Scientists, policy leaders, and insurance experts meet to address climate risks

The Coastal Climate Resilience Symposium held at the Seymour Center focused on integrating nature-based solutions into risk management and insurance

Ricardo Lara
California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara gave opening remarks at the Coastal Climate Resilience Symposium. (Credit: California Department of Insurance)
symposium participants
Symposium participants included (left to right) Jeff King and Stephen Hill from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and UCSC’s Michael Beck and Megan Kelso.
panelists, with ocean in background
Ricardo Lara, California Insurance Commissioner, Fred Keeley, Mayor Santa Cruz, David Maurstad, FEMA Resilience Associate Administrator, and Stephen Hill, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a panel discussion.
group of people on beach in natural reserve
The symposium included a tour of Younger Lagoon Natural Reserve.

The March 16 Coastal Climate Resilience Symposium at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center focused on the role of insurance and nature-based solutions in reducing the risks of flooding and other natural disasters, which are being exacerbated by climate change and rising sea levels.

Coastal scientists, insurance industry experts, and representatives of state and federal agencies came together at the meeting to address challenges and opportunities for building coastal resilience to climate change. The flooding from a levee breach in nearby Pajaro served as a somber reminder of the urgency of the issues they had gathered to discuss.

“There’s been a tendency to think of climate change as a future problem and the impacts as happening elsewhere, but climate change is a here-and-now problem, and we’ve got to start adapting and working to reduce the risks,” said Michael Beck, director of the UCSC Center for Coastal Climate Resilience.

The two-day symposium was a collaboration between UC Santa Cruz, the California Ocean Science Trust, the California Department of Insurance, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Engineering with Nature initiative.

“Science has told us for decades now that nature is a powerful ally in protecting our coasts from climate change impacts," said Liz Whiteman, executive director of the California Ocean Science Trust. “The symposium’s goal was to connect the insurance sector, the scientific community, and decision makers so that they can work in partnership to build climate resilience for California’s coastal communities.”

Shifting the focus of insurance from its familiar role in post-disaster recovery to pre-disaster preparation is a new area of action for researchers and government leaders. In his opening remarks, California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara noted that every county in California has experienced a flood emergency in the past 20 years, and he emphasized the need to provide risk reduction that has community level benefits.

“Climate change is increasing the threat to Californians who can least afford the cost of rebuilding. While we can expand protection for Californians through traditional property insurance, we also need to think creatively about what I call climate insurance to protect entire communities well in advance,” said Commissioner Lara, who issued the first-ever report of the California Climate Insurance Working Group in 2021. “Nature can be our first and best line of defense from climate change, reducing risks and increasing financial protection at the same time.”

Engineering with Nature

Jeff King, the lead for Engineering with Nature at USACE, said collaboration with UC Santa Cruz, including on the development of the International Guidelines on Natural and Nature-Based Features for Flood Risk Management, has helped change how engineers design and work with nature instead of just harnessing it. “We are excited that UCSC has joined the Network for Engineering with Nature partnership and look forward to more great work together on nature-based solutions,” he said.

Beck is a leading expert on the role of coastal habitats in reducing the risk of flooding. He has done extensive work with the insurance industry to put a dollar value on the risk reduction provided by marshes, mangroves, and coral reefs, and his research has demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of habitat restoration projects for coastal flood protection.

“When you can put a dollar value on the protection provided by natural ecosystems, that’s when insurance can get involved,” said Lindsay Judd, senior environmental underwriter at AXA XL.

The symposium brought together key parties to build partnerships and collaborations between different sectors and help speed the integration of nature into risk management and insurance. Participants included officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as experts with the insurance industry and nonprofits such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Conservation International.

Incentivizing Adaptation

In a panel on “Incentivizing Adaptation,” Heather Tallis, assistant director for biodiversity and conservation sciences at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, highlighted efforts to accelerate the use of nature-based solutions across federal agencies laid out in the Biden administration’s Roadmap for addressing climate change.

On a more local level, TNC’s Sarah Heard described a policy brief released that day on the flood reduction benefits of salt marsh restoration in San Francisco Bay, which she worked on with Beck and UCSC graduate student Rae Taylor-Burns. The report, “Valuing the Flood Reduction Benefits of Marsh Restoration,” summarizes the results of a high-resolution study to quantify the flood risk reduction benefits of salt marsh restoration in San Mateo County and to identify where restoration could have the greatest socio-economic impacts in reducing flood risk.

Beck has also been working with the Ocean Risk and Resilience Action Alliance to develop a Coastal Risk Index, which maps flooding along the world’s coastlines to show where communities are most at risk and where nature-based solutions can play a role in reducing this risk. ORRAA’s Chip Cunliffe said the organization is working to develop novel financial products to drive investment in nature-based solutions for ocean and coastal resilience.

Investing in risk reduction and climate adaptation projects before extreme climate events trigger new natural disasters is far more cost-effective than the trillions of dollars spent on disaster recovery efforts, Beck said.

“We’re not yet at a tipping point where nature is being consistently integrated into risk management and insurance, but we are making progress,” he said. “Getting leading risk agencies and insurance firms together to brainstorm transformative new approaches is key to bridging this gap, particularly for our most vulnerable communities in a changing climate.”