USA - A natural ally for climate resilience, disaster mitigation
If the recent hurricane seasons have proven one thing, it’s that multi-billion-dollar storms are not outliers — and are becoming increasingly common. Although the 2022 hurricane season has been mercifully light to-date, communities along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are expecting multiple powerful systems to develop in the coming days.
We have seen all too often how climate change is fueling increasingly stronger and more frequent fires, floods, hurricanes and storms. Last year alone, there were 20 climate-fueled disasters that have each caused at least $1 billion in damages and together resulted in $145 billion in damage and the loss of 688 lives.
And 2021 was hardly unusual. Between 2017 and last year, the United States has experienced 86 disasters that caused at least $1 billion of damages each. These climate-fueled disasters resulted in a combined $742.1 billion in damages and killed 4,519 people. These numbers are staggering, and for many Americans the impacts of these disasters also were measured in school years interrupted and learning lost, communities displaced and basements flooded.
The good news is that we do have a vital ally in mitigating these losses: nature itself.
We now know that investments in natural infrastructure have been clearly linked to less damage from extreme weather events. From recent hurricanes, heatwaves and wildfires, we’ve seen firsthand how strategic investments in natural infrastructure, from coastal wetlands to restored forests, save lives, homes and recovery funds. These solutions can be used by a wide range of stakeholders, including property owners, developers, community planners and others, to protect the built environment, all while providing additional benefits to people and wildlife.
It’s this winning record that has led to significant investments in natural infrastructure in the final bipartisan infrastructure package and in the budget reconciliation ideas still under consideration on Capitol Hill.
Yet, for decades, traditional infrastructure investments have actually impeded nature from doing what she does best. Damage to shorelines and wetlands over decades from an overreliance on armoring with levees and seawalls, as well as general development pressure as cities and residential areas expand has left these natural allies less able to protect us from crisis. Natural infrastructure projects have long faced more bureaucratic hurdles — in many places, it’s still easier to obtain a permit for concrete seawalls and bulkheads than for a living shoreline that is often more sustainable, more effective and supports its local ecosystem.
Despite these hurdles, we know this approach can and does make a difference. Experts from the National Wildlife Federation and Allied World discussed as much on a newly released podcast, “Harnessing Natural Infrastructure to Protect the Built Environment.” Ron Killian, Allied World’s senior vice president for catastrophe modeling, underscored that this old approach to infrastructure is both inadequate and can actually weaken existing natural climate and disaster defenses. Natural infrastructure solutions, as National Wildlife Federation Chief Scientist Bruce Stein laid out, are often not only more cost-effective than traditional gray infrastructure, but they also can endure and recover from disasters better than human-made structures.