A Conversation with Shannon Cunniff

Partnering with Nature Instead of Fighting It: How EDF’s Shannon Cunniff approaches this difficult task with determination, creativity, and joy

Interviewed by Eric Letsinger, Founder and CEO of Quantified Ventures

Shannon Cunniff, Director of Coastal Resilience, Environmental Defense Fund

Shannon Cunniff, Director of Coastal Resilience, Environmental Defense Fund

Shannon Cunniff is the Director of Coastal Resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund. She’s spent the majority of her career convincing people to partner with nature (instead of fighting it) to mitigate the devastating costs and effects of inevitable river and coastal flooding. In her role at EDF, she brought on Quantified Ventures to deploy the Environmental Impact Bond model (EIB) to protect wetlands in coastal Louisiana.

As humans, we seem to be more comfortable taking the “bet” that natural disasters won’t happen to us as opposed to planning for how we’ll best survive them. Despite the seemingly impossible nature of the task, she approaches this difficult work with determination, creativity and joy. Her bravery inspires me to want to better understand what drives her. So we sit down for a chat…

E: What space are you in?
Coastal resilience and getting ahead of disasters. Our nation has a bit of an insane approach if you follow the commonly held definition of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I’ve been involved in flooding (river and coastal) for most of my career. In fact, my master’s thesis was on barrier beach ecology, and there was a “100-year storm” after my initial data collection. It was fascinating to see where and how the beach changed. It was amazing to see what a small difference elevation made to the survival of some plants. It was also amazing to see how fast the vegetated areas recovered. After that same storm, a professor from Rutgers and I drove large sections of the coast. I saw that areas with seawalls didn’t guarantee safety, for example, and that areas where homeowners nurtured their dunes did far better than adjacent properties. I learned early that we can help nature help us.

E: Why did you get into this space?
I like getting people to partner with plants. Seriously, ecosystems can do a lot for humans. Habitat services are undervalued. It also helps if you don’t make humans the enemy.

E: How did you settle in on “coastal resilience” as your main lever to drive positive impact on the planet?
Natural habitats provide storm defenses that are undervalued by humans. Being a strategically focused organization, EDF was thinking ahead about how implementing the 50-year, $50 billion Louisiana Coastal Master Plan will be paid for. Particularly, we were looking to find new ways to fund coastal wetlands restoration, which started us on this journey with Quantified Ventures. Obviously, there are people and industries in Louisiana in vulnerable areas. How can we get them to support wetland restoration? We did an analysis and expert survey of different funding sources on the federal, state, and local level and to identify new tools. EDF has been involved in developing many market-based approaches—green bonds, climate funds, carbon banks —and was on the search for more levers to pull. We decided to build upon Quantified Ventures’ Environmental Impact Bond (EIB) idea during a gathering we hosted for experts in the financing conservation and it rose to the top as the most promising model to advance our coastal resilience mission.

E: What prepared you for this?
My first job out of school was working for the Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District doing coastal and riparian work in southern California. My second job was at EPA headquarters where I oversaw the environmental compliance of the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal water agencies.

There I got an intro to FEMA and the Bureau of Reclamation. During my time at EPA, the “great flood” of 1993 occurred in the Upper Mississippi River basin, which at the time was the a hydrometerological event without precedent in modern times, costing more than $13 billion in damage—which pales in comparison to what we’ve recently been seeing—$108 billion for Katrina, $65 billion for Sandy and as yet untold billions for hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. I worked on the emergency response, but mostly recovery. Starting that fall I worked for a year at the White House, under Clinton, to do a review of the national flood policy. While at the Departments of the Interior and Defense, I continued to work on aspects of flood recovery and floodplain management.

E: How did you come into your current role?
I was showing my son how to use LinkedIn and typed in “water resources floods” and up popped this job at EDF to work on restoration of the Mississippi River Delta to build coastal resilience. That was 6 years ago. Fate.

