Policy Insights – Building Community Resilience to Climate Change

Local Economies

Community- Centered Resilience Planning
Updated January 2022, First Posted Spring 2019

Building climate resilience requires addressing inequality and committing to social justice.

The UN estimates that 110 million people around the world are currently experiencing a climate-related crisis. A UNICEF report estimates that 1 billion children worldwide are at extreme risk of experiencing climate change.  The impact of climate change, the severity of storms, and the magnitude of their damage pose new threats and challenges to already vulnerable populations. Issues such as severe flooding, drought, wildfires biodiversity loss have resulted in the loss of human lives, destruction of homes and agriculture and industry. To make matters worse, the occurrence of one natural disaster can further expose communities to future climate-related disasters. 

Here in the US, we have observed these disparities state to state, as well as at the city level and community level. Resiliency preparedness and recovery responses often vary in their effectiveness across communities, with low-income communities seeing unequal service. 

For example, in the wake of the 2017 storms, researchers found that the federal response was faster and more generous across measures of money and staffing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, compared with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.  


Our most vulnerable residents are least able to adapt in a crisis that levels homes, destroys infrastructure and cuts off access to vital utilities and services.  Low-income communities as a whole are particularly impacted, as well as the community-based organizations that serve them.

Nearly 20 years ago, Hurricane Katrina highlighted the disastrous consequences of poor infrastructure maintenance as well as gross inequalities across race and class in the recovery and assistance. 

Equity in climate resiliency, storm response, and recovery is key to protecting all lives during natural disasters. Community-based organizations (CBOs) can play a pivotal role in closing gaps in infrastructure development and emergency management. 

Across focus areas, CBOs are uniquely knowledgable and nuanced in the needs of their communities. They are on the ground each day providing food, shelter, education to their constituents. CBOs are often residents’ first point of contact in an impending emergency. A large portion of the staff and board members at CBOs live in the community. Their experiences and knowledge as a member of the organization and constituent could be invaluable during an emergency.  

Climate resiliency planning (as well as management and implementation) is no small task. Many CBOs are already at capacity with fewer and fewer available resources to serve more people with increasing needs. However, with the strong likelihood of a future climate-related crisis, leaders must be supported and funded shore up their capacity to drive and manage resiliency efforts in their region. This maximizes the community’s and organization’s chance at a speedy and successful rebound after the next climate-related crisis. We are hopeful that federal funding coming down the pike for COVID-19 assistance and the passage of the Build Back Better bill will fill gaps in much needed resources. 

Graphic: Climate Resilience Planning Framework: People, Policy & Practices (Adapted from Enterprise Community Partners Ready to Respond Guidelines)

City agencies have pledged to invest in infrastructure and have produced guidelines for resilient building construction.

However, CBOs also have a vital role to play and can take the following steps to position themselves at the forefront of resiliency efforts. 

Below are five steps CBOs can take in ensuring more equitable approaches in climate resilience and sustainability : 

1..Assess areas of vulnerability for your community. 

Convene a task force comprised of scientists, engineers, architects and social researchers as well as residents in investigating potential areas of vulnerabilities -among buildings, public and private infrastructure and natural environments- during future natural disasters . Send findings from these assessments to regional resilience managers. 

Advise regional resilience planning officials on the needs of your community. Make sure that their agenda and resource allocations align with your community’s needs. 

Most cities and states have climate resilience and sustainability agendas in place. Regional planning is conducted in addition to, and in conjunction with federal programs and guidelines. Invite personnel to community meetings to discuss their plans. Make recommendations to these agencies based on the findings from community-based research. Request to review budgets and publish them throughout the community. Foster transparency in regional resiliency planning by encouraging local stakeholders to highlight concerns and make inquiries to public sector agencies as necessary. Encourage public officials to report on their progress regularly. 

2…Empower, Train and Mobilize Residents 

  (Major clean up, recovery can be hazardous and should be left to trained experts). 

