From ‘sponge cities’ to beavers: 17 ways to protect against climate change

Flames burn a forest during wildfires near the village of Sykorrahi, near Alexandroupolis town, in the northeastern Evros region, Greece, Aug. 23, 2023
It is unlikely climate emergencies will slow anytime soon as global warming continues - Achilleas Chiras/AP

Climate-related disasters are sweeping the world, leaving destruction in their wake and big questions about what we can do to prevent the next catastrophe.

It is unlikely these emergencies will slow anytime soon as global warming continues.

But while stopping climate change globally remains a huge and daunting challenge, there are many adaptations we should be making now to protect ourselves.

Here are 17 that could make a difference.

1. Paint it white

Scientists have developed a new super white paint – paint so reflective that it can slash household temperatures.

Heat from the sun is absorbed by buildings, warming the inside and leading to an upsurge in power usage to combat it as fans and air conditioning are turned on.

But the new solar reflective paint, made by scientists at Purdue University and containing calcium carbonate particles, can be applied to the roofs and exterior walls of buildings, bouncing back sunlight.

Studies show that surfaces painted with the paint can be up to 12 degrees Celsius cooler.

Think of it as a modern, improved version of the whitewashed towns of southern Europe and the Mediterranean islands.

A stunning view of the waters in Santorini, Greece
White-painted buildings might soon be seen in other countries besides Greece - Richmatts

2. Sponge cities

We’ve seen major floods across the world this summer and improving the rate at which rainwater soaks into the ground is going to be vital as the climate warms.

Sponge cities aim to “depave” as much of the built environment as possible, removing sections of hard paving and replacing it with surfaces that can absorb water like sand, gravel, grass and soil.

It cuts flood risk because water can soak into the ground naturally, rather than causing flash floods on hard streets with inadequate drainage systems.

China has been a global leader in creating sponge cities. In Nanning, in southern China near the Vietnam border, $1.6 billion has been spent on fitting water-absorbent pavements and wetland parts designed to flood safely and absorb water.

3. Resistant crops

The climate crisis will take a heavy toll on crops and global food supply chains unless we act to create more resilient crops and farming systems.

In South Asia, where the majority of the world’s rice is grown, floods cause $1 billion in annual losses. Although rice thrives in wet conditions, it cannot survive if the whole plant is completely submerged.

The issue can be combated by a new rice known as Sub-1 – or “scuba rice” – which is able to survive underwater for up to two weeks and recover once the water has cleared.

At the other end of the spectrum, Southern Africa is undergoing some of its most severe droughts in almost three decades. There, farmers have started planting climate-smart crops, like resilient maize or beans.

A farmer harvests rice crop in a paddy field on the outskirts of Guwahati, India
The majority of the world’s rice is grown In South Asia - Anupam Nath/AP

4. Meandering Rivers

River restoration projects are focusing on “re-meandering” rivers and streams, many of which have been straightened by human development.

Straightened rivers can cause more flooding as water flow is not slowed by natural bends and breaks or diverted to natural floodplains.

River de-straightening is referred to as “Stage Zero” by scientists as it aims to restore rivers to their natural state, long before human development changed their course.

The restoration can be applied to areas where there is room to release smaller streams into valley bottoms and floodplains, creating wetland habitats and preventing flooding in urban areas.

5. More beavers

The reintroduction of beavers in some parts of the UK has been shown to alleviate downstream flood risk.

Beavers are dam builders, and the barriers can increase water storage on a floodplain and slow river flow. They can reduce peak discharge during heavy rainfall by up to 30 per cent.

Another way beavers can help the environment is by spreading out water over a larger area, meaning nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates and other pollutants can be stripped out, leading to better downstream water quality.

6. Floating cities

Rising sea levels are threatening communities on low-lying land, especially in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Last week it emerged that residents of the Caribbean island of Carti Sugtupu and dozens of neighbouring settlements are set to be moved to Panama as the sea is set to engulf it.

