Shannon Heyck-Williams serves as the National Wildlife Federation’s lead climate…
The world has seen in tragic and graphic detail how failing to steel ourselves for disasters can have heartbreaking consequences. Although our changing climate hasn’t conjured the same urgency as the COVID-19 crisis, the more our leaders prioritize resilience and natural climate solutions — to supplement strategies to swiftly cut emissions in industry and transportation — the better off we’ll be.
The ongoing global public health crisis has only underscored how critically necessary it is to plan for disasters before they strike and to recognize the interrelatedness and fragility of socio-economic support systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated rescue and recovery efforts for the severe storms that raged through the South and Mid-Atlantic over the Easter weekend.
The same complications will undoubtedly resurface as flooding occurs through the Midwest along the Mississippi and other rivers. And, states in the West are already concerned about how smoke from the upcoming wildfire season will affect health effects associated with COVID-19. Like a viral pandemic, climate change supersizes existing strains on our public health system and shared infrastructure.
Why it’s time to invest in natural climate solutions now
Investing in natural climate solutions is more important now than ever before. Natural climate solutions — establishing living coastlines, investing in ecologically appropriate reforestation and forest resilience, and supporting the use of cover crops on working lands — can address climate change by naturally sequestering carbon emissions and protecting communities from the growing threat of severe storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods.
These types of investments also can put Americans safely back to work at a time when unemployment is hitting record highs. We know this because we’ve seen it before. During the Great Depression Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps resulted in the creation of over 3 million jobs protecting America’s parks and natural resources.
Contemporary examples of when natural climate solutions worked
Even more recently, after the start of the Great Recession, Congress passed the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which, among many other environmentally beneficial measures, dedicated $167 million for NOAA to invest in “shovel-ready” marine and coastal restoration projects with the dual purpose of stimulating economic growth and restoring habitats.
These projects created 2,280 jobs and restored more than a quarter-million acres of wildlife habitat and 677 miles of stream, as well as removed 433,397 tons of debris from coastal habitat.
The 2009 stimulus projects also have had a lasting impact on community resilience. One effort helped stabilize shorelines and restore wetlands along Muskegon Lake in Michigan, resulting in lasting flood protections. This $10 million project also enhanced recreation and property values, natural carbon sequestration, and water quality.
Reclaimed urban wetland saved hundreds of lives
More recently, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017 the storm dumped 27 trillion gallons of rainwater on Texas and Louisiana. A budding natural infrastructure project called Exploration Green had only completed 80 percent of the first of five phases of the project. Yet the 178-acre reclaimed urban wetland, which was formerly an abandoned golf course, acted as a sponge during the hurricane — protecting 300 residents and 150 homes from potentially deadly flooding.
When complete, Exploration Green will contain detention ponds and wetlands, a nursery for native trees, miles of trails, areas of native bushes and grasses, and athletic fields. It is also expected to drain up to half a billion gallons of stormwater and protect up to 2,000 homes.
These are just a couple of the many powerful examples of how natural climate solutions can protect communities from extreme weather and disaster, all the while providing ecological and health benefits and creating habitat. Plus, these investments also harness nature’s power to pull climate-altering pollution out of the atmosphere, helping stabilize our world.
From coast to coast, natural infrastructure projects have generated new activity that helps the local and regional economy. They provide immediate benefits for jobs and long-term benefits for resilience and climate stability. By making forward-looking investments during this current crisis, our nation can help stave off future crises and not only prepare for but also address climate change.
Shannon Heyck-Williams, the author of this opinion piece, is the director of climate and energy policy at the National Wildlife Federation, and a Contributor to theRising. If you liked this piece, consider subscribing to theRising for more exclusive content.
Shannon Heyck-Williams serves as the National Wildlife Federation’s lead climate and energy policy advisor, directing and representing the organization’s strategic priorities at the federal level as they relate to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy.