Building a Resilient Planet: How to Adapt to Climate Change From the Bottom Up
The conventional wisdom holds that climate change is a problem for international organizations, big governments, and global corporations to solve. Only those major players can make a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions, the thinking goes, and only they can pool the necessary resources. Given the monumental scale of the coming climate crisis, anything short of such high-level mobilization seems inconsequential, even futile.
It is true that nothing short of a massive, globally coordinated push can reduce emissions enough to slow down climate change in the decades ahead. That is why international organizations, national governments, and companies are spending some 95 percent of their climate-related investment on carbon emission reductions. But those efforts will serve to prevent only the worst-case scenarios. The fact is that climate change has already done a great deal of damage and that more harmful effects will be impossible to avert altogether.
Reducing emissions is just half the battle: the other is adjusting to a world already made vastly more hostile and inhospitable by climate change and building up resilience to inevitable further changes down the line.
The good news is that when it comes to adaptation and resilience, individual communities and cities across the world can take the lead on their own, irrespective of progress or gridlock at the national and international levels. Interventions can be small and simple—sometimes as basic as painting rooftops white, for example, to reduce the heat they absorb. The low cost and ease of these measures belie their potential for making life safer and more bearable in an era of climate disaster. In many cases, adaptation is not even a matter of improving infrastructure through expensive protective measures. Instead, it consists of maintaining the natural environment—the forests, coral reefs, and coastal wetlands that provide just as much protection against disaster as manmade measures do. Recognizing these natural features for the assets they are and insuring them against future damage offers a sure path to climate resilience, even as the larger fight against the drivers of climate change continues unabated.
That climate change is already affecting lives in the present is hardly a secret, but few appreciate the magnitude of its impact, even as climate-related disasters play out all over the world. Just in the past year, swarms of locusts the size of whole cities descended on Ethiopia, powerful bush fires ravaged Australia, and massive floods inundated Indonesia. Meanwhile, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—which contains enough ice to raise sea levels by up to ten feet were it all to melt—is continuing its slow-motion collapse. And each day, tens of thousands of people flee from natural disasters or wars, many of which have been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Even those who have not yet seen a hurricane or a fire sweep through their neighborhood have been affected, albeit in subtler ways. Rising temperatures, droughts, and floods have disrupted their food supply chains; the quality of the air they breathe is declining; and infectious and mosquito-borne diseases are spreading faster.
These crises are unfolding today, and each calls for an immediate response, even as the international community and individual governments work on the longer-term project of cutting emissions. Fortunately, most of the adjustments needed to lessen their impact are not difficult. Many adaptations do not require new technology. Nor do they have to pass through the political minefield of international climate action. Instead, many simply require citizens to take the initiative in their local communities.
Some solutions are as easy as painting rooftops white. The building materials used in dense cities often trap heat (a phenomenon known as “the urban heat island effect”). The resulting extreme temperatures are a silent killer, often taking the lives of those already vulnerable, especially among the elderly. Lowering the temperature by just a little can save lives. If most surfaces in cities—especially rooftops, but roads and sidewalks, too—were a lighter shade and therefore reflected more light, local average daytime temperatures could drop by up to two or three degrees Celsius on hot days, according to a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience. Los Angeles already has a program in place to paint asphalt road surfaces a light gray, and the Australian city of Melbourne is giving loans to locals who retrofit commercial buildings for increased efficiency, including by painting their rooftops white.
The hotter it gets, the better the white-roof solution works. In Brazil and India and on the Arabian Peninsula, more reflective surfaces in cities could lower average daytime temperatures by a live-saving four or five degrees Celsius during heat waves. A study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colorado, found that if cities around the world added lighter surface colors to 90 percent of their roofs, they could help reduce the rise in temperatures caused by urban heat islands around one-third.
Rooftop gardens offer a related solution, particularly for cities in the developing world. In the summer of 2019, temperatures in the Indian megacity of Chennai topped 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit, just as the city’s water reservoirs began to run dry, exhausted after two years of below-average rainfall. Temperatures in the city are expected to keep rising in the years ahead, as is the risk of drought, meaning that last year’s conditions will be the new normal. Rooftop gardens could offer some reprieve: gardens can absorb as much as 75 percent of the rainfall they receive, and certain rooftop garden designs store drainage water, which can later be used to water the plants.
Green roofs absorb heat in the summer and add insulation in the winter. For the residents below, they also provide fresh and nutritious food and, in many cases, a source of income. Urban gardens already dot the city of Quito, Ecuador, which launched an urban agriculture program in 2002. Thousands of gardeners—the majority of them women, some with only an elementary school education—now help support their families by growing and selling all-organic produce. The gardens are an economic lifeline—and they help cool the city and clean its air.
WHAT CANCÚN CAN TEACH US
Resilience will look different depending on the local context. Some cities may lack the resources or the climatic conditions necessary for easy bottom-up fixes. But most could avail themselves of one solution that most conversations about climate change have overlooked: insurance.
Insuring physical infrastructure—homes, businesses, and so forth—against damages caused by climate change is now common practice. The idea is to protect human achievements and physical property against the ravages of nature. But that approach obscures nature’s own protective role. In many places around the world, the primary barrier against sudden natural disasters and grinding environmental degradation is nature itself: coral reefs, wetlands, forests, freshwater reservoirs, and rivers can all serve that role. Insuring these natural assets, in addition to the manmade infrastructure they protect, is a far more efficient way to ensure that communities battered by climate change can cope.
