteria for resilience), you will need to be conscious of changing knowledge, changing circumstances, and changing opportunities. This also means you must be receptive to when and how to change tactics or activities. Dynamic assessment and ongoing evaluation allows awareness to build around better ways of doing things, and allows you to make more rapid and effective progress.

Finally, one of the important elements of success in resilience, is the inclusive development of future scenarios. Many resilience activities begin with a vulnerability assessment and while this is an essential component, beginning there can limit decisions to ‘preventing the negative’ without also enhancing the positive. By including in your approach inclusively-developed and relatively comprehensive future visions for the community and campus (including existing scenarios the city or college might have already developed), you can ensure that activities or goals you have to reduce vulnerability also help move towards the preferred future.

Additional Resources:


Assessing Adaptive Capacity and Planning:

Scenario Planning: