We Need to Rethink How to Adapt to the Climate Crisis
Much of the barrier island community of Fort Myers Beach on Florida’s southwest coast, once home to 5,600 people, is unrecognizable. Older buildings not made of concrete were obliterated by Hurricane Ian. With properties that were worth nearly $4.5 billion, collectively, a little more than a month ago, the town almost certainly will rebuild. Federal and state aid and private capital undoubtedly will flow into the region over the next few years in copious amounts.
But how will Fort Myers Beach rebuild? And will this be the last time it does so? The pattern around the country has been to build back bigger, though not necessarily smarter. As an analysis in the journal Nature Sustainability put it a few years ago, “Exposure of residential assets to hurricane damage is increasing — even in places where hurricanes have struck before.”
This propensity to rebuild in ways we know are not safe must change. What if Fort Myers Beach had prepared not just for today’s climate threats — preparation that clearly was inadequate for a hurricane like Ian — but also for threats decades ahead, when seas will be higher, rainfall more torrential and storms rapidly intensifying in unpredictable ways? That’s the question scientists and innovative leaders should be training their sights on, in Florida and elsewhere.
Fortunately, some are working to answer that question, with an approach known as transformative adaptation. It represents a fundamental shift in the way the nation has been handling storm recovery and preparation.
For vulnerable communities it’s about becoming something different. Retreating from the ocean’s edge and rebuilding more densely away from areas that flood again and again is a start. But the approach goes well beyond that. The goal should be long-term well-being, which means adapting communities to be resilient, affordable, inclusive and economically viable in deeply rooted ways.
The effort must encompass more than just hurricane threats. We need to develop new ways to protect against tornadoes and other big storms, record-setting heat, explosive fires, smoke, floods and megadroughts.
Transformative adaptation is also about more than preparing for the next calamitous storm, roasting landscape or other catastrophe. Communities must take steps to ensure that their populations can live securely in the new climate normal, as warming temperatures alter our daily meteorological reality. That means being ready for more precipitation or less (depending on where you live), higher tides, hotter temperatures, more frequent storms. Not just disasters like Hurricane Ian but the evolving weather conditions that surprise and threaten us in less dramatic but still consequential ways.
To accomplish this, we need to create the capacity for radical innovation. Scientists, engineers, planners, politicians, insurers, lawyers and regular people must challenge themselves to think differently about near and distant threats and how to meet them.
The solutions will range widely in scope and scale. Some will be engineered, like constructing more resilient homes and buildings from affordable, lighter materials like cross-laminated timber, printing 3-D sea walls that mimic natural barriers and sending out real-time alerts to guide drivers around inundated roads in flood-prone places like Norfolk, Va. Other approaches will rely on nature, like protecting or replenishing mangrove swamps in Southwest Florida or the effort underway to build back the oyster reefs in the waters off New York City to protect against storm surges like the destructive one 10 years ago during Hurricane Sandy.
Still other innovations will be legal and financial, like insurance that links homeowners’ rates to their preparedness and provides immediate payouts based on the intensity of winds or storm surge. Successful efforts will bring together people in threatened communities to chart their own future, like those who live along the Little River in Miami. Residents there are working closely with local officials to improve drainage and convert flood-prone septic systems to sanitary sewerage so they can remain there more safely.
One promising testing ground is expected to be on Governors Island in New York City, where a city-created trust is evaluating proposals to create a global Center for Climate Solutions. Because the trust owns most of the infrastructure on the island, it can avoid lengthy permitting processes and resident resistance, which often thwart new ideas, as it experiments with fresh approaches to the climate threat. These so-called sandboxes for innovation are where we can take risks, rapidly learn what options work and commercialize and scale them up.
Many, many challenges remain. How South Florida continues to thrive on its low-lying porous bedrock, for example, is unclear. The same existential question applies in many other regions, including in California’s rolling fire-prone hills and along Alaska’s melting shorelines.
Getting serious about trying new approaches is essential. Otherwise, the transformations we experience will be driven by compounding disasters rather than the efforts we make to create vibrant, connected communities even as climate change alters how we live.
Katharine Mach is a professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science at the University of Miami. Galen Treuer leads climate tech and economic innovation in Miami-Dade County’s Office of Economic Development.