Beginning in 2015, I worked with a team of coral reef scientists and coastal resilience experts from the Nature Conservancy to design what would become the first-ever insurance policy on a natural asset, the Mesoamerican Reef. Located in the Caribbean, the reef stretches over 600 miles, making it second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. For nearby shorelines, from southeastern Mexico down to Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, the reef acts as a massive natural barrier against storms and flooding. A healthy coral reef can absorb 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore, a performance on par with, and often better than, expensive manmade barriers, such as breakwaters and seawalls. In the tourism-heavy coastal towns of the state of Quintana Roo, in Mexico, home to the city of Cancún, the reef slows beach erosion and protects homes and hotels from hurricanes.
Our modeling allowed us to quantify the value of that protection: when the reef is intact, Quintana Roo avoids annual losses of some $1.8 million. In recent years, however, the reef has come under threat from climate change, tourism, overfishing, and pollution. Among the consequences of a warming earth are fiercer storms and stronger waves, which slam into the reef too often and too powerfully for it to recover, gradually exhausting its ability to protect the shoreline. As a result, the reef now requires human help after each major storm to keep functioning. Specially trained teams of locals, the Brigadores, remove debris, collect broken corals and reattach them to the reef, and add manmade support structures to help speed the reef’s recovery.
To safeguard the reef and its protective value and fund the work of the Brigadores, we collaborated with the state government, marine scientists, a hotel owners’ association, and the global reinsurer Swiss Re. The result was a trust fund used to buy an insurance policy for the reef. If a certain trigger point is reached in the designated area—such as a certain wind speed or storm category—the policy quickly pays out funds for a rapid response, so that the reef system can continue protecting the vulnerable communities and economies that depend on it.
The world is filled with ecosystems that perform a similar role. Wetlands, urban forests, rivers, and lagoons are, like reefs, habitats that provide shelter and protection to a myriad of species, including humans. These natural resources can break the waves of a storm, clean contaminated water, and cool a city. They also capture and store carbon, helping slow the rate of climate change. Since they provide tangible benefits to people and the economy, they can be viewed, in financial terms, as assets worth insuring. The cost of doing so would be higher than doing nothing and escaping disaster, but vastly lower than being unprepared when disaster hits—and given current predictions on climate change, it will hit.
Even if insurance companies stop short of insuring actual natural features, they can incentivize those who buy their policies to maintain those assets. The approach is tried and tested: it transformed cities around the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the time, most urban environments were massive fire hazards, built mostly of wood, with little thought to safety precautions. Fires raged through some of the world’s most iconic cities: Chicago in 1871; Boston in 1872; San Francisco in 1906, after an earthquake; and Tokyo in 1923, also after a major quake. When it was time to rebuild, insurers were unwilling to take the same risks again and demanded that cities upgrade their safety measures and infrastructure to qualify for coverage. In response, cities started installing fire hydrants and fire stations, building houses with fire escapes, and mandating that homes and offices feature fire alarms. Building codes became much more stringent (in many places, regulators banned wood), and the number of major fires and fire-related deaths decreased dramatically.
Today, insurance companies could replicate that success by accounting for nature’s protective benefits in their coverage decisions. Risk Management Solutions, a leading risk modeler and adviser to banks and insurance companies worldwide, has already begun factoring the role of natural assets, such as coastal wetlands, into its risk modeling. As the damage from climate-related disasters mounts, more and more insurers might demand that buyers maintain the natural assets in their midst to qualify for coverage and preferential premiums.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of insurance schemes is their potential for protecting natural assets before disaster hits and not afterward, when most of those assets’ value is lost. For many years, agricultural insurance has commonly defined specific levels of damage needed to trigger a policy. In a drought, for instance, the number of dead livestock or the amount of a failed crop must cross a certain threshold for payments to kick in. But when some amount of damage can be anticipated in advance, as is the case in slow-moving catastrophes such as droughts, there is no reason why insurers and farmers should need to wait until the last moment. In Kenya, a consortium of insurers backed by the global reinsurance industry offers insurance to farmers vulnerable to drought and uses satellite technology to measure the vegetation available to livestock. When the system determines that the health of the vegetation has dropped below a certain threshold, the farmers automatically receive payments to their cell phones, which they can use for feed, medicines, and water. This approach allows farmers to save their animals, avoid major financial and emotional loss, and sustain their livelihoods. Since October 2019, the program has covered farmers’ “almost losses” with more than $7 million in payouts to 32,000 individuals. Similar programs could help cattle farmers in drought-prone countries and regions across Africa and the Middle East and in parts of northern and southwestern China.
In some cases, insurance can make entire countries less vulnerable to climate catastrophe. Natural disasters can seriously set back a country’s economy. To avoid being overwhelmed, some countries already pool their climate-related risks—such as high exposure to floods or hurricanes—allowing them to receive more affordable insurance coverage than they otherwise would have. After the Bahamas was hit by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, the very first money it received to deal with the destruction came from one such regional risk pool, which serves 22 countries in the Caribbean and Central America with catastrophe insurance. The pool provides $1 billion in risk coverage for member countries and has paid out $152 million since its inception in 2007. In recent years, states in Africa, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia have followed suit and started risk pools of their own. These arrangements could provide more than a safety net in the aftermath of a crisis—in theory, much like the Kenyan farmers’ insurance, they could make money available before a disaster, allowing countries to take valuable precautionary hardening measures.
None of these steps—from white rooftops to insurance for nature’s protective capital—can replace drastic emission cuts. They can, however, reduce the impact of the damage already done and protect communities in a world indelibly marked by climate change. Perhaps more important still, they can help dispel a sense of powerlessness particular to the era of slow-moving climate catastrophe—a feeling so widespread it has its own name: “climate grief.” Local steps toward climate adaptation, along with higher-level financial protections and resilience, can counter that despondency with proven and durable solutions—and might, in the process, even create the momentum for more unified and inspired global action.