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Alexis Petru headshot

How Natural Infrastructure Can Boost Climate Change Resiliency


Are government officials doing enough to prepare their communities for natural disasters and extreme weather events – that are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change? Not surprisingly, the answer is no, says a new report from nonprofit environmental organizations National Wildlife Federation and Earth Economics and insurance group Allied World Assurance Company Holdings.

Released Monday, “Natural Defenses from Hurricanes and Floods: Protecting America’s Communities and Ecosystems in an Era of Extreme Weather” details the growing threat of climate-related calamities and calls on elected officials and policy makers to make their communities more resilient to climate change’s impacts.

But government agencies shouldn’t necessarily rush to strengthen seawalls, install levees or build new “gray” infrastructure, as part of their emergency preparedness efforts, according to the report’s authors. Instead, communities can achieve resiliency by protecting and restoring natural infrastructure, including wetlands, riparian zones and barrier islands, as well as by designing infrastructure that mimics natural systems such as engineered oyster reefs or dunes.

Natural infrastructure can safeguard communities from floods and hurricanes just as well – if not, better – than gray infrastructure, the report finds – often, at a fraction of the cost of structural infrastructure. For example, a cost-benefit analysis of storm surge protection measures in the San Francisco Bay found that a levee would cost $12 million in maintenance over its 50-year lifetime, while a 25-foot-wide marsh along the Bay would cost only $6 million.

Further, natural systems provide valuable benefits to the surrounding communities that manmade infrastructure doesn’t, the report says. Over in the Gulf of Mexico, a $150-million oyster-reef restoration project is estimated to have boosted the revenue and sales of local fisheries by $6.9 million annually, as well as saved property owners up to $150 million on the construction of coastal retaining walls.

“Natural Defenses” isn’t arguing that governments agencies neglect existing gray infrastructure or avoid building new structures altogether, but urges government officials to prioritize natural infrastructure as they prepare for natural disasters and use nature-based approaches in combination with or as an alternative to structural infrastructure.

The report’s authors also make seven recommendations – some of which may not be too popular – to alter federal and state laws, in order to help communities become more resilient:

  • The Obama administration and Congress should reform the National Flood Insurance Program, phasing out subsidies that encourage development in flood-prone areas

  • States should also review their own flood insurance programs to make sure they discourage development in high-risk areas and promote investment in natural infrastructure

  • The administration and Congress should prioritize investment in disaster preparedness, rather than disaster-relief funding

  • The administration and Congress should strengthen the Coastal Barrier Resources Act and reduce or eliminate subsidies that promote development on barrier islands

  • The administration should finalize its proposed rule that clarifies which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act, therefore, safeguarding bodies of water that can absorb floodwater, slow down storm surges and buffer communities during severe weather events

  • The Army Corps of Engineers should focus on protecting natural infrastructure and ecosystems as part of its efforts to reduce flood risks, rather than carrying out expensive public works construction projects

  • The administration, Congress and states must take action on the main cause for the increase in hurricanes and floods – climate change – by dramatically reducing the country’s carbon pollution

Does this public policy “wish list” seem next-to-impossible to achieve in a political climate of bickering and gridlock? Perhaps, but the stakes could not be higher: 2014 saw the hottest six months on record globally, and America had the ninth wettest summer on record, according to the report.

Investing in climate resiliency will actually save money in the long run, the report’s authors say, pointing to a study from the Multihazard Mitigation Council that found that for every $1 spent on disaster readiness, the U.S. saves $4 in disaster recovery costs.

In fact, preparing for the changing climate makes so much economic sense that the insurance industry has long been interested in the subject – even when other business leaders and politicans ignored the science. That’s why insurance company Allied World collaborated with the National Wildlife Federation and Earth Economics on the “Natural Defenses” report.

“There are obvious financial implications to the insurance industry as a result of extreme weather,” said Scott Carmilani, president and CEO of Allied World, in a statement.  “More importantly, insurance carriers need to partner with clients to help them mitigate their risk in the event of hurricanes and floods. It simply makes good business sense to confront this threat now, and that’s why we’re working together with conservationists, industry partners and elected officials to find solutions.”

Image credit: Flickr/Kelly Fike, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

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