A Race Against Time to Rescue a Reef From Climate Change

A Race Against Time to Rescue a Reef From Climate Change

As soon as the port reopened, they sped to the areas of the reef where they had spent the most time on repairs. Parts were so battered that Dr. García Rivas had trouble recognizing where she was.

“I felt powerless,” she said, “confused by so much disaster.” But closer inspection showed that while the reef’s periphery was a mess, some of their work in the center had withstood the second hurricane. “When I saw the fragments that we had glued still standing in place, I had a feeling of hope,” she said.

They got to work again.

Back in 2015, Kathy Baughman McLeod, who was then director of climate risk and resilience at the Nature Conservancy, asked a profound question: Could you design an insurance policy for a coral reef?

On its face, the idea might have seemed absurd. For starters, nobody owns a reef, so who would even buy the policy? And it’s not easy assessing the damage to something that’s underwater.

But Ms. Baughman McLeod, along with Alex Kaplan, then a senior executive at Swiss Re, a leading insurance company, came up with workarounds. First, the policy could be purchased by those who benefit from the reef — in this case, the state of Quintana Roo, which is also home to Cancún and Tulum and has a tourism economy estimated at more than $9 billion.

“Without that reef, there’s no beach,” Mr. Kaplan said. “Without that beach, there’s no tourists.”

Second, rather than basing the payout on reef damage, it could be triggered by something far easier to measure: The storm’s wind speed. The stronger the wind, the worse the assumed damage to the reef.

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