Risk and Resilience

Thematic Essay

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Risk Analysis and Sustainability: Building the Yellow Brick Road

Michael Greenberg, Rutgers University, USA

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions follow the yellow brick road through risky adventures ranging from an apple tree that does not want to be picked to an angry witch with lethal powers who is looking for revenge. After much trepidation, adventure and barely surviving, they arrive at Emerald City where they meet the almighty Wizard.

Today's Emerald City would be shaped around sustainable practices, and the Wizard would have a team of risk analysts in service. Sustainability is a goal grounded in the belief that we have the responsibility to think beyond the present, that is, we need to plan and implement in anticipation of possible impactful events, and our thinking and planning need to emphasize the reality that future generations require water, energy, and other resources, and more generally to not inherit a compromised, high risk future.   

Risk analysis is a process tool supported by many analytical methods that answers the following six questions:

The first three are risk assessment:

  1. What can go wrong?
  2. What are the chances that something with serious consequences will go wrong?
  3. What are the consequences if something does go wrong?

The second three are risk management:

  1. How can consequences be prevented or reduced?
  2. How can recovery be enhanced, if the scenario occurs?
  3. How can key local officials, expert staff, and the public be informed to reduce concern and increase trust and confidence?

The objective of answering these six questions is first to understand human health, ecological,  and economic implications of anthropogenic and natural hazard events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, industrial activities, transportation modes, new drugs and treatments, products, and many others. Then, the second objective is to try to prevent the consequences or at least reduce the damage. If an event occurs, the goal is to return to normal, or a new normal, as soon as possible. All three of these objectives require our institutions to respond quickly and effectively.

Risk analysis can help us better understand the sustainability-related consequences of alternative actions. For example, should we continue to build and expand medical care facilities in the 100 year floodplain? Should we allow homes to be built in areas that have a history of mudslides?  How do we protect a structure containing very hazardous materials from an earthquake that might only occur once during the next 1,000 years? Thinking about sustainability in a risk analysis framework forces decision-makers to confront the consequences of events that might not occur in the immediate future, but whenever they do occur could be extraordinarily impactful, unless, we hope, a sustainable design has been put in place.

Currently, the link between sustainability and risk analysis is most apparent in the management of nuclear waste. The long-lived nature of some nuclear elements requires solutions that will last for generations and are flexible enough to be modified should the need arise for recovering stored nuclear materials. I am not saying that the marriage of risk analysis and sustainability in nuclear waste management has been a perfect one. We know from highly publicized events that it is not. But we also know that these are taken seriously and efforts are made to prevent them from happening again. We badly need to see more applications of risk analysis in regard to planning for natural hazard events, managing long-lived non-nuclear chemical and physical agents and their wastes, and developing and marketing new products.

While I hope to see many more illustrations in the not-too-distant future, I know that building the yellow brick road that leads us along a sustainability path will be a challenge because the effort and cost involved creates angst among those who are firmly focused on the present and see sustainability as a waste of resources because they assume that the future will take care of itself. In particular, I am concerned about the propensity to cut government human and ecological health and safety budgets for research and enforcement, the retirement of the many of the most experienced technically competent workforce, and the increasing pressure to immediately turn inventions into marketable products to increase profits and reduce the chances of theft of ideas.

Some believe that technology drives the world economy, and whether you do or do not, the reality is that the benefits of new technologies and threats imposed by new technology necessitate that we invoke the process and methods of risk analysis in support of a sustainable future.

If you are curious to read more about this subject, I suggest consulting two websites. www.sra.org is the official website of the Society for Risk Analysis. It has been recently upgraded and contains numerous links from this basic one. The editors of the Society's journal have prepared several virtual books that summarize parts of the field, such as risk analysis and terrorism and the economics of risk analysis. You can access these on-line. www.epa.gov/riskassessment is the US Environmental Protection Agency's portal. It presents updates on guidance, new information and other places to search. www.riskworld.com is a web location that tries to track everything in the field, including articles, laws, books, news and other information.

