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Building Coastal Resilience to Climate Change and Coastal Hazards

Building Coastal Resilience to Climate Change and Coastal Hazards

24 April 2012

On 24 April 2012, Ecologic Institute had the distinct honor of hosting Dr. Michael Beck at a dinner dialogue to discuss his work on building coastal resilience to climate change and coastal hazards. Dr. Beck is the Lead Marine Scientist at The Nature Conservancy as well as an adjunct faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation and is spending his fellowship time in Bonn, Germany. The event took place at Café Lina in Berlin and included actors from the Berlin policy scene. The discussion was moderated by R. Andreas Kraemer, Director of Ecologic Institute.

The dialogue began by identifying the proper terminology for the threats facing coastal regions. "Sea level rise" was deemed inadequate because "rise" generally connotes positive events in our society, so the group eventually settled on the phrase "coastal hazards," as proposed by Dr. Beck. The guest then went on to describe his work trying to integrate the management of ecological and social vulnerabilities in coastal areas. He outlined how experience shows that using ecological restoration and spatial planning measures to protect coasts and coastal communities can be easily implemented and cost-effective but lamented that policy has not yet begun to promote these innovative approaches.

Dr. Beck's work is based in the US and the Caribbean, and he expounded further on some regional case studies. Specifically, small island states tend to have a lot of infrastructure built and population living along the coast and are thus imperiled by coastal hazards. Hard engineering solutions, such as building levees, have often been chosen as a way to reduce these risks, but Dr. Beck, having noticed that degraded reefs are no longer providing services like wave attenuation, argues that restoring these ecosystems can be a much easier and more cost-effective way to reduce risk. The drivers of reef degradation in the Caribbean at this point are mainly nutrient pollution and sand mining, but Dr. Beck warned that ocean acidification could also play a role in the future.

So what needs to change in order to make large-scale implementation of these measures a reality? Dr. Beck explained that conservation organizations need to consider the fact that they have typically worked only in areas away from human settlement; integrating management of ecological and societal risks will require restoration work in populated areas as well. Disaster risk reduction groups focus, for good reason, primarily on disaster response; however, recognition is needed that investments in restoration and altering spatial planning can better manage risk and contribute to sustainable development. Lastly, insurers can contribute by better integrating the contributions of ecosystem services in risk analysis, such as the ability of natural river systems to ameliorate flooding.

The discussion then considered the incentives produced by insurance systems. Dr. Beck posed the question of whether honest risk analysis will create incentives for people to move out of risky areas and for governments to stop the flow of investment. He argued that we need to create incentives that make it clear that rebuilding in risk-prone areas will not be rewarded and cited the growing consensus to reform the National Flood Insurance Program in the US as an example of potential policy change. As a corollary to this, investments in education and sustainably transforming livelihoods can help to ease the transition for communities in risk-prone areas. The dialogue ended with a discussion about facilitating transatlantic scientific collaboration as well as supporting more interdisciplinary research.

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Keywords:  Climate Change, Climate Adaptation, Coastal hazards, Nature Conservation

Michael Beck
24 April 2012
Berlin, Germany