Dr. Michael W. Beck leads groundbreaking research at the intersection of ecology, engineering, and economics. He is the AXA Chair in Coastal Resilience and a Research Professor in the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, where he works on marine conservation across science, business, and policy to bring clear tools and results to decision-makers. With a focus on building coastal resilience and reducing risks to people, property and nature, Mike has collaborated with governments, conservation groups, the World Bank, and giants of the global insurance and risk management industries to measure the benefits of coastal ecosystems. His research is strengthening the economic argument for investment in the protection and restoration of coastal ecosystems. Mike was previously with The Nature Conservancy, where he served as Lead Marine Scientist for 20 years.
When it comes to determining the economic value of the protection offered by coastal ecosystems, what is the state of the science?
The science is strong. In terms of our ability to value ecosystem services very rigorously, the protective service of coastal habitats is among the very best. We are using industry standard approaches to be able to value the benefits for flood protection.
Speaking of industry standard approaches, I understand that in measuring the coastal protection services offered by natural habitats, you use the “expected damage function” approach. What is that?
We are using the same methods that FEMA or engineers use to evaluate whether or not a seawall provides protection. You can call it the “expected damage function” or “averted damages approach,” but basically what we do is run probabilistic flood models. We look at different potential flood events, including the one-in-10-year, one-in-25-year, and on-in 100-year event, and ask, “With all conditions as they are right now, if these habitats were not there, how much worse would flooding be?” With a one-in-100-year flood, for example, we would be looking at maps with two different flood envelopes. We would see that with habitats, flooding is less, and without habitats, more people and property get flooded. We then look at the difference between those two mapped areas, and basically, the people and property between those lines represent the people and property benefiting from keeping those habitats in place.
Generally speaking, what have you learned about the cost effectiveness and sustainability of nature-based shoreline approaches to protecting shorelines versus conventional solutions, like seawalls and embankments?
We—and by “we” I mean those of us at the Coastal Resilience Lab at UC Santa Cruz and our partners as well as others working on ecosystem-based adaptations—have been able to show, first and foremost, that these solutions can be an effective part of risk reduction. We have also shown that nature-based solutions offer many additional services and benefits, from carbon sequestration to fishing, tourism, and much more. We also know that nature-based solutions can be particularly cost effective to implement, while a lot of built infrastructure solutions are very expensive to implement.
There are certain instances where built infrastructure may be the only option. For example, say you need to provide a nuclear power plant with absolute protection from a 100-year event, only a very tall seawall may be able to do that. But really, those instances are not all that common. What we should be doing much more of is incorporating nature-based solutions as a part of our overall strategy for reducing risk. No one measure alone will make you ultimately safe, but all of them together will make you safer.
When it comes to the economic value of the flood protection services of coastal ecosystems, you and your colleagues are really getting down to real, impactful numbers. (You have shown, for example, that coastal wetlands reduced damages from Superstorm Sandy by $625 million*, and that mangroves averted similar damages from Hurricane Irma.) How is this information being communicated to the public, and is it sparking any changes in policy to make these approaches easier to implement?
*Dr. Beck is currently working with RMS to follow up on this research. He indicates that the final dollar values will change a little initial report.
Yes, we’ve been able to put some really rigorous numbers onto these benefits, and that really has helped a lot in the outreach and implementation of nature-based solutions. People had assumed that these natural systems offered some protective benefits, and they might have talked about those benefits in very loose terms, but that doesn’t drive investment from the private sector, insurers, or even FEMA. In terms of spending on coastal protection, FEMA is a huge source, but they spent very little on green infrastructure in the past. At best, only one to two percent of the $50 billion FEMA spent after Superstorm Sandy was directed toward natural habitats and building coastal resilience naturally.
Now that we can put more real numbers out there, that is beginning to change. For example, FEMA has actually been changing some of its policies for benefit cost analyses, explicitly to make it easier to include nature in hazard mitigation and recovery funding. The Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering with Nature program uses our value work all the time, in defending and promoting nature-based approaches. The California Insurance Commissioner’s Office is now using our work as a basis to look for new opportunities to align insurance and nature based-adaptation. These are just a few of the examples.
We do try to get our word out to the public. One of the studies that we did on the value of US. coral reefs for flood risk reduction ($1.8 billion annually) was reported on in 180 different newspapers, includes those in states in the heartland where you wouldn’t think people would care about coral reefs.
