Silla Corona: Robin Leichenko on climate change adaptation

March 4, 2016

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Published in 2016

Dr. Robin Leichenko, professor and Chair of the Department of Geography at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the Rutgers Climate Institute,visited the School to talk about resilience to climate change. This term—that has been widely used in psychology, ecology and social sciences—has been defined as “the ability to recover from shocks and stresses.” It is a broad definition, but a powerful idea to understand and deal with climate change, a phenomenon that puts a great variety of human activities and assets at risk.

After Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, people in New Jersey (USA) realized just how exposed they were to climate extremes. The latter destroyed 30,000 homes in the state and caused nearly $30 billion dollars in property and infrastructure damage.

Professor Leichenkoand her team of researchers did a series of surveys in Ocean County, New Jersey, before and after Hurricane Sandy to understand people’s perceptions of the impacts and how they were adapting to climate shocks. The process was a coproduction of knowledgebetween researchers and stakeholders (such as public, private and non-profit organizations). In other words, the study combined scientific and local knowledge to understand stakeholders’ and decision-makers’ perceptions, as well as to define barriers, limits and limitations to resiliency.

How was this research study done?

We did a combination of individual and group interviews, then presented back the findings to the stakeholders and got their feedback. We asked questions such as, what did they see as critical vulnerabilities and critical assets at risk? What did they see as opportunities to adapt? Then we went back and told them “here’s what you’ve told us are your barriers to resilience and here’s how we’re synthesizing them”.

Basically, we did content analysis of transcripts of the open ended interviews. Then we organized the information to see what were the economic stresses, the climate stresses, etc. It’s qualitative processing. Then we presented the results to see what it was missing for each stakeholder. 

What are some of the main findings?

Prior to Hurricane Sandy, for example, people were not thinking about the electric grid and the natural gas line for heating. Those things were actually cut by the hurricane and were gone in some cases for a month. So energy vulnerability wasn’t an issue before the event.

What did you conclude?

We now know more about who has high levels of vulnerability in this region of New Jersey and we also realized that vulnerability is spread across many economic sectors. We found critical vulnerability among low-wage workers and low and middle income home owners. Also, particular kind of industries like fishing, and among them, the smaller purveyors, are most vulnerable.
Another set of conclusions concerns the strategies to build resilience. We found that there is a need to work with local stakeholders and probe its barriers and limits.

How can we put this knowledge into practice?

The method that we developed, the vulnerability assessment via coproduction, is actually being used now in adaptation planning in other New Jersey municipalities (there are 566 in total) to identify critical vulnerabilities with the communities. It’s a coproduction between the scientists and the stakeholders. Non-profit organizations have now taken this on to build community resiliency.

Biography

Robin Leichenko is Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the Rutgers Climate Institute. She holds a PhD in Geography (1997) and a MA in Economics (1995) from The Pennsylvania State University.

Her book, Environmental Change and Globalization: Double Exposures (with Karen O'Brien, Oxford University Press, 2008), was awarded the 2009 Meridian Book Award for Outstanding Scholarly Work in Geography from the Association of American Geographers.

She serves as a Review Editor for Working Group II of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report, and recently completed service on an NRC Panel on Climate Change and Social and Political Stresses. Robin is Associate Editor for Urban Climate and serves on the editorial boards of Economic Geography, Growth and Change, and Journal of Extreme Events.

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