At the end of this month, the world’s attention will turn to South Africa and the 17th Climate Change Conference of the Parties (or as we have come to know it COP17). While much of this attention will be focused on the negative impacts and uncertainties of climate change and the seemingly endless negotiations around carbon and who can and can’t emit it, on the side-lines of the event there appears to be a groundswell of more positive messages of hope and practical solutions. These messages are not based on denialism or wishful thinking, but on some really innovative thinkers who are taking the impacts of climate change very seriously and trying to work out what can be done to help societies and economies cope with these impacts.
We have seen some early signs of this “adaptation” thinking at previous COPs in the form of appeals for investments in drought resistant crops, sea walls, new methods of disease control and desalinisation plants. However, Durban will be the launch pad for some uniquely “South African style adaptation thinking.” Thinking that is based on our country’s wealth of natural resources – or to coin a phrase: ecological infrastructure. Ecological infrastructure includes structures like wetlands which soak up water like sponges, slowing down water and preventing floods; coastal dunes which buffer coastal communities from sea storms; and grasses and shrubs which allow rain to percolate into the deep soil and slowly feed into rivers in dry times.

In the past this infrastructure was easily overlooked, but as extreme events like floods, fires and coastal storms become more commonplace so this ecological infrastructure and its role in helping us cope with climate change moves centre stage. Real-world examples of this innovative thinking will be present at many of the side events of the COP as the business and public sector showcase the role of ecological infrastructure in managing climate change risks from local to global scales. So for those of you jaded by the hot air of climate change negotiations – take a stroll around the side events and exhibitions and inhale a long deep breath of inspiration offered by this unique blend of human and natural ingenuity.
Dr Belinda Reyers is a Chief Scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Stellenbosch, South Africa where she is leads the Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services Research Group. She is an extraordinary Associate Professor in the Department of Conservation, Ecology and Entomology at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
She is also a Board Member of the Society for Conservation Biology: Africa Section, a Steering Committee member of DIVERSITAS, co-chair of GEOBON’s working group on ecosystem services, an Associate Editor for the journal Animal Conservation and an Editor for Conservation Letters.

– By Chief Scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Belinda Reyers.