When you were with the Nature Conservancy, you helped conceive and develop the first ever insurance product to protect coral reefs from storm damage. The buyer of that product was the Coastal Zone Management Trust, which was set up by the state government of Quintana Roo, Mexico and others. The insurance payout is based on wind speed. How did that product come to be and what did it take to bring it to the market?
We started some of this work back in 2014. The original basis for this product was some of the work that we did showing that coral reefs can reduce 97% of wave energy, even during extreme events. We looked at a map and wondered, “Where are these reefs likely providing the greatest benefits?” The Mesoamerican reef, particularly along the coast of Mexico, was a no-brainer. It is the second largest barrier reef in the world, it’s very close to shore, and it’s right in front of significant coastal development—hotels, tourism, and the like—that serves as the economic lifeblood of that region. So that seemed like a very obvious place to start.
The Conservancy then began engaging in discussions with the government and hotel owners. Hotel owners had already begun banding together because they were facing a problem where huge amounts of Sargasso seaweed were washing up on the beaches. The hotel owners realized that they couldn’t address the problem alone, so they formed a business association. Because they were already gathering together, we were able to talk with them collectively about the value of reefs to the region. Then we brought Swiss Re Group, the second largest reinsurance company in the world, into the discussion. When we showed everyone Swiss Re’s interest, we could begin to say, “Hey, you really ought to be protecting your reef.”
[This video by the the California Academy of Sciences shows the coral reef wave model Dr. Beck’s team developed for Mexico and the insurance work.]
And how is that product working?
Well, Hurricane Delta pounded that region, and while it’s very unfortunate that it did, the insurance was in place and it is paying out to help the reef recover. Local people are also being put to work to essentially grab corals that have been broken off, reattach them where they can, or get them into nurseries where they can grow and be planted later.
Last month, the multinational insurance firm AXA released the report produced in collaboration with UC Santa Cruz and The Nature Conservancy on the feasibility of creating a mangrove insurance product in the Caribbean. Will we see such a product in the near future?
I’m an ecologist by training. If you had told me, six or seven years ago, that most of my lab would be coastal engineers and that I would be spending more time with insurers than ecologists, I would have thought you were crazy. But it really has been an extremely enjoyable group of partners. I am somebody who wants to both learn and bring new ideas to the table to help conserve these habitats and reduce risks for people, so this work has been very gratifying. With AXA, we were able to look Caribbean-wide (including Florida) for places where there might be favorable returns on investment in mangrove restoration. Which speaks both to what we should be putting into restoration now in management and where there’s real value in ensuring that we keep those mangroves in place. We identified 20 countries, territories, and states across the Caribbean where there are lots of cost-effective opportunities for investing and insuring investments in mangrove restoration.
Do we expect there to be policies and insurance products around mangroves? Definitely. Mangroves are pretty cheap to restore, all things considered, and they grow like weeds. After all, we’re talking about a tropical/subtropical plant sitting with its knees in saltwater, and almost nothing competes with it. If we just give it half a chance, you can see it growing up around cities like Miami, Havana, and Nassau in the Bahamas. It does really well, even in urban environments.
Mangroves also sit in front of really important public infrastructure. For example, many of our airports in these coastal areas were built in the lowest, flattest places, which usually meant mangrove habitat. So they often destroyed mangroves, but they’re fronted by the remaining mangroves and they could have more. Many other facilities, such as ports, water treatment facilities, and power plants, are also on the coast, and in most instances, they have mangroves around them.
[This video, Dr. Beck describes some of this work.]
Collaboration seems absolutely critical to the work that you’re doing, and you seem to do it well. How do you approach collaboration?
A very typical approach for this kind of work would be for us, as ecologists or as conservationists, to use our models to figure out how important reefs and wetlands are for coastal protection and come back and try to convince stakeholders and decision makers about our results.
One of the most important things we did was say no to that approach. We chose to first go to the engineers and insurance agencies and ask, “What models do you use? Do you include nature in your models?” Often the response was either, “No, not really” or “Our clients never asked us that before, but we could.”
Then we did the really hard work of trying to integrate habitat into their models, so that at the end of the day, the results are theirs, not ours. Because this work uses their industry standard models, the pickup has been much greater. This takes a lot of collaboration, and a lot of listening. Understanding the models that our partners use is so important.
