The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday February 8th

Tar Heels Talk Climate Entry Eight: 'Prioritizing Ecology and Economy'

Editors Note: This is a running series documenting four UNC-CH student's experience at the COP 23 in Bonn, Germany. See last week's recap here.

By Carter Smith

The ocean has historically been marginalized in the climate conversation, which is admittedly odd given its powerful role in sequestering carbon and regulating Earth’s climate. Nevertheless, there is no officially recognized role of oceans and coastal ecosystems in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are considered the basic building blocks of climate action under the Paris Agreement. Of course, this hasn’t stopped many countries from automatically including the protection of coastal ecosystems in their NDCs, but this year ocean activism has a much louder voice. 

One topic at the forefront this week in Bonn has been the utilization nature-based solutions to increase climate change resilience, particularly along coastlines. Since this is essentially what my dissertation boils down to, I have been incredibly heartened and inspired. In the midst of our current climate crisis, it is easy to get bogged down by all of the challenges that lie ahead. But what I have heard this week are solutions, not just problems. 

As most North Carolina residents know all too well, there will be a unique set of challenges that will face coastal regions in coming decades. Large swaths of the North Carolina coastline are considered highly vulnerable to sea level rise and major storm events. Lately, the conversation on a global scale has turned toward increasing coastal resilience using nature-based solutions rather than traditional engineered options, such as seawalls.

Building “bigger and better” seawalls to protect against coastal erosion and flooding has been the modus operandi across the developed world for much of its history. However, this infrastructure is problematic because walls are not always effective, they are costly to maintain, and they can lull residents into a false sense of safety. On the other hand, building with nature can help provide sustainable solutions for climate adaptation and mitigation.

The challenge for promoting nature-based solutions is battling hundreds of years of conventional engineering wisdom. Scientists tend to assume that everyone knows the value of nature, but communities and policy-makers often deprioritize issues surrounding the environment. Because of this, if we speak only about the environment, we will have a hard time convincing everyone. 

The overwhelming message I’ve heard this week is that we need to link ecology and economy. Or, in the words of Tommy Remengesau, the president of Palau, “The economy is the environment and the environment is the economy, and you can not really separate the two.” 

Building resilience into our coastlines using self-maintaining natural habitats will be cheaper than rebuilding hard infrastructure after every storm. We need to be thinking about climate change adaptation not as a cost, but as an investment in the future. To move forward, we need to build strategic alliances between scientists, engineers, conservationists and, most importantly, financiers. 

To quote Bertrand Piccard, the visionary behind the world’s first solar airplane: “To think that we need more innovation is wrong, we can do it now.” Countries like Palau, El Salvador, Madagascar and Kenya have had success with large-scale natural infrastructure projects, so we can’t pretend that the technology and know-how do not exist. What’s needed now is U.S. policy that supports and encourages conservation and sustainable development along shorelines because protecting the environment and growing the economy are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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