French Polynesia could soon have the first-ever floating city. The project would see a cluster of buoyant dwellings, showcasing innovations in solar power, sustainable aquaculture, and ocean-based wind farms.

The idea is to build a semi-autonomous community at sea, offering homes for up to 300 people as the government seeks solutions for its sinking islands.

The government of French Polynesia signed an historic agreement that allows the development of the first floating city in a lagoon off its most populated island of Tahiti.
A design for French Polynesia’s first floating city in a lagoon off its most populated island, Tahiti - The Seasteading Institute

7. Functional faeces

Artificial whale poo could be a surprising way to restore the world’s oceans.

Whale faeces, rich in nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, help to fertilise the ocean’s upper waters, proving the starting point for marine food chains.

The aim is to provide nutrients in areas where concentrations are low. It will stimulate the growth of organisms like phytoplankton, which can take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or build up fish stocks.

Studies on the benefits it can bring to ocean ecosystems have taken place off the west coast of India.

8. Bury power lines

Extreme weather in the United States over the last few years has repeatedly left millions of Americans without power.

Hurricane Ida damaged or toppled more than 22,000 pylons and 26,000 cables when it hit Louisiana and the East Coast in 2021.

But a simple technique could be used to fix the problem.

Burying power lines means this infrastructure is less vulnerable to hurricanes. In Texas, a study found that strategically burying just 5 per cent of power lines could halve the number of affected residents in an extreme weather event.

Burying power lines can also reduce the cables sparking and causing forest fires.

A barge damages a bridge that divides Lafitte, La., and Jean Lafitte, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida
A barge-damaged bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida - David J. Phillip/AP

9. Let it burn

Warmer weather increases the likelihood and severity of forest fires. Yet, according to experts, perfectly protecting forests could cause more damage than good.

Natural wildfires periodically clear surface vegetation so that there is less material to burn when fires do occur.

Before western settlement, much of the yellow pine and mixed conifer forests of America’s West Coast experienced fires around once a decade. Now, most of these forests have not burned since the early 20th century.

If we were to reduce the amount of vegetation that acts as fuel, we could make sure that fires burn less intensely and have a smaller negative impact on mature trees, wildlife, human property, and human health.

Experts say we should also stop the widespread practice of building housing developments in forested areas that are at risk from fire.

The smoke from a fire in a forest area approaches houses at the Cacau Pirera District in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil
Experts say we should no longer build housing developments in forested areas at risk from fire - MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images

10. Urban trees

Planting trees along roadsides in towns and cities can significantly reduce temperatures by creating shade.

Investigations have found that increasing tree coverage from the European average of 14.9 per cent to 30 per cent in urban areas could lower the temperature by 0.4 Celsius.

Although this seems marginal, it could cut heat-related deaths by 39.5 per cent as southern cities will notice more of a temperature difference, according to an international team of researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.

The cities most likely to feel the benefit are those in southern and eastern Europe, where summer temperatures are highest and tree coverage is lower than the rest of the continent.

11. Ventilated housing

Building sustainable ventilation in homes can play a crucial role in mitigating climate change.

It can promote a healthier environment for you to live in by preventing the buildup of pollutants, reducing moisture-related issues, and reducing the risk of respiratory problems or other health issues associated with poor air quality.

Natural ventilation is also better for your pocket. A passive system reduces a building’s total energy usage by averting the need for air conditioning, lessening your carbon footprint.

It is also important in a warming world for houses to be properly insulated.

12. Cholera vaccines

As climate change causes extreme weather events like floods, droughts and cyclones, new outbreaks of cholera are being triggered.

Cases of cholera reported to WHO in 2022 were more than double those in 2021. Forty-four countries reported cases, a 25 per cent increase from the 35 countries that reported cases in 2021.

A global strategy of making more vaccines and ensuring that the vulnerable are protected is the key way to combat this climate-related flare-up.

