Research Summary

Educating with resilience in mind: Addressing climate change in post-Sandy New York City

A Resilience Framework for Education

The Journal of Environmental Education

Many educators consider developing a resilience mindset to be a key goal of environmental education. Applying the resilience frame to climate change, one of the most pressing issues facing the world today, is a natural extension that fits within the scope of many EE programs. Ideas of resilience can provide skills that help people adapt to climate-related changes and disasters.

Although climate-change disturbances affect communities globally, how those disturbances might affect EE practice at more local and regional scales remains unclear. By interviewing staff from locally based environmental organizations, this study’s authors investigated how Hurricane Sandy changed EE practices in New York City, particularly with regard to fostering climate-change resilience. The authors’ findings suggest that climate-related disasters with local impacts, such as Hurricane Sandy, provide an opportunity for incorporating climate-change resilience and action into EE practices.

The authors examined resilience from an interdisciplinary perspective, including psychological resilience, community resilience, ecological resilience, and social-ecological systems resilience. Psychological resilience was defined as reflecting individual adaptation to disturbance, while the researchers considered community resilience when a group of people copes with social, environmental, or political change. The authors defined ecological resilience as how an ecosystem responds to disturbance, and social-ecological systems resilience as adaptation to change in larger communities and systems.

To conduct the study, the authors compiled a list of environmental organizations in New York City that were likely to have seen physical damage from Hurricane Sandy or had participants directly affected by Hurricane Sandy. The resulting sample consisted of 44 environmental organizations that likely changed their practices following the hurricane. The authors interviewed at least one EE representative from each organization between 12 and 16 months following the hurricane, asking questions about how the organization’s practice and messaging had changed. The authors then conducted a second interview, with representatives from 14 of the 44 organizations, about resilience. For those second-round interviews, the authors chose organizations that mentioned resilience in their initial interview. They asked organizations to provide a working definition of resilience. The authors analyzed the interview data using descriptive codes to identify common themes.

Of the 44 organizations, all but one changed their practices following Hurricane Sandy. Organizations generally incorporated information about Hurricane Sandy to reinforce existing educational content, increase community stewardship through land restoration activities, and foster resilience through implementing green infrastructure changes and community programming. Post-hurricane recovery also provided an opportunity for organizations to engage new members and obtain more funding.

The 14 organizations interviewed about resilience tended to provide a working definition that went beyond a single disciplinary focus and, instead, emphasized community engagement. The organizations viewed resilience from psychological, community, ecological, and social-ecological systems’ perspectives.

Organizations’ levels of change following Hurricane Sandy varied in depth. Some incorporated resilience as a buzzword into their content without implementing deeper action-based change. Other organizations, however, increased community engagement through linking ecological and social impacts and, thus, achieved transformational change. Incorporating resilience into climate-change education increased local community action and engagement, but did not transform EE in New York City on a broader level.

Scientists expect climate-change-related disasters to increase in frequency and intensity; this increase underscores the importance of using these disasters as an opportunity to foster climate-change resilience through environmental education. The authors recommend that practitioners incorporate notions of resilience from an interdisciplinary perspective into educational practice. To accomplish this change in practice, the authors encourage collaborative partnerships between EE practitioners and researchers.

The Bottom Line

Climate-change disasters with particularly local impacts, such as Hurricane Sandy, provide an opportunity to foster resilience through environmental education. In such situations, practitioners can incorporate resilience to climate-change-related disasters using an interdisciplinary lens in a range of organizational practices and educational activities. Individual reflection and action in restoring social and ecological systems following the disaster can improve psychological resilience, while community-level engagement in stewardship and restoration activities can promote community-level resilience. Linking social and ecological impacts of climate disaster at the local level increases community engagement with EE organizations and cultivates action. Collaborative partnerships with researchers can help practitioners incorporate resilience practice into climate-change education.