Interview: Protecting our first line of defense

Two workers wearing safty helmets cleaning solar panels on a rooftop

Dr. Mike Beck from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is also adjunct professor at the University of California Santa Cruz; Photo: Ali Habashi

The project “Ecosystems, Risk and Climate Adaptation”, funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) and implemented by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), is working on topics in the interface between risk reduction and conservation. It examines Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) as an integral part of national and global efforts for managing natural disasters and climate change with key partners from the Institute of Environmental Hydraulics Cantabria (IH Cantabria), the Alliance Development Works, the University of Kassel and McGill University. Dr. Mike Beck is the lead marine scientist for TNC, heading a team of engineers, ecologists and economists. At a visit in Berlin, he spoke to IKI about his research.

Your IKI project started about one year ago. What has happened since then?

In the course of the last year, our team has been able to look at all the coral reefs of the world and we were able to rigorously value their benefits in protecting people and property.

Compilation of two photos of different coral reefs. Coral reefs are a very important part of our first line of defense on our coast lines. Photos: © Nick Hall/TNC

Coral reefs as well as mangroves are part of the so called “green-infrastructure”. Could you please explain what this means, especially in comparison to “grey infrastructure”?

Around the world, indeed for centuries, we have invested trillions of dollars into grey infrastructure. By grey infrastructure you can most easily think of everything that is made of cement: sea walls, breakwaters, dams, dykes, levees. What we are trying to point out is that nature – or green infrastructure – can also be a very important part of our first line of defense. And we ought to be valuing and protecting those benefits instead of what we often do right now – which is to build on top of that first line of defense. If you build on wetlands and mangroves around the coastline you are building in the lowest elevation, highest risk areas, and we are all going to end up paying for that.

What can you tell us about the current condition of mangroves and coral reefs worldwide?

It is rather unfortunate that some of these habitats have declined precipitately lately, mangroves in particular. Over the last several decades, particularly with the growth of shrimp aquaculture, we have lost hundreds of thousands of hectares of mangroves around the world. In addition many of our coastal cities in tropical environments were built on top of mangrove habitats and that is a real problem. Coral reefs are at least in a bit of a better shape but with climate change they are facing increasing stresses.

Talking about climate change – how do you think that your research will help people and governments worldwide adapt to climate change?

Let me first explain what can happen to these habitats with climate change. For mangroves, we are going to see sea level rise. Now, if we can maintain mangroves in a healthy state, they can actually grow with sea level rise. That is what they do. They take sediments and they grow and keep building up on top of that. They could be a dynamic defense, if we let them.

Red mangrove in Cayman Islands, Caribbean; Photo: Nancy Sefton/ TNC

Coral reefs are facing particular stresses from climate change due to water warming as well as acidification. These stresses “bleach” corals – killing them and turning them white. We do know however that if we manage other stressors - like overfishing and pollution - that reefs can adapt to these climate change challenges. What we are hoping to do as part of this project is to show that if we find opportunities to invest in the improved management and restoration of these habitats, we can hopefully bring them through these climate impacts so they continue to provide protection for us.

Bleached coral reefs; Photo: Catlinseaview/ TNC

Are governments taking notice of your research?

We have been very fortunate that there has been great interest in the results. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we put the results in economic and social terms – so we are looking at the amount of property protected as well as the amount of people protected. We have great interest from the World Bank, for example. And we have worked very closely with them on the development of our approaches. I will give three examples: one, we are working with results generated as part of the projects for IKI and the World Bank to inform the government of the Philippines on the value of their mangroves for coastal protection. These values will then be examined for inclusion in development plans and the Philippine national accounts. We are also using our work in Grenada to show where reef restoration is most critical for coastal defenses and we are putting in a demonstration project to test these approaches. Thirdly, the insurance sector - by working with them to incorporate habitats into risk assessment models and into financial tools, we can find incentives for investments in the much needed conservation and restoration of these habitats. We are working closing with Lloyd’s of London and their partners on these approaches.

Staff member of German environment ministry looking at research results; Photo: GIZ/Joschka Frech

If I was a government representative from a small island country, how could I get access to your research results?

We are making the results from the work available in many formats: One, we are publishing scientific papers. Two, we are making the work available in reports. And then three, we are making all of the results available online, interactively [with the creation of the “Atlas of Ocean Wealth” http://maps.oceanwealth.org], so that you can explore the results, looking at the importance of mangroves and reefs to your countries and places specifically.

Screenshot of “Atlas of Ocean Wealth”; Photo: maps.oceanwealth.org

So there is no “one-fits-all-solution”?

We are not trying to promote green solutions as if they are the only solution. All risk reduction strategies involves multiple solutions. We think that nature, or green infrastructure, should be a much bigger part of the solution set. But natural solutions must be combined with other approaches such as early warning to hazards, risk transfer from insurance, and aid programs to reduce the social vulnerability of those communities most at risk.

When you look back at your expectations about one year ago, did your results meet these expectations?

I was not surprised that we would find reefs to be important. I have been surprised at how critical mangroves are for risk reduction as well. I have also been surprised and impressed by the interest that we have gotten from both the public and private sector in these results. Many doors have been opened for us. Within this truly multi-disciplinary project, we connected information from hydrodynamic equations and engineering models with ecological data on coral reefs and together as a team we were able to develop results that make sense to decision makers.

Is there anything that you would like to add?

I would just like to reemphasize the importance of the IKI support for our work. It has enabled us to develop great new collaborations – with the World Bank, the insurance sector, the engineering and the conservation sectors. This is really appreciated.

Thank you very much.