By Eric W. Sanderson and Jane Carter Ingram
Since we last celebrated Earth Day a year ago, 29 states have experienced 99 Federal disaster declarations. Fires, floods, mudslides, hurricanes, and tornadoes have devastated the United States, causing billions of dollars of damage, destroying thousands of homes, and up-ending people’s lives.
Thus this Earth Day it seems fitting to ask: How can we make America more resilient to future natural hazards that may increase in intensity and frequency in the future?
First, we need to remember that disasters aren’t just bad luck, but the result of bad planning. Not only has climate change made us more vulnerable to nature’s vagaries, but outdated plans and short-minded development patterns have put people and infrastructure in harm’s way and undermined the ability of natural ecosystems to help protect us.
The destruction of salt marshes, a century of misconceived fire suppression, and housing developments built athwart floodplains, have all exacerbated the damage caused by recent disasters.
Second, to make better decisions we need to act as if there is a future to our country. Too often in American history we have focused on meeting the demands of today without consideration of the needs of tomorrow. The Haudenosaunee people of New York had a tradition of considering any decision with respect to its effects on seven generations – two past and five future.
This is an important role of government, but difficult to fulfill amidst short-term politics that are driven more by partisanship than the desire to meet the needs of both present and future citizens. In short, we need to adopt a politics where the future matters.
Third, the future depends on making economic decisions that reflect the full and true costs and benefits. Traditional measures of economic progress like GDP focus only on income while missing major costs associated with environmental harm. Over-exploitation of fish and wildlife, contamination of water, changes to the climate, loss of pollinators, and destruction of wetlands all represent major costs to society.
Carbon pricing, which captures the costs of climate change on society, is an obvious example. It can diminish the attractiveness of fossil fuels while promoting clean alternatives, making the economy and the environment work more efficiently to our benefit.
Economic incentives for environmental stewardship are another example that can work to meet both present and future needs. The city of New York has implemented such an approach by compensating rural property-owners upstream of the city for implementing land management practices that support clean water for downstream urban residents.
This program has generated clean water, supported better environmental practices, and saved the government from building a new water treatment facility that would have cost billions of tax-payer dollars.
These are the challenges of our time. Past generations of Americans destroyed pernicious slavery, fought fascism to a standstill, and out-competed Soviet style communism. Terrorist attacks and economic collapse have been the hallmarks of the early 21st century, but they are nothing compared to the havoc that can be wreaked by Mother Nature.
Fire, floods, and tempests don’t have to destroy us. America resilient means becoming the land of the free and the brave and the wise.
Eric W. Sanderson is a senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and the author of “Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs” (Abrams, 2013). J. Carter Ingram is the lead for ecosystem services at the Wildlife Conservation Society and editor of “Integrating Ecology and Poverty Reduction” (Springer, 2012).