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Big Terms, Small Talk: Climate Words with Jesse Keenan

by Jesse Keenan
May 31, 2018

This interview with Jesse M. Keenan was conducted and condensed by frank news. Professor Jesse M. Keenan teaches at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He holds degrees in law, real estate, and researches climate change adaptation and the built environment, including aspects of design, engineering, financing and planning. Keenan has previously advised for agencies of the U.S. government, governors, mayors, Fortune 500 companies, technology ventures, community enterprises and international NGOs.


Resilience: Resilience is the ability of a system to return to its previous state after some type of shock or stressor. In the United States, resilience often refers to the ability of a place or community to “bounce back” to normal, or recover, after a disaster. But one of the problems with resilience is that it is inherently conservative - it doesn’t account for the ability or desire of society to respond to changing needs and to a changing planet. Resilience is also limited in that it requires people to know what we want to be resilient to, and what status quo we want to maintain. Thus, it doesn't account for uncertainty very well. Although some definitions of resilience have tried to include the way that a system might evolve or change over time, it’s more accurate to call this adaptation.

Adaptation: Adaptation is a process of transformation from one state to another, often in response to external factors. Usually, things adapt TO something else - for example, an animal might adapt to a changing climate by migrating to a new area, or a person might adapt their monthly budget if they lose a job.

Adaptive Capacity: Adaptive capacity is the ability to change from one state into another. It also refers to the ability of a person, place, or thing to account for what is unknown about the future. For example, a person might want to adapt their home to sea level rise on the coast by elevating it, but they might not have the financial means to do so.

Resilience versus Adaptation:

Resilience is an easier project for people to relate to because it asks, ‘how we can maintain our current situations and our current lives?’ How do we keep our houses, our communities, our jobs, and our economy, the way that they are now?

Adaptation, on the other hand, may be more difficult to relate to because its forces us to consider what we want to be in the future, how we want to change, and what steps we need to go down in order to achieve that transformation.  

Climate Gentrification: Climate gentrification is a theory that explains how people’s preferences for living in certain areas are shifting because of climate change and resiliency projects, resulting in neighborhood change and displacement. It can happen in three ways:

The Superior Investment Pathway: People move from areas of high exposure to climate risks to low exposure to climate risks, such a from low elevation to high elevation. When this happens, areas that are higher above sea level become more expensive due to increased demand, which can displace poorer communities that might live in this area.

Cost Burden Pathway: The second pathway happens when only wealthy people can afford to live in high hazard areas, such as Venice. When it becomes too expensive to maintain your home in a high risk area, poorer households may have to leave and find a more affordable place to live.

The Resilience Pathway: The third pathway describes the way in which resilience projects, meant to protect an area from climate hazards, may make an area more desirable, and thus more available for real estate speculation. This is a challenge in because although planners (for example) may try to make low-income neighborhoods more resilient to climate impacts, it may make the more vulnerable economically if the neighborhood becomes more desirable, increasing prices and pushing poorer residents out.