In doing this work, you’re having to assess the costs of coastal ecosystem restoration. Are you seeing those costs changing as the restoration practice matures?
I definitely think we are. Take mangroves, for example. Right now mangrove restoration is done at very large scales in Southeast Asia. If we compare the costs of mangrove restoration in southeast Asia versus say, the Caribbean, they are at one 10th of the cost in Southeast Asia. That is partly due to labor costs, , but it is also much more than that. It’s economies of scale. You’re talking about projects that might be 10,000 hectares, whereas most of the Caribbean or Florida projects are hectares to tens of hectares. I think as we get into larger projects, and more of them, we should expect to see some of the kinds of economies of scale that we’ve seen in southeast Asia.
Insurance is not the only viable form of financial incentive for nature-based solutions for coastal protection. You and colleagues from Italy, Australia, the UK, and Singapore wrote an article that will appear in the Annual Review of Marine Science in which you identify several others. In addition to insurance, what other financing instruments hold promise for advancing implementation of nature-based approaches to urban shoreline protection?
If you follow the money, you need to be looking at disaster recovery. That really is the biggest game in town. As ecologists and conservationists, we need to follow this money for two reasons. First, when you’re talking about amounts like $50 billion after Superstorm Sandy or $100 billion after the 2017 hurricane season…that has the potential to transform coastlines. Things that we might have been working on for 20 years—whether policy or on the ground projects—can suddenly start happening.
Second, if you’ve ever followed recovery funding, anybody who ever wanted to build a seawall and put some really hideous development right behind it is right there in line for recovery funding. We need to protect ourselves sensibly. Full stop. We need to be really careful about dumb investments. We must prevent expensive solutions that would be maladaptive for the future and put more people in harm’s way. We need to devote more of these funds to nature-based solutions that can adapt into the future.
In addition to disaster recovery funding, there is pre-disaster hazard mitigation funding for establishing protections before storms, which would typically be in the budget of public agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers. There are also important opportunities through financial tools such as “green bonds,” which are can be municipal bonds that support natural infrastructure. In California, for example, there have been a number of green bonds, particularly related to improving water quality. We are beginning to see more of those, particularly when there is a mechanism, like flood risk reduction that allows for reductions in insurance and disaster costs, that could allow you to pay back those bonds.
Many of our readers work at the state or municipal level with communities or even individual homeowners. In a paper that was published in Conservation Letters this summer, you and colleagues examined individual homeowners’ attitudes about living shorelines to learn what would motivate them to implement them. What do you consider the most important finding to come out of that research?
The most important finding was that even small incentives could convince homeowners to change from built solutions such as bulkheads, to more natural solutions such as marsh restoration. Bulkheads are very commonly built by coastal landowners. There are lots of reasons why people put them in, but they often think that they help in storm protection. Bulkheads are actually a very poor solution for coastal protection. Once they get a little bit of erosion in a storm, they get undermined and they blow out easily. Homeowners are then often in a situation where they have to decide if they will replace the bulkhead or look for another solution. If bulkheads are all they know, and all they have ever been told will help, they’ll choose to replace the bulkhead. What we learned in our research in Alabama was that if FEMA or a private insurer offered a little bit of incentive to do a marsh restoration instead—and that incentive does not have to be the total cost of the restoration project, but just a signal—that incentive would be enough to convince many coastal landowners.
You have worked all over the US and in many places around the world. When it comes to factoring the true value of coastal ecosystems into decision-making for shoreline protection, what nations/coastal communities are emerging as leaders?
I would put the Dutch first in this regard, but the U.S.—particularly with the U.S. Army Corps Engineering with Nature Program and with FEMA making policy adjustments that makes it easier to incorporate ecosystems into recovery funding—is coming along pretty quickly. Countries like Grenada, Seychelles, Jamaica, Vietnam, and some regions of Indonesia are making great strides too.
Is there one city in particular that stands out as a great model?
If I had to choose one, I would say Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and the mangrove natural areas around there. They’ve been investing a lot in those protections, and they’re hugely valuable.
What have you learned about the potential role of nature-based coastal, protective solutions in advancing environmental justice and helping underserved communities?
