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President Biden: Call for ecosystem restoration

FILE – President Joe Biden speaks during a session on Action on Forests and Land Use, during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 2, 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool, File)

As weather disasters increase across the United States, communities are finding they need to become more resilient. But where should they begin?

The answer is the same almost everywhere. With a bit of sweat equity, communities can restore local ecosystems that protect people and property from extreme weather, fires and rising seas. Many of those assets have been ignored, degraded or destroyed but they are the low-hanging fruit for improving resilience. And with little effort, the Biden administration can help.

Nature works

Healthy ecosystems can reduce flood damage, block the energy of storm surges, lower temperatures during heat waves, purify and recharge groundwater, reduce pressure on stormwater systems, prevent erosion, increase soil fertility and more. Yet, they are often taken for granted or sacrificed for economic development, urbanization and agriculture.

In 2014, researchers estimated ecosystem services worldwide were worth as much as $125 trillion in 2011. Unfortunately, human activity destroyed natural systems worth more than $20 trillion annually from 1997 to 2011. Estimates specific to the United States are harder to come by, but the Biden administration has launched a process to fix this by adding nature’s value to America’s economic accounting system.

In the meantime, there are anecdotal data. For example, scattered estimates indicate land uses such as forests, wetlands and green spaces provided more than $400,000 in annual benefits per acre last year. In 2015, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill determined that fixing ecosystems, often in response to federal environmental regulations, created a “restoration economy” that added $24.5 billion annually to America’s GDP and employed more than 220,000 workers. Now, that subsector itself needs restoration due to former President Donald Trump’s rollback of more than 100 environmental regulations.

The ‘fixables’

What are some examples of lost but recoverable ecosystem services?

  • Wetlands: Urban development and agriculture have drained more than half of America’s wetlands. Restoring them would help filter and recharge depleted underground aquifers while allowing rivers to spread out and slow during floods.
  • Woodlands: Forests once covered half of the lands that became the United States. They stored carbon, cooled the Earth’s surface and held rain where it fell. By 1910, many forests had been cleared. So far this year, more than 51,600 wildfires have burned more than 6.8 million acres in the United States. Some fires are so hot that forests need help to recover.
  • Grasslands: Only half of the original Great Plains grasslands remain today. Experts say the loss continues at an alarming rate. Grasslands purify groundwater, store carbon and provide habitat for wildlife, including the pollinators that make much of our food production possible. Rotational grazing keeps grasslands healthy.
  • Soils: Soils absorb and hold carbon but release it when disturbed. Cultivated soils have released as much as 70 percent of their original carbon in some locations. No-till farming, perennial crops, biochar additives, cover crops and other “regenerative agriculture” practices help soils retain carbon and fertility.
  • Rivers: More than 250,000 rivers snake through the United States, totaling about 3.5 million miles. Floods, the most common and expensive weather disaster, cost the country about $32 billion annually. They are becoming more frequent and destructive. More than 40 million Americans are at risk of flooding, many living below risky dams and behind levees that have exceeded their design lifespan and were not built to hold back today’s heavier rains. Localities can reduce flood damage with “sponge city” strategies like more green spaces and permeable surfaces instead of concrete and asphalt. But the best solution is to move people and property out of floodplains so that nature can take over to slow and absorb flood waters.
  • Urban-wildland interface: In the American West, more than 16 million homes are located in fire-prone interfaces between wildlands and cities. Nationwide, 80 million properties are “at some degree” of wildfire risk, according to the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group. Smart zoning, building codes, and management of “home ignition zones” can reduce wildfire losses and the destruction of forests critical to carbon sequestration.
  • Urban heat islands: More than 80 percent of us experienced heat waves last year. The First Street Foundation estimates more than 8 million Americans will be confronted by temperatures above 125 degrees Fahrenheit in 2023. Shade trees and greenery combined with energy efficiency improvements in buildings reduce heat-related illnesses and deaths.
  • Coastal lands: Thirty states have ocean, Gulf Coast, or Great Lakes coastlines where erosion, storm surges and rising water levels are risks. Public and private partnerships are at work restoring reefs, coastal wetlands, barrier islands and other natural features that buffer shorelines from waves and storm surges. More are needed.

Climate migration

About four in 10 Americans lived in counties hit by climate-related weather disasters last year; more than 14.5 million homes were affected. These are only the early signs of climate change. Researchers predict millions of Americans will move to safer locations in the decades ahead. The migration has already begun with nearly one-third of Americans who moved during the first half of this year citing climate change as the reason.

However, the human risks of global warming are still growing in America because more people are moving into high-risk places than out of them. Redfin, a real-estate firm, reports that “counties with the largest share of homes facing high heat, drought, fire, flood and storm risk saw their populations grow from 2016-2020 due to migration.”

There is no national strategy or policy to guide climate migration, either by discouraging Americans from moving into harm’s way or encouraging them to relocate to places in need of population growth. Nor is there a coherent national program for resilience-enhancing ecosystem restoration. But with his bully pulpit and existing federal assets, President Biden could do the following:

  1. In partnership with AmeriCorps, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and other stakeholders, launch a 10-year grassroots campaign to restore America’s vital ecosystems, emphasizing local resilience and carbon sequestration.
  2. Direct the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to develop a website that provides a single point of access to the many programs and tools scattered across the federal government to help restore and protect ecosystems. Direct agencies to make these programs as accessible and hassle-free as possible.
  3. Task the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct online training for local officials and organizations on the tools available to identify, evaluate and prioritize damaged ecosystem services.

Putting nature back to work would have national as well as local benefits, including bringing people together in a common cause. For that reason alone, Biden should make this big and do it soon.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director and special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. He is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop federal policy proposals on climate change and the clean energy transition. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags Biden biden administration Climate change Conservation Donald Trump extreme weather Global warming Natural disaster

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