The case for re-engineering the way we adapt to climate change

Shannon Cunniff

Around the world, countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, Mexico and the Philippines are adapting to climate change. Many are aligning this – and ongoing efforts to manage disaster risks – with infrastructure investments and economic growth, a recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found.

What’s not as clear is whether nations, including our own, are using the best solutions available as they seek to build resilience against climate change-related storms and extreme weather.

Several international agreements reflect the importance and value of an ecosystem-based approach to disaster risk reduction. But although we know that restoring ecosystems is cost-effective and can generate more economic benefits – all too often, the default approach is a structural, single-purpose solution.

We must translate what we know about how ecosystems perform in ways that engineers can understand.

Engineered fixes often pay big dividends only when there is a disaster, they create a false sense of security, and can ultimately cause more environmental harm.

This is why we must translate what we know about how ecosystems perform in ways that engineers can understand, so we can we fully integrate these non-conventional options into core engineering practices and policies.

It will help achieve the significant shift in planning and design we need to create cost-effective, flexible solutions that can serve society’s many needs in our warming world.

A disconnect between ecologists and engineers  

Environmental degradation is a leading cause of increased disaster risk. Treeless slopes increase vulnerability to mudslides. Eroded shorelines decrease coastal protection. Loss of wetlands increases flooding.

By contrast, restoring these and other natural habitats – for example by replanting mangroves and by replenishing wetlands and vegetated dunes – makes us less vulnerable. Such ecosystem-based approaches should be the first tool of choice as we seek to decrease the impact and cost of disaster response.

Implementation has proven difficult, however, because of the lingering disconnect between engineering and ecology.

Engineers aren’t taught about ecosystems roles in stabilizing shorelines and hill slopes; they’re taught to design structures that stabilize shorelines and hill slopes rather than addressing the root cause of erosion.

Ecosystems are unpredictable

To practice, engineers rely on a suite of core ideas and professional standards and guidelines, something ecologists need to recognize. And when engineers sign off on a design, they promise that it will perform as planned. If it doesn’t, they’re professionally liable.

Engineers thrive on predictability. Unfortunately, ecosystems can be unpredictable.

So while we have some good evidence supporting the ecosystem approach, we need more good science to understand the limits of its performance. We need to get more projects on the ground across the world to expand confidence.

New initiative signals change

Fortunately, we’re beginning to see some players move in that direction.

Deltares, one of the world’s leading water resource engineering companies, helped create a “building with nature” ethos that is changing the way engineers and ecologists work together to solve problems. By drawing on both disciplines and being open to experimentation, the company is creating new, exciting solutions. 

I recently had an opportunity to work with experts from Deltares in an international workshop where we discussed how to bring ecologists and engineers together to scale up climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

We agreed to jointly develop planning guidelines and engineering standards that will help scale up ecosystem-based disaster management worldwide. 

By raising the capacity of engineers to solve risks from climate change with ecological restoration and protection in mind – and by changing our approach to problem solving – we can save precious tax dollars and bring long-lasting benefits to communities, the environment and our economy.

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