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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy

Mark Tercek

20 Dec 2012

By Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy | 20 December 2012

This fall, Hurricane Sandy, which struck the U.S. states of New York and New Jersey, raised an important question: How can we reduce our risk to natural disasters?

Part of the answer, it turns out, is in nature itself.

Unfortunately, this point is often overlooked in the development planning process. But I’m hopeful that, out of Sandy’s devastation, some good can come. The storm has underscored important lessons about climate change, disaster preparedness and the value of healthy ecosystems—lessons that are equally important whether you are an elected official, a coastal developer, a risk management professional or a corporate CEO.

Storms, floods and other natural hazards are causing more costly damage to people and property than ever before. Even before Sandy, in 2011, global damage from natural disasters reached an all-time high of $380 billion. Impacts are worsening as we continue to build in risky coastal areas. Urbanization and economic development along coasts are increasing at a higher rate than anywhere else. Meanwhile, global warming is contributing to a trend of more severe and erratic storms, droughts, heat waves and other extreme weather events.

The good news is that nature can help us better manage these impacts. Businesses, governments, and other decision makers should integrate natural defenses — or “natural infrastructure” — into core planning processes for a number of very compelling reasons.

First, natural defenses work. Coastal habitats in particular can help reduce risks to people and property.  Healthy reefs, for example, act as natural break-waters. They can reduce wave energy approaching the shore by more than 85 percent. Mangroves stabilize shorelines and reduce erosion. Over wide expanses, mangroves, reefs and sand dunes, for example, can reduce storm surge before it reaches communities.

Even during extreme weather events like Sandy, in many places nature can provide an important first line of defense. In South Cape May, New Jersey, for example, The Nature Conservancy worked with government agencies in 2006 to restore coastal dunes and wetlands to reduce flooding.  While Sandy came ashore just a few miles away, nearby towns were spared from the kind of flooding they experienced before the restoration was completed.

Second, natural defenses can be cost-effective. A study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found that for every dollar spent on preventative measures, $4 dollars are saved in avoided costs of natural disasters. While the study looked at both engineered defenses and natural infrastructure, natural options can be less expensive and more efficient. In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, the Conservancy is working to restore 100 miles of oyster reefs at a cost of about $1.5 million per mile, which is comparable to, or cheaper than built breakwater costs – and that’s before taking into account the many other benefits that healthy oyster reefs provide to fisheries, recreation and tourism, for example.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing our risks. Smart infrastructure planning will always incorporate multiple solutions. Traditional solutions like levees, sea walls and canals will still be necessary in many places. But nature can also work together with more traditional approaches to maximize our defenses.

For example, communities in New York and Connecticut are using The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience Tool to map their shorelines and identify places where natural infrastructure can help reduce the risk of coastal flooding.

Natural infrastructure also adapts to changing conditions. Unlike concrete structures, for example, salt marshes can adjust to shifting coastlines and rising sea levels—if we leave some room for nature to do its job unhindered by our roads, homes or sea walls. Likewise, floodplains can adapt to a river’s changing course.

What’s more — and this leads to my third point — natural defenses offer many other co-benefits. Healthy natural systems like coral reefs, oyster reefs and floodplains not only reduce risk from natural hazards, but also improve water quality, support fisheries, provide wildlife habitat and promote recreation and tourism.

In fact, forward-thinking businesses are already thinking about the value of nature and its co-benefits. As we face the reality of more frequent and extreme weather events and other changes to our climate, companies should factor in nature as they consider everything from siting a plant to cost-effectively minimizing risks to their assets and supply chains.

And the implications go far beyond disaster risk reduction. Given increasing demands on our planet’s resources, companies that rely on clean water, productive lands, and other natural services won’t achieve long-term success by conducting business as usual. That’s why companies from Dow Chemical to Rio Tinto are working with organizations like The Nature Conservancy to answer important questions: How do their operations both affect and depend on nature’s services? What would those services look like on the company’s balance sheet? How vulnerable are those services, and what might they do about those vulnerabilities? And, how do those services also benefit the community?

Much work still needs to be done to help businesses, governments and other decision-makers answer these types of questions. Getting the answers right will require new partnerships, rigorous science, practical tools and stronger policies that incentivize natural infrastructure and smart development. But in the end, those that look at nature as an “asset on the balance sheet” — one that not only reduces risk but also provides an array of other valuable services — will see big returns.

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