A similar approach will be needed for many other infectious diseases, especially those carried by mosquitoes which are exploiting climate change.

Modester Patrick holds the hand of her son at a temporary cholera treatment centre at Bwaila District hospital in Lilongwe
Malawi was hit by the deadliest cholera outbreak in the country's history this year

13. Rapid warnings

Early warning systems are considered a “low-hanging fruit” for climate change adaptations.

They are a relatively low-cost and effective way of protecting people from the hazards of storms, floods, heatwaves and forest fires.

These systems can track the paths of cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes at sea before they make landfall. The severity of droughts can also be tracked and the progress of floods monitored.

In the UK, a text-based government warning system was introduced in April for emergency events, including extreme weather, and many other countries have the same.

In developing countries, which can be much more vulnerable to extreme weather events, they are much less widespread, however.

14. Shore up sea defences

Climate change is already having a considerable impact on our coastline.

There are around 520,000 homes in England in areas at risk of coastal flooding and 8,900 homes are at risk of being lost to coastal erosion.

Often, it’s not worth building sea walls and other defences, but in some cases saving land is possible.

Barriers can be made out of concrete, stone, asphalt or wood and high revetments can be designed to stop waves from overtopping the defence.

There are also more creative ways to stop the swell of the sea. In St Andrews, Christmas trees have been buried within dunes and marram grass planted on top in order to reinforce them against the tide.

15. Communal cool rooms

Making sure people have a cool place to shelter from heat waves can reduce heat-related illness or death and reduce personal energy usage.

These centres can be specifically designed for large communities as safe locations with plenty of water and air conditioning, or older buildings can be adapted to do the same job.

This summer cities across China opened the doors of their air raid shelters to offer residents some relief as scorching heat swept the country.

The shelters were equipped with seating areas, offering access to water, heat stroke medicine and amenities like WiFi, television and table tennis equipment.

Several towns and cities in the United States and Europe also have designated communal cooling rooms when temperatures surge.

People escape summer heat at an air-raid shelter on July 10, 2022 in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province of China
People escape the intense summer heat at an air-raid shelter re-purposed as a ‘cool room’ in Nanjing, Jiangsu - VCG via Getty Images

16. Modern methods for ancient styles

As thousands of buildings crumbled during the earthquakes in Morocco earlier this month, one thing was clear: the buildings were not strong enough.

Many of these buildings, as well as some of those wiped out by flooding in Libya, were made from mud bricks and rammed earth – an ancient building method used across the world.

They have what experts call “seismic vulnerability”. Many have not been retrofitted for earthquakes and others have received inadequate maintenance.

Now, engineers are testing a range of new methods to combat this, from timber reinforcements to using 3D printers to embed these structures with stabilising fibres.

17. Maintaining dams and infrastructure

Storm Daniel, also known as Cyclone Daniel, was the deadliest Mediterranean cyclone in recorded history.

When the storm hit in Derna, Libya, it is estimated to have killed between 4,000 and 10,000, though the exact toll may never be officially confirmed.

The dams above Derna had not been maintained properly to withstand such an event after two of them collapsed and swept away large parts of the port city.

Stronger dams would have prevented the water from sweeping through homes and causing them to collapse, sweeping people out to sea.

Officials say a key way to prevent such a disaster is to examine and reinforce existing structures, safe proofing them for the extreme weather of the future.

In the UK the Toddbrook Reservoir Dam, the tallest in Britain, bowed to intense rainfall in 2019 following the failure of its auxiliary spillway. Works costing £15m are now underway to repair the damage.

An RAF Chinook helicopter flies in sandbags to help repair the dam at Toddbrook reservoir near the village of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire
An RAF Chinook helicopter flies in sandbags to help repair the dam at Toddbrook reservoir - Danny Lawson/PA

Can you think of other adaptations for dealing with the impacts of climate change? Email the GHS team at

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