Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Oh Moses, Where Art Thou?

When a small town government on the New Jersey shore wanted to build protective sand dunes along the Atlantic coast, it faced stiff resistance from homeowners who demanded compensation for losing their view of the ocean. The conflict made its way to the courts before Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern coast in October, 2012. After Sandy, the courts, governments at all levels, the real estate and insurance industries, and even homeowners with a view admit that houses shielded by natural barriers fared much better than those without. The case for compensation was blown away like a 1920's bungalow.

The argument for "green-gray" infrastructure – a combination of engineering and natural barriers like sand dunes, oyster beds and salt marshes – is building worldwide as rising sea levels cause increasingly erratic weather patterns and violent storms. Governments and funders have learned the hard way that vast infrastructure investments can be completely undone by natural disasters. This is particularly true in seaside urban centers in developing countries, where huge populations, entrenched poverty, and misguided policies put tremendous pressure on the environment through polluting, overfishing, and the destruction of coastal forests. In fact, as part of a broad research effort, studies funded by the Rockefeller Foundation found that there is substantial interest by funders and governments in climate change adaptation, but little funding is focused directly on protecting the 200 million urban poor in coastal areas.

There are limits to what any single organization can do to combat rising sea levels. Government efforts generally end at their own borders, and the motivation for private industries (e.g., engineering and construction) is to build, baby, build – regardless of the potentially long-term negative effects of artificial sea-walls and dykes. The most likely candidate for battling the rising waters isn't a single entity; it's a coalition of stakeholders focused on funding and scaling high-profile projects to demonstrate the effectiveness of green-gray infrastructure. A cross-sector coalition including the public and private sectors, non-profits, foundations, and academia can provide incentives for sustainable green-gray strategies, while discouraging short-term, ecologically harmful engineering and construction projects. These coalitions may not be able to hold back the waters, but they can mitigate risk and maximize impact by tying funds to sustainable long-term solutions.