Resilience requires change. But this change can create winners and losers. At the same time, we know that crises and disasters inevitably amplify societal inequality. We combine our ethics research with new methods for decision-making to integrate human adaptive behaviour, resilience principles and distributive justice into planning for climate resilience. In this way, we ensure that choices are fair for everyone and adaptive to changing circumstances, values, and norms.

Making sense of justice in a complex and changing world. 

An interview with Prof. Neelke Doorn

Most decisions we make in our daily lives are small. They impact only those around us or add a tiny fraction to a slowly growing problem. There are other decisions though, big ones. World-changing decisions for potentially millions of people. Where exactly do we lay this pipeline? How high do we build the seawall? Should we build another train line?

These questions are messy. Everyone approaches them with a different perspective, guided by their own experiences and interests. Understanding how they contribute to resilience requires an interdisciplinary approach. In the Resilience Lab that means bringing together philosophers, engineers, and social scientists to think about the outcomes of these policy and planning decisions. 

Tools for Just Decisions

Throughout most of Western history, these decisions were made behind closed doors, based on the potential gains in wealth or power. Usually, this was for the benefit of those inside the room, and often at the expense of many kept outside of it. Today decision-makers often take a more holistic approach, considering societal, environmental, and economic impacts.

These additional considerations muddle an already messy picture and require new tools to ensure fair outcomes for all that are impacted. Professor Neelke Doorn, a civil engineer and a philosopher by training, is one of the lab members who does just that. “They often come to us at the university to ask us to think along how to make, for example, investment decisions, whether we can support them with their decision making and develop tools for that. Tools that also fit the specific problem at hand but that also fit within their organization and the governance context in which they operate.”

Tools that also fit the specific problem at hand but that also fit within their organization and the governance context in which they operate.

Tools that are designed to create more just outcomes. To the Resilience Lab, this means considering how everyone’s interests are represented and balancing them fairly. This goes beyond the interest of who is alive today, the interests of future generations are also being taken into consideration. 

Considering Future Points of View

This seems like it might be a far-off philosophical problem that only university professors have time to think about. Surely someone will be able to invent a technological fix soon anyway, right? 

Don’t count on it. The impacts of rising sea levels are already being felt in Indonesia, as the country begins relocating the capital from Java to Borneo, in part because of the growing threat of extreme floods. From the start, there has been concern that this decision will not benefit many of the city’s most vulnerable population. 

Many other key decisions will (or will not) be made within the next decade that will shape the next half-century of climate change, and decision-makers around the world will have to act quickly to make relevant decisions. Here again, many of the places most impacted are already the most vulnerable to other potential threats. At this scale, just decisions are not always easy to define. 

The Inter-temporal Justice for Resilience project is driven by one of the multi-disciplinary teams at The Resilience Lab thinking about what a just decision looks like. Neelke offers her perspective. “The line of thinking we are developing in the project is to operationalize intergenerational justice in the terms of flexibility. So we want future generations to have the comparable options or as many options as we have nowadays.” 

By helping decision-makers reach just outcomes for everyone in their community, we can help to build resilience by considering multiple perspectives and protecting the most vulnerable members of society. Through this pillar of resilience, we strive to work with decision-makers as the world continues to change, ensuring outcomes are fairly balanced for generations to come.