E: When you came to EDF, finance wasn’t your background. You backed into finance. Tell me about that.
I have no background nor innate love of finance so what was really critical was bringing on in-house expertise and getting comfortable with these topics and vocabulary. It was, it still is, a steep learning curve for me. You don’t have to be a financial whiz to do this stuff, you just need access to the right people and ask the right questions. Sure, this was uncomfortable—finance can be scary and intimidating, but then I found Quantified Ventures and you guys made it accessible…and possible.

E: This will be a good bridge for you. The world of finance has a particular vocabulary.
In my career one of the ways I’ve been successful is partly because I have a degree that is multi-faceted: Geography. What that has afforded me to some degree is to become a universal translator device like on Star Trek. Scotty beam me up!

It’s really important to bridge people and worlds and ideas, to build people’s understanding and a degree of trust, to show that the ideas aren’t quite so scary. We pulled in the right expertise. We hired a Ph.D. economist who has a background in watershed work and valuing ecosystems services and connecting that to humans. This gave us the ability to guide this project and the momentum to move it forward.

E: Why Quantified Ventures?
You broke it down well, Eric! I saw you speak at the “A Community on Ecosystem Services” (ACES) Conference a couple years ago and you convinced me…and a big room full of people too! I was also very interested in the DC Water EIB you helped structure, which I actually knew about it because I’d been working as a volunteer with the Arlington County Environment and Energy Conservation Commission at a time when the region seriously began exploring and implementing green infrastructure in addition to building a water treatment plant for stormwater. When I hear things from multiple sources, I feel like the universe is telling me something and I need to listen. I have learned to listen carefully.

E: How are you fighting the assaults in Washington on the environment and climate change? How are you personally dealing with that and as an EDF employee?
The recent disasters have helped put a spotlight on these issues within EDF and at all branches of government. We briefed our Board a year and a half ago on coastal flooding and disaster impacts. EDF is very interested in moving into this resilience space. We see the economic and social disruption repetitive flooding has. We see this disaster cycle perpetuated—with more effort put into repair than getting ahead of disasters. We recognize the social inequities perpetuated by flooding. We also see that the human response to increased flooding threats could be “let’s throw up more concrete, dike our coasts, levee our rivers, and build seawalls.” But this would be a 19th or 20th century response. We need a 21st century response that recognizes the services we get from healthy, functioning coastal systems.

We want to see a more scientifically and economically rational approach. Why is it that towns can’t get ahead of this disaster cycle? Well, it’s because we all tend to be wildly optimistic and thus willing to gamble about the risk we face. And decisionmakers tend to have many other issues vying for their attention and resources; planning to lessen the impacts of natural disasters is too easily put off.

Government entities are often competing for the same limited pots of money and mitigating hazards and building resilience hasn’t been high on the radar screen. Yet there is an attractive business case for investing in hazard mitigation! A study done for FEMA  showed the return on investment measures that reduce hazards is four to one. In other words, you save $4 in disaster response for every $1 you spend preventing the disaster. From a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense. But this argument has done little to date to affect significant change in federal budget allocation.

E: You have an enormous mission—how do you stay motivated?
I made a personal collage where the center was the photo of a woman pushing a rock up a hill. What does that tell you? I love finding a problem and solving it. I’m not daunted.

E: Are you making progress?
In my mind, not enough. Especially when we have these massive storm events and I see all these people really hurting and feel these impacts were preventable or at least could have been lessened. Until recently, I had been feeling rather down and out about my ability to attract funding to address these issues. Getting the Nature Conservancy’s NatureVest Conservation Investment Accelerator Grant last summer was a real shot in the arm. And it’s helped put us on the map. I’m more optimistic about the future.

E: How do you help cities and states think about and plan for uncertain, periodic events like storms? In your conversations with leaders, what are the issues that compel them to take action now on resilience?
It takes a multipronged approach:  

Let’s get people out of harm’s way. People living in homes that have been repeatedly flooded. It hurts the people who live there and hurts the taxpayer. Wherever possible, let’s help people get out of these high hazard flood zones. Offer timely buyouts, or get commitments to be bought out should a storm once again result in damages to a property. Right now, you are lucky if takes less than a year to implement a buyout. We also need more education about risks and the costs they will face if they choose to stay. You have to do it in a way that is seen by folks as benefiting them. We need to remember in their own way buyouts are disruptive to people’s lives. We need to understand what stops them and what motivates people to accept this option.