In regard to journals, I recommend Risk Analysis: An International Journal, which is the best offering a wide scope of papers. I also recommend the Journal of Risk Research, which is produced by the European SRA. These two will give you a feel for topics that researchers are working on. For example, my two most recent papers in Risk Analysis presented mathematical models used to simulate how terrorists or natural hazards might disable a major passenger railroad system, how many people might by killed and injured, the property and other economic damages from such events, and how we might prevent those events or at least reduce their impacts. The second paper examined public support in New Jersey for restrictive land use decisions following multiple massive hurricanes.

If you are interested in a truly exciting opportunity to work on critically important projects that will increasingly influence every citizen of the Earth, then think about contributing to risk analysis in support of a sustainable future. Your mode of contribution is not prescribed. The entry points include but are not limited to lawyer, engineer, environmental scientist, mathematician, physicist, chemist, sociologist, and public health researcher. Together we need to create the capability of a real Wizard to protect our collective future.

Case study: Safety Nets and Adaptation Strategies to Climate Change in Central America

By María A. Naranjo* and Francisco Alpízar**

In a climate change context, social safety nets are mechanisms to outspread support to those that have been adversely affected by extreme weather events. These interactions shaped by the government, communities, organized groups, or families are a key component of strategies to minimize expected losses from climate change.

Central America has suffered from large natural disasters that have challenged local and national governments capacities to better manage risk. Safety nets are an important factor in risk management. The traditional concept of safety nets applies to a set of social assistance programs such as cash or in-kind transfers and public works. Still, other informal group-based coping mechanisms play an important role helping households to manage risk. Social safety nets can be classified as private, for example transfers from family, community members, and institutions; or public, which refers to the support that individuals expect from the government.

In Central America safety net programs play an important role in minimizing negative impacts from natural disasters, especially for the poor. However, this community mechanisms and policies such as insurance, community organization, and emergency plans that help ameliorate the consequences of climate change have not been assessed (Marques 2003).

In a region like Central America where more frequent and aggressive extreme events are predicted, the risk of suffering losses from extreme events is correlated across individuals in a given landscape, in which case the strategies for adaptation can take a collective action dimension (Dekker, 2004).

A social safety net assessment for Central America, showed that safety nets are mainly focused in helping households directly when affected (idiosyncratic risk), rather than forecasting to assist an entire area (systemic shocks) (Marques 2003). Local risk-sharing arrangements enable individuals to reduce defensive efforts in the presence of idiosyncratic shocks, but such arrangements may not be effective in the context of systemic effects (Di Falco et al. 2009). Therefore, it is necessary to pool risks over a larger population, and typically this implies a role for the public sector.

For example, governments can invest in large scale projects to deal with the losses from extreme events. Still, governments in general, and developing countries in particular, have a limited capacity to spend. Similarly, the capacity of the safety network to help those that are affected depends on the decision of others to take action from the beginning and on the degree to which risk is correlated between the individuals in the safety net.

Despite their high exposition to extreme weather events, Central American countries lack social protection strategies and when they exit their focus is on helping the poor to cope with crisis rather than prevention (Marques 2003). We would therefore like to highlight the need for more studies on the vulnerability of regions with low or lack adaptive capacity to sudden changes in weather conditions as well as gradual changes in patterns of precipitation or dry spells.


Dekker, M. (2004). “Sustainability and Resource fullness: Support Networks during Periods of Stress.” World Development 32: 1735-1751

Di Falco, Salvatore, Erwin Bulte and Mahmud Yesuf. (2009) Social Capital and Weather Shocks in Ethiopia: Climate Change and Culturally-Induced Poverty Traps. Working paper.

Marques, José Silvério (2003) Social Safety Net Assessments from Central America: Cross-Country Review of Principal Findings. World Bank Social Protection Discussion Paper No. 0316


* Research Fellow Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), and Deputy Director, Environment for Development Program (EfD) Central America.