Enlist vulnerable communities in investigating areas of concern and include them in action planning. Residents’ experiences in previous storms and knowledge of areas of infrastructure issues such as areas prone to flooding resulting in damage to homes or barriers for transit. Even resident observations during mild storms, for instance, such as, rising water tables along the river, can portend future problems with storm inundation. Collecting these insights and incorporating into action plans for resilience can be valuable. 

There are many documented methods for organizing such as Participatory Action Research. 

Information and ideas from PAR exercises should be published and shared broadly and help inform and shape local and regional planning on climate resilience and sustainability. Research and planning that comes out of PAR sessions, identifies the roles of specific government, private and community-based stakeholders and establishes benchmarks to work from.  Helpful resources include PAR tools and guidelines published by the

Community Development Project

and the

Ford Foundation.

And strategic planning guidelines we have outlined here.


Empower residents throughout the process by requesting their feedback any tools used for engagement, and add ideas that may improve the process. 


   4…Build Organizational and Local Capacity 

CBOs and their local stakeholders can add tremendous value to relief efforts during an emergency and work in collaboration with public sector agencies to supplement sheltering efforts, emergency food, and supplies for hygiene and comfort. During Superstorm Sandy CBOs throughout NY hosted FEMA, coordinated hot meals to the elderly and disabled residents and mobilized staff and volunteers who lived in the area to lend support on distributing supplies to home-bound residents or pitching in for minor clean up. This coordination was done on the spot and proved valuable and in some cases, life-saving. 

 While we know that climate-related emergencies are inevitable, we are cannot always be certain of the exact areas of storm inundation, fire, or damage. However, having a plan in place with layers of contingency measures built-in can be tremendously useful during an emergency.    

“Climate change hits low-income communities and regions first and worst.”


Develop in-house capacity for climate resilience:

Create contingency plans for client services, particularly for those who are most vulnerable during natural disasters including disabled clients, seniors and low-income families with children. 

Coordinate sheltering efforts. Determine the use of organization facilities for sheltering. Work with public and private neighbors to prepare other facilities for sheltering —immediately after identifying these sites. stockpile resources such as nonperishable food, water, and generators 

Finally, as mentioned in the previous section, designate staff, board members, and residents who can be a point of contact during emergency preparedness events. Equip and train them according to home and personal preparedness standards. Sponsor trainings by survival experts. (Major clean up, recovery can be very dangerous and should be left to trained experts) and; 

5…Secure and Protect Organizational Infrastructure and  Protect and Secure Data
More and more each day cybersecurity breaches are causing extensive damage to organizations’ information infrastructure. Part of organizational resiliency planning requires ensuring that client files and human resources data is protected. Cyber hackers are most successful during moments of vulnerability and crisis, making a climate emergency a perfect time to strike. 

CBOs can protect their IT infrastructure by assessing vulnerability and implementing measures to reinforce and secure your organization’s facilities and equipment. Housing organizations can refer to resources and guidelines for multifamily buildings climate resiliency guidelines developed by larger institutions, but also must begin developing plans that speak to the unique needs of your constituents. 

Graphic: Problems and solutions are nested.

In 2019, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) released their findings of an extensive study on climate change. The most worrisome of IPCC’s conclusions is an unexpected acceleration of ocean warming. The dangerously rapid pace at which the Arctic melting and, subsequent ocean warming is occurring has caught the environmental science community completely off-guard. “The consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe,” said Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the IPCC.” 

While all humans globally are impacted by climate change, low-income families in particular lack the capital for emergency preparedness and resilience measures required to mitigate risks of current and future natural disasters that are likely to occur. They lack the resources needed for safe, rapid evacuation, stockpiling of food, and medicine.  

Climate change resiliency and adaptation are vital to saving lives and preventing further damage.  Community-based organizations can play an essential role in climate resiliency efforts by training and mobilizing their staff and residents; and building capacity to provide support and coordination during climate emergencies.