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Hope in the Face of Hurricanes: Changing an Unsustainable Model

Opinion

The Pacific has already seen two major hurricanes this season, Aletta and Bud. Fortunately, neither storm reached land at full strength, but with them, Mother Nature sends us a message loud and clear: 2018’s hurricane season has arrived. And with it come plenty of reasons to worry — and a few to hope.

 

Facing the Realities of Hurricane Season

Many Caribbean locations have not recovered from last year’s storms, let alone prepared for another round of potential devastation. The financial and economic impacts of these natural disasters are immense. In 2016, only 26% of damage was insured against. And after last year’s destruction, more than 130,000 people left Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Climate change only adds to the threat — in addition to stronger winds and rain, rising seas will also worsen flooding and damage.

We face what futurist Alex Steffen calls “residual damage.” In Puerto Rico, in Dominica, in Houston, the damage inflicted from last year’s storms has only been partially repaired, and property has only been partially replaced. Often, replacements have few design changes, leaving them just as vulnerable to the next storm. Furthermore, these replacements draw on insurance payments and rates designed for less frequent damage, making it an unsustainable model.

Puerto Rico’s electricity grid is mostly back on, but any significant blow runs the risk of another widespread blackout — which is shocking, as the US is the richest country in the world.

New Orleans’s catastrophic experience with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused hundreds of thousands of people to leave the metro area — often those with the fewest resources and the most flood-prone homes in a city with a long history of racial disparities. Investing $14.5 billion in levees has left residents only slightly better off than they were pre-Katrina.

Each storm’s recovery puts a strain on resources, which weakens communities and leaves an increasing number of people behind. New Orleans, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and areas around the world face similar challenges in the face of rising seas, more severe storm seasons, and the risk of never quite recovering enough to move forward.

 

A Dose of Optimism

There are plenty of dark futures along this path — Paolo Bacigalupi’s stories are an excellent starting point. But despite these challenges, we have plenty of reasons to hope. Innovators and institutions around the world are developing effective responses to stronger storms and a rising, warming ocean.

To quote Christiana Figueres, “optimism is not the result of success, it is the starting point of success.” It’s easy to despair, but we can only build better futures if we are “stubbornly optimistic” about what is possible.

Solutions come in many forms. There are homes that can float or move, or buildings designed to have the first floor flood during storms without long-term effects. There are people building offshore barriers in ways that reduce construction or maintenance costs. The cost of decentralized renewable power has dropped dramatically, so wrecked electricity systems can be rebuilt as both more dependable and low carbon. The rise of inexpensive sensors and ubiquitous data networks is inspiring new ways to track water and predict damage or risk. By combining some of these technologies, entrepreneurs are finding ways to improve yields while reducing environmental impacts of aquaculture.

There are groups around the world who help communities protect ecosystems and capture the value of the carbon that those ecosystems store. There are new oyster reefs being installed along the US northeast that both protect against storm surge and clean up waterways. Stakeholders around the world are protecting mangroves for a wide range of reasons.

There are many less tangible solutions as well. New planning processes encourage property owners to rebuild in less vulnerable areas and help manage retreat. The insurance industry is finding new ways to cover property at risk, such as resilience bonds. In areas like the Arctic, melting ice opens new paths for shipping, and communities are developing new policies and technologies to preserve delicate ecosystems and help small coastal towns grow equitably.

Climate change is here: the oceans are rising, warming, and bringing worse storms. But even as we must adapt to inevitable changes, these solutions — and stories about them — paint a more hopeful picture. They’ll mitigate additional climate change and show how coastal communities can become more resilient and more sustainable. These solutions will lead us to the zero-carbon, ecologically neutral (or beneficial!), prosperous future we all need to believe in.

By Dr. Alexander Dale, Senior Officer, Sustainability, MIT Solve. If you have a relevant solution, MIT Solve would love to hear about it.

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