** Senior researcher CATIE, and Director EfD Central America.

Recommended Routledge Books

Supplementary Reading




Free Journal Articles

Scheufele, Gabriela and Jeff Bennett, 2012, ‘Valuing ecosystem resilience’, Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy 1(1), pp 18-31
Lujala, Päivi, Haakon Lein and Jan Ketil Rød, 2014, ‘Climate change, natural hazards and risk perception: the role of proximity and personal experience’, Local Environment (forthcoming)
Slootweg, Roel and Mike Jones, 2011, ‘Resilience thinking improves SEA: a discussion paper’, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 29(4), pp 263-276
Tweed, Fiona and Gordon Walker, 2012, ‘Some lessons for resilience from the 2011 multi-disaster in Japan’, Local Environment 16(9), pp 937-942
Levy, Jason K. and Chennat Gopalakrishnan, 2009, ‘Multicritieria Analysis for Disaster Risk Reduction in Virginia, USA, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 1(3), pp 213-228
Gopalakrishnan, Chennat and Norio Okada, 2012, ‘Reflections in Implementation Science’, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 4(1), pp 79-88

Video Links

  1. A Walk Through Risk, Part 1, Paul Slovic


    Duration: 13:39

    Filmed in 2002 at a Risk and History Exhibit at Fort Worth Museum of Science, Paul Slovic talks about the kinds of risks we encounter in a daily lives.

  2. A Walk Through Risk, Part 2, Paul Slovic


    Duration: 11:53

    A continuation of the presentation by Paul Slovic filmed in 2002 at the Risk and History Exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science.

  3. The Best Explanation to Resilience, Dr Brian Walker


    Duration: 7:38

    Produced by Stockholm Resilience Centre TV, this video features Brian Walker introducing his ideas on resilience, starting with a focus on personal resilience.

  4. Dr Brian Walker, Australian Academy of Science


    Duration: 19:22

    Filmed in 2014 at the Australian Academy of Science, Brian Walker updates his earlier presentations on resilience by focusing on the challenges we face as we move into the ‘Anthropocene’ phase of life on Earth.

  5. Whiteboard Seminar: What is Resilience?


    Duration: 7:40

    The Science director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Carl Folke, uses a whiteboard to explain key concepts emerging from socio-ecological research on resilience.

  6. Risk and Resilience


    Duration: 10:54

    Produced in 2011 by the US-based Cognitive Edge network, this video draws a distinction between robustness and resilience.

  7. Risk and Resilience after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines


    Duration: 2:12

    In this 2014 clip, World Bank Vice President Rachel Kyte visits typhoon-devastated Tacloban City in the Philippines to stress the importance of work being funded by the World Bank to ensure that the exposure of poor communities to climate change-induced extreme weather events is reduced.

Blogs and Websites

  • The official website of the Society for Risk Analysis has been recently upgraded and contains numerous links from this basic one. The editors of the Society's journal have prepared several virtual books that summarise parts of the field, such as risk analysis and terrorism and the economics of risk analysis. You can access these online


  • The US Environmental Protection Agency's portal presents updates on guidance, new information and other places to search


  • This web location tries to track everything in the field, including articles, laws, books, news and other information


  • ERRN is based at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, and it aims to foster multidisciplinary research on risk management. The network is primarily aimed at providing research and consultancy expertise for European businesses, and it takes a rather unconventional view of risk management

    European Risk Research Network http://www.aston.ac.uk/aston-business-school/research/

  • The Resilience Alliance was established in 1999 to undertake innovative, multidisciplinary work on risk and resilience. Ecologist Brian Walker is the chairman of the board but RA is aimed at the interface between natural and social sciences in relation to the principles and practice of resilience. The website provides access to a wide range of publications on the topic of resilience

    Resilience Alliance http://www.resalliance.org/

  • The Stockholm Resilience Centre promotes socio-ecological research on resilient systems. The website provides access to a wide range of research reports and publications

    Stockholm Resilience Centre http://www.stockholmresilience.org/

  • This project focusing on pathways to resilience for young people began in Canada but has now spread to New Zealand, South Africa, Colombia and China

    International Pathways to Resilience www.internationalresilience/org

  • Cardiff University in Wales has an interdisciplinary social science research centre on understanding risk. With a particularly strong foundation in psychology, the research centre works closely with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which also has a presence at Cardiff University.

    Understanding Risk, Cardiff University http://www.understanding-risk.org/