Stories spinning out of the climate change industry focus mostly on extraordinary technological marvels. Textured glass solar tiles. Towering wind turbines. Expansive biofuel farms. Sleek green buildings. It's all very impressive.
But while Muskian mind-blowing inventions produce captivating stories, smaller companies are busy with innovations of their own. And their quiet revolutions within local communities are likely to have as substantial an impact on what climate-aware design, construction, and development looks like in the real world as any technologist's dream.
Flipping the Script
"While politicians continue to the debate the semantics of climate change, coastal communities are already seeing its impacts--increased tidal flooding, shoreline erosion, degraded water quality--forcing them to account, right now, for the future costs of a changed climate."
That's Wayne Cobleigh, vice president at GZA GeoEnvironmental, a consulting firm with more than 600 employees across 25 offices. Headquartered just outside Boston, GZA sits at the heart of one of the most threatened coastal regions in North America. Villages, cities, and states like Cobleigh's aren't sitting still. They're inverting the traditional structure to get ahead of what their individual communities require.
"The historical approach has been to use disaster relief money to improve infrastructure. Say a storm surge breaches the wall, local infrastructure is threatened, federal dollars arrive, and the necessary work gets done," says Cobleigh. "That doesn't work anymore. We can't wait for the disaster to arrive. We've got work to do now."
So local adaptation plans are emerging--and fast. Starting with dynamic models that evaluate flooding vulnerabilities, these plans might lead to increasing the height of sea walls or restoring coastal floodplains. Perhaps relocating essential infrastructure or elevating institutional or residential structures or rehabilitating reefs.
A multitude of local, state, and regional players are emerging to lead the response to these climate exigencies. And as they do, local consulting firms, regional engineering companies, and financial organizations (like GZA) are stepping up, too, with creative solutions for how to plan for, design, and construct these adaptation and resiliency projects. And, perhaps most importantly, how to fund them.
That's where the innovation story begins.
Solving for How
"We're past the Why," says Ruth Nixon Peabody's Boston office, where she leads the Climate Change team. "Hurricane Sandy was a game-changer; everyone saw the reason we had to get serious about this work. And we're pretty close on the What. We've got many inventive firms who are coming up with remarkable design, technology, and architecture solutions. What we have to work on now is the How."Silman, managing partner of
The How is the money question. Where does the funding originate? How do these essential projects--to protect communities, to build new infrastructure, to redevelop in ways that ensure the resiliency of a community post-event--secure the financial resources required to bring them to life?
One thing's for sure: "The current investment scheme isn't going to work. We know that," says Daniel Stapleton, senior principal at GZA. "There just aren't enough public dollars to fund what communities need. And that gap will only increase. What we're doing now is getting creative: connecting the institutional investors and their access to capital with the users of that money. That user could be a municipality, a state, an individual entity. But to make that connection, we have to build new financial products."
Those new financial products are top of GZA's mind. They're collaborating with politicians, regional banks, investment firms, policy institutes, and even competitors, to bring a new kind of financial product to life: the Resilience Bond.
The idea is simple. If you're a governor or a mayor or a city council, you can already purchase insurance coverage for catastrophic events (think: disaster bonds or catastrophe bonds). What if you linked those investments with infrastructure spends that had resilience in mind (think: those sea walls or restored floodplains above), thus reducing losses from natural disasters? Capture the future savings, apply that performance value as a rebate, invest it in resilient infrastructure projects, and voila: a new product for an exigent time.
Sound hypothetical? Think again. Here's GC Securities: "These insurance-linked securities are aiming to achieve a social good, deepening the pool of capital so that communities can respond. But this is also really interesting in terms of the diversification benefit that the insurance-linked securities asset class offers. Just look at the financial crisis of 2008, when markets dramatically downturned. Every asset class had a similar dip. But catastrophe bonds? They did not. If you'd been a consistent investor in the space, even now, after the recovery, you'd be outperforming the rest of the market."Rhodri Lane, vice president of
That opportunity is why GZA is funding research and hosting broad-based conversations around this idea. Why they're facilitating roundtables that include competitors, seating panels that include unexpected voices, sponsoring conference programming that seeks to build the instruments required to fund the future.
While technologists win the headlines, a different kind of climate change innovation is getting done in the shadows, in the thicket of policy and complex finance, and on the front lines of towns and beaches and cities. Stories like GZA's are tales of collective innovation happening, and they're a model for local or regional businesses ready to create value in fresh ways during uncertain times.
And as Cobleigh says, there's only one way to do it.
"This is a team effort. We tend to retreat to our comfort zones as practitioners, and solve the problems we see day to day," Cobleigh says. "But this problem crosses all disciplines. It won't be solved by an engineer or an architect or an investor, each on her own. This is about finding the right people in policy or finance or insurance or wherever who have this same focus, and bringing them to the table, so that the ideas take wing."