Other prongs are local zoning and better building codes to avoid and lessen the impacts of flood waters. By proper zoning, you save an awful lot just by not developing in especially risky places. And then there’s insurance to lessen the financial impact of floods and rebound faster.

But dearest to my heart is restoring floodplains and their natural defenses like wetlands, maritime forests, and dunes. You help ecological resilience and you help protect folks further inland. You also create community assets that provide value every day, not just when there’s a flood.   

Let’s do more to motivate, recognize and reward communities that are making progress building their resilience. To do that we need meaningful, community level metrics with which to measure progress.

E: What role can EDF and its partners play in catalyzing resilience investments? What are the biggest challenges in bringing private capital into this space?
I’ve started thinking about the other ways EIBs, Resilience Bonds, and Catastrophe Bonds could be used to catalyze resilience investment. For example, could up-front private financing be used to deliver faster acceptable buyouts? Can EIBs be used to help farming communities adapt to droughts and floods? I think this question is a great topic to get a group of private and blended financing experts together to explore the opportunities. This would be a fun issue to take on. Let’s get a group together!

A big challenge is that avoided costs don’t result in revenue. We need to have ways to pay back investors and demonstrate to governments that a bond can be designed to reduce their costs. That’s why we want to design an EIB for Louisiana. We believe we can demonstrate how cost effective this can be. 

E: How do you stay motivated?
Seek transformational change and celebrate the small, incremental successes. For instance, with this first EIB, it isn’t just about one wetlands area in Louisiana. It’s about all the gulf states, and finding a model that can be replicated in other coastal communities in the United States and across the world, too. We buy into your vision for how this model can unlock stuck challenges like the ones I work on every day.

E: What would you say to future leaders? To people who want to follow a career path similar to yours, protecting the planet?
Four things come to mind. First, I would tell them to tackle a problem. My whole career has been in public service and now, civil society, solving problems and it’s incredibly rewarding.

Learn to distill issues and find root causes and your path to success. For those going the public service route, learn how to write a one-page issue paper. It’s an art form and it’s also really tricky not to lose important nuances. One-pagers are bureaucrats’ Twitter. They can make issues sound simple and they’re not. It’s good to get to brass tacks, but it’s also important to respect the nuance.

The other point I’d make is to encourage future leaders is to go outside of their field and learn a new vocabulary to be able to communicate complex material simply—to get it down to its most meaningful essence—something I continue to try to hone.

And last but by no mean least: listen! You may be a leader, you may be smart, but you aren’t an expert in everything and you haven’t experienced what some folks have experienced. Hear and understand what others are telling you.

E: What are the barriers to innovation?
For me personally, the barriers have been not hitting that right note that results in new funding to allow us to do what we could do. That being said, I’m not giving up. EDF is really excited about this EIB Project and is exploring other ways EIBs might be used to further our goals. After hearing you speak at our retreat last spring, a lot of folks got exciting about the potential of EIBs.

More generally, barriers are…fear of the unknown and fear of change. Doing something different is always threatening to some people. Change is not a comfortable “place” for humans. I learned that in my high school anthropology class—funny what sticks with you. Basically, there’s a lot of inertia. It’s just so much easier for people to go the status quo even when it’s less than acceptable.

Working within the system can help. You have to make protecting and conserving natural habitats financially attractive. You can’t expect it to happen out of the goodness of someone’s heart. It has to fit into our psyche and economic processes. In order to innovate, you have to recognize how cultural and economic structures operate and make them work for you. And that’s what I love about EDF. EDF has been able to find scientifically sound, market-based solutions to solve some of the most intractable environmental problems.

Click here for more information on Quantified Ventures’ work with EDF.

To hear more inspiration and wisdom from Shannon, check out her recent radio interview on “Delta Dispatches.” You can also follow Shannon on Twitter @H2OWITCH.

Eric Letsinger