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Trying to Subdue Nature Is a Fool’s Errand When Planning for Climate Adaptation

Local, state and federal governments must actively pursue both mitigation and nature-based climate adaptation policies.

Cars are stranded in a flood on Sunrise Highway at the Heckscher State Parkway interchange in Islip Terrace, New York, on July 16, 2023.

We’ve experienced just a small taste of the volatility of the climate crisis over the past summer. In New York City, I witnessed record-breaking heat, orange skies filled with wildfire smoke and flash floods. New York’s plan to adapt to these unfolding disasters, however, is to simply subdue nature and keep it at bay at all costs.

Led by the Army Corps of Engineers, there are at least five different proposals to build concrete flood walls in lower Manhattan and the coasts to hold back the Hudson River as storms become more frequent and more destructive. The plans have been met with concern from residents and environmentalists outraged that some of the proposed structures will spoil riverside views and cut through parks, green spaces and biking trails.

Moreover, climate resiliency experts argue the city’s flood wall proposals are oversimplified and will prove ineffective against longer-term flooding caused by rising sea levels and tides. They point out that seawalls can damage marine biodiversity and are susceptible to failure. They want New York City to consider alternative proposals that better integrate local ecologies to combat flooding, like Boston has.

Boston has a similar issue with flooding and also considered building a flood wall. Ultimately, the city opted instead to develop inland solutions with a mix of retractable floodwalls and restoring coastal wetlands.

Boston’s plan to restore its coastal wetlands is just one example of a “nature-based solution” that works to integrate local ecologies into infrastructure, often offering the best protection for communities. Nature-based climate adaptation approaches build up the resiliency of communities through strengthening, integrating and mimicking local ecological processes. This kind of adaptation planning, when coupled with reduction in fossil fuel emissions, can kill two birds with one stone: Research shows such approaches can deliver up to 37 percent of mitigation goals set by the Paris climate accords if action is taken before 2030.

Nature-based solutions are dependent on local ecology and can be integrated in various ways: Rainwater collection, storm water parks, land conservation, water-breaking coral and oyster reefs, and fire management are just a few common examples. By mimicking and integrating natural ecological practices and patterns, nature-based solutions are multifaceted in addressing climate issues. For example, coral reef restoration efforts not only reduce flooding, they increase biodiversity, protect against erosion and absorb wave energy.

Even if New York City builds flood walls, the structures won’t address the city’s changing relationship with waterways. As a coastal city, we must be open to creative measures in working with waterways instead of fighting against them. For example, living shorelines, wetlands, coral reefs and flood-resilient infrastructure all work with waterways. More than 90 percent of NYC’s wetlands have been lost due to urbanization, but those that remain have defended the coast during storms and hurricanes. In Queens, the Jamaica Bay wetland restoration projects are revitalizing vital landscapes. These restored wetlands are an important habitat for native wildlife, and they protect the city against storm surges and hurricanes.

The climate crisis isn’t one singular crisis that will doom all of humanity to an uninhabitable Earth. Instead, it’s a series of smaller crises that pile up and chip away at our ecological, economic and social structures. The increased intensity of hurricanes for example, are even more detrimental when a community has already had its infrastructure weakened by constant flooding, relentless storms, wildfires and scorching heat.

Mitigation is essential to addressing climate change at its root, through phasing out fossil fuel extraction and consumption, reducing production of harmful and polluting materials, and making energy consumption more efficient. But as we witness natural disasters in our own communities, climate adaptation also becomes necessary. Local, state and federal governments must aggressively pursue both mitigation and nature-based climate adaptation policies. They go hand in hand.

If New York were to pursue more nature-based solutions, it would need to take care to implement them equitably, as these proposals often disproportionately benefit wealthy areas able to invest in them, while leaving low-income areas vulnerable. State and local governments must assure low-income areas aren’t left behind with less effective climate adaptation measures.

Proposals to expand natural habitats, wetlands and forests shouldn’t unfairly target low-income or Indigenous communities for dispossession of land, as has been done in the past. Without considerations of the legacies of class inequality, colonialism and environmental racism, marginalized communities are left vulnerable in these proposals. But when done equitably, nature-based solutions not only tackle a wide range of climate issues, but can improve the health and well-being of low-income communities.

The local ecologies in which we exist have evolved over millions of years and are resilient to various natural disasters. As we face a slew of overlapping climate disasters like wildfires, flooding, droughts, biodiversity loss and diminishing water and air quality, our natural environment has a lot to teach us. Nature is not our enemy, but an ally in building just and sustainable societies.

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