Nearly half the world’s population—some 3.5 billion people—lives near coasts. As climate change exacerbates the effects of storms, flooding and erosion, the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of those people will be at risk. In fact, the latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s World Risk Assessment Report names failure to adapt to the effects of climate change as the single greatest risk, in terms of impact, to societies and economies around the world.
Beyond endangering lives, more frequent and stronger storms could cost many billions of dollars, owing to infrastructure damage and lost revenues from farming, fisheries and tourism. And, as the Harvard Business Review recently noted, the projected cost rises with each new study. Yet the international community currently spends on risk mitigation less than one-fifth of what it spends on natural-disaster response.
When it comes to climate risk, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As Rebecca Scheurer, Director of the Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center, put it, “We spend millions of dollars on the response side, and were we to invest more of those resources on the front end, we’d save more people. It’s as simple as that.”
With the human and the financial costs of climate change attracting more attention than ever, now is the time to shift resources toward risk reduction. Doing so will require national governments, industry, aid organizations and other NGOs to make the most of their investments. And some of the most effective and cost-effective solutions are already available in nature.
Coastal and marine ecosystems have considerable potential to mitigate the effects of storms and other risks, especially when combined with traditional built infrastructure. A 100-meter belt of mangroves, for example, can reduce wave height by up to 66% and lower peak water levels during floods. A healthy coral reef can reduce wave force by 97%, lessening the impact of storms and preventing erosion. These and other coastal ecosystems are the first line of defense for many cities around the world, from Miami to Manila.
Until recently, such nature-based solutions were too often overlooked. But leaders increasingly recognize their importance, and are beginning to take action, including on the international level. The Paris climate agreement, reached last December and signed last month, not only established a consensus on the importance of addressing climate change, but also explicitly affirmed that ecosystems play a role in capturing greenhouse gases and helping communities adapt to the effects of climate change.
At the national level, some of the most at-risk island countries are taking important steps. For example, last year, the Seychelles announced a first-of-its-kind “debt for nature” swap with its Paris Club creditors and The Nature Conservancy. The swap will allow the country to redirect $21.6 million of its debt toward investment in a comprehensive approach to ocean conservation that will bolster its resilience to climate change.