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.
Tanner, thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comments. We're beginning to work on aspects of these issues in that we are looking at how to create additional incentives for adaptation to coastal threats from climate change and thinking about ways to finance it. We've also done a bit of work on whether adjacent natural defenses increase property values.
Your points demonstrate the complexities and ramifications of decisions that are and will be made by a wide spectrum of folks from the individual, the corporation, and local, state and federal governments. We are also exploring how we can help effective decision-making to encourage smooth transitions for communities.
It is interesting that the handful of studies on property values seem to show that, so far in many communities, waterfront properties are holding their value and still commanding a premium, despite a growth in insurance rates. I'd love to tap into your expertise as we further pursue our work in these areas.
In reply to One issue broadly omitted by Tanner Hayes
I'm not familiar with the studies you reference, but I'd certainly appreciate you emailing them to me :-)
I'd note though that while in many markets in Florida insurance rates have increased substantially they are still not yet material to many CRE market participants, and rates do not accurately reflect the longer-term risks posed by climate change to property owners and occupants. Warren Buffet pointed out why this is in his annual letter this year; insurers do not need to incorporate climate risk into their insurance rates all at once, as coverage terms are typically limited to a year. Thus as each year passes, insurers will simply raise their rates to accommodate for the incremental increase in that year's risk due to climate change. Of course, this is a oversimplified explanation, and also assumes insurers can approximate what that increase in risk is. Nonetheless, this is an important point when placed in the context of commercial properties investment dynamics. For landlords investment horizons are often of >15 years and utilize historical cost baseline to model insurance rates in their underwriting likely underestimating future insurance cost (though that's pure specualation on my part). More interesting though is that many leases are "triple-net" and pass insurance costs on directly to tenants. So once a tenant executes a lease, they're on the hook for lease terms that are 5x, 10x, 20x, longer than existing insurance terms. And since commercial properties are valued on the cash flow to the landlord, which is locked in by these long lease terms, it's not surprising that studies find little correlation between insurance rates and property prices - yet. As leases turn over, coastal erosion / weather worsens, and insurance rates continue to increase, I think we may see more of an impact on property prices. I'd certainly welcome any work by EDF to help property owners more effectively assess, quantify & monetize such risk.
In reply to Tanner, Thank you for your by Shannon Cunniff
It's time to stop using the terms "built'' and "non-built environment," a truly false dichotomy. We must bring sustainability officers and ecologists into an integrated design process, so that instead of valuing engineering based on cost, we practice restoration and sustainability. This will bring much greater dividends, such as truly resilient ecologically sustainable societies.
Good post! Conservation area and flood-control planning efforts in Florida are under great pressure now.
Very good points. I look forward to seeing the document you are developing with Deltares.
One issue broadly omitted from this article is how to evaluate whether even "re-engineered" adaption measures are worth it? A significant portion of infrastructure – and real property - is owned by publicly traded firms, and thus the decision to invest in adaption measures needs to be placed in the broader context of economics. Such firms will ultimately weigh the costs of such measures against relocating their capital.
For example, if a major hotel owns a portfolio of assets in Miami, and the local community invests in adaption measures, how will that affect property taxes, insurance rates and demand for local real estate? Will it ultimately prevent the firm from simply selling the asset and re-allocating capital in Seattle? Or should the company invest directly in mitigation measures to lower its’ insurance rates, and make its asset more resilient to coastal erosion and extreme weather?
Unfortunately, few studies and little research focus on pragmatic tools and processes for assessing the impacts of climate change to property prices. And until real estate markets start incorporate climate change in their investment decisions, the burden of adaptation measures will fall on local governments that inherently aren’t able to relocate…and that dichotomy will inhibit effective decision-making.
Tanner HayesJuly 14, 2016 at 5:10 pm