This is an area that needs a lot more work. I find it interesting that we are always asked by agencies right off the bat, “Can you tell me dollar amount of these protections? If you can’t tell me the dollar amount, you guys are just throwing around fuzzy logic.” So we knew we had to first solve the dollar value in these risk equations for nature-based solutions. But as soon as we show a dollar value, people say, “Yeah, but what about socially vulnerable people?” And I say, “Yes, thank goodness. Now that industries of finance or disaster recovery agencies will accept these values, let’s start talking about socially vulnerable communities and get to that part of the risk equations.”
If you look at past expenditures, here in the US, we have invested a lot in the protection of beach side properties. That’s because we have very economically valuable properties on that side of a peninsula or barrier island. But whether in New York, New Jersey, or down in Tampa Bay, on the back sides of those peninsulas are lots of wetlands and often lots of underserved communities. We as a nation have not directed a lot of coastal protection money into those kinds of communities, because we’re not valuing how well we’re helping to reduce risks to these underserved communities. We are able to begin incorporating some of those social vulnerability considerations into our analyses, and I do hope that we drive more funds into some of those wetland protections for those back bay communities, and maybe a little less into the beaches.
Do you have an anecdote you could share about the way attitudes can change when the economic value is brought to the table?
About five years ago, we began working on a study [to quantify the economic benefits of coastal wetlands in reducing property damage from storms and flooding in the northeastern U.S.] We were working with Risk Management Solutions (RMS), a top modeler for the whole insurance industry, and we asked them, “Do you guys include habitat in your models?” Their answer at the time was, “No clients ever asked us that before.” They serve thousands of clients, so they looked into it and then said, “Yeah, we incorporate habitats, but we’ve never tried to see how they affect flooding or flood risk in our models.” So, we said, “Let’s do that together. Let’s take situations like Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Irma and work together to figure out some answers using your models.” Since that time, I’ve been approached by people who know about our lab’s nature-based work, but may not know all of our studies, who say, “Hey, did you know that RMS is now marketing some of their work in valuing nature-based solutions?” Yep. We know and we are happy that you’re interested.
Based on what we know at this point, is there one natural coastal ecosystem that shows a greater return on investment than others when it comes to coastal protection?
Mangroves are probably the most cost effective in terms of delivering the most benefits at the least cost. Behind those, it’s a bit hard to tease out which is better between, say, coral reefs and marshes. They are probably somewhat comparable in terms of benefits and costs.
Is there a particularly unsung hero, when it comes to a coastal ecosystem that protects our coasts?
One of the reasons we did work on reefs is that I think people really did not recognize how important they are. If you went, for example, to Southeast Asia and talked to people about mangroves, they get it. They understand that if they lose their mangroves, flooding will worsen. But it is different for reefs. Because reefs are under the water communities don’t see that, “I’m losing my reef out there” and “that’s why flooding got worse.” People don’t really put those things together. The same is true for tourists. If you vacation in the Caribbean, and there’s a lovely surf break in the distance with 14-foot waves, but you’re standing on the beach with a Mai Tai and the water is lapping at your ankles, that’s a coral reef protecting you. So if I had to pick an unsung hero, I’d say it’s reefs. Reefs reduce 97% of wave energy that would otherwise impact coastline, and in our 2018 global analysis, we determined that if you lose just a meter in the height of your reef, the cost of storm damage would double on coral reef coastlines.
What research do you think is most urgently needed to advance progress in these solutions?
The most important is demonstration projects. We really need to do more direct comparisons and demos. I think we know what we are doing in a lot of mangrove and marsh restoration but coral reef restoration for flood risk reduction is really new. We really need some innovations in the methods for that restoration that will meet both conservation and flood risk reduction goals. On the modeling side, one of the questions that we are always asked is, “When will these ecosystems fail in storm events?” It’s one thing to know when are they going to provide benefits, but you also need to identify the conditions under which the mangroves are going to get up rooted or the reefs are going to get so damaged that they’re not providing protections. That is an area that also needs work.
Do you have any words of wisdom, any words of encouragement, specifically for readers of our publication?
I’m really heartened by the number of folks—whether in businesses or agencies—who are really looking at nature-based solutions. People are really interested and willing to explore these solutions, and it is our job, in the conservation ecology community, to meet them halfway. That means understanding what it means to try to offer a flood risk reduction from habitat restoration. If we can get there, we’ll be doing a ton of innovative work together.