Hurricane Sandy Invigorates Climate Adaptation Discussions

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 18th Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 18) is currently underway in Doha, Qatar. Today on the blog, CI’s Dave Hole discusses the impact that recent weather events may have on global discussions about how nature can help us adapt to climate change.

salt marsh in Virginia

Salt marsh in Virginia, U.S. Along with other coastal ecosystems like mangroves and floodplain forests, salt marshes protect coasts from storm surges — a benefit that will only become more valuable as sea levels rise and storms become more severe. (© EJ-J)

In our warming world, more frequent and more pronounced extreme weather events are becoming an increasingly common reality.

This will not come as a surprise to many people. Last January, Central and Eastern Europe experienced their most severe winter weather in three decades; in July, catastrophic floods devastated areas of China and the Philippines. However, the manner in which climate change loads the dice in favor of such extremes has finally been thrown into stark relief in the U.S. by Hurricane Sandy.

The enormous economic damage (estimates are as high as US$ 60 billion) and loss of life (more than 100 people are known to have perished in the U.S.) helped to awaken the almost extinct discussion on climate change just days before the U.S. presidential elections earlier this month. The destruction wrought by Sandy has also inevitably sparked a debate over what to do about it. Simply put, how should we adapt to climate change — whether “we” is a city of 8 million people or a small village on the coast of Vietnam?

Adaptation planning usually focuses around so-called “soft” and “hard” approaches. Soft approaches generally focus on providing information, changes in policy, capacity-building and governance in order to provide tools like early warning systems. Hard approaches tend to focus on built infrastructure such as seawalls, levees and irrigation systems — essentially humanity’s attempt to build our way out of trouble.

What has been particularly fascinating in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is the conversation that has also been sparked about the potential for “green infrastructure” to be part of the adaptation response. From oyster reefs and “beards” of wetlands around Manhattan to reduce storm surge to much smaller-scale interventions such as green roofs and permeable pavements that can help soak up stormwater runoff, ideas have been coming thick and fast.

In many ways this is nothing new. Wetland restoration, for example, is likely to be a huge component of plans to help New Orleans cope with the next Hurricane Katrina, helping to absorb large storm surges before they hit urban areas. But finally we are seeing much greater consideration of such options from politicians as well as front-line decision-makers, including the governor of New York State.

Clearly, in some places and contexts, green infrastructure can only be a small part of the adaptation response. Wetlands or oyster reefs alone are unlikely to protect New York City entirely from another storm the size of Sandy, in large part because nature has already been squeezed out of Manhattan, Staten Island and the Rockaways, and options for restoration of wetlands on the scale of New Orleans simply don’t exist.

A simple but key take home message, therefore, is that in regions where green infrastructure remains — where nature is already providing us with protection against the increasing rigors of climate change through the presence of mangroves, salt marshes, floodplain forests or other so-called “critical natural capital” — we should keep it! If it disappears, it will be vastly more expensive to build or restore our way out of trouble.

This message — the need to retain our existing critical natural capital — is being reinforced by an ongoing project at CI that seeks to broadly evaluate the potential for nature to help people adapt to climate change.

My colleagues and I used a variety of global datasets to map coastal communities who are likely to experience increased risk from climate change-driven increases in storm surge and sea level rise. We found that more than 40 million people around the world’s coasts are already benefitting from coastal protection services provided by mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs in these at-risk regions.

And coastal protection is only one of the services provided by nature that can help people adapt to the impacts of climate change. Across the globe, green infrastructure can help meet the challenges of reducing disaster risk, improving sustainable water management, supporting alternative livelihoods and increasing food security, even in the face of rapidly intensifying climatic shifts.

Yet perhaps therein lies the nub of the problem. While adequate international financing for adaptation is essential, when all is said and done, there is no all-encompassing adaptation “solution” to climate change. We will never be able to build, buy, teach, restore or run fast enough to adapt to all its impacts. All we can do is lessen them.

Dave Hole

Dave Hole

That’s why making progress on mitigation — on real commitments to robust emissions reduction targets — at the U.N. climate talks currently underway in Doha is so critical. Simply put, more mitigation equals less adaptation; surely that’s arithmetic we can all agree on.

Dave Hole is the director of conservation priorities science in the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Ecosystem Science and Economics at CI. Learn more about CI’s involvement at COP 18.

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