A report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change – “Adapting to Climate Change: A Business Approach,” makes the case (which I must admit I never questioned) that advance preparation for the impacts of climate change can save money over the cost of absorbing those impacts without any preparation. Isn’t this all taught in Aesop’s Fables and Poor Richard’s Almanac?

The most valuable parts of the report are the screening process it provides for businesses to assess their risks, and its overview of the cascading indirect impacts on infrastructure, utilities, local electricity, transportation and other sectors critical to business operations that tend to be overlooked when people think, “Oh, it’s just going to be hotter.”

The report provides examples of adaptive businesses – enterprise level businesses – but there’s useful information here that applies to small local businesses, too.

Many businesses have taken steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions voluntarily. Many are taking into account some of the impacts of climate change—potential state and federal regulations, shareholder perceptions, and changes in consumer and supplier markets, for example—on the cost of doing business now and in the future. Fewer businesses, however, are incorporating the risks and opportunities associated with the physical effects of climate change in their business planning. As trends in climate become clearer and the uncertainty surrounding future changes is reduced, more businesses will want to consider whether to adapt to projected changes by taking action now. This, in turn, involves reacting to and managing risks as well as taking advantage of opportunities.

Of course, adaptation to climate change can provide some business opportunities, too. You might even start a business to advise businesses on how to adapt, or to produce products that help businesses and citizens adapt. But mostly, this report is about risk assessment and the business advantage in the future is likely to go to those who act appropriately to that assessment in the present.

Even in more developed countries with adequate resources, effects on water supplies, ecosystem health, species diversity, and the effects of extreme weather events can pose significant risks to business and even households. Taking the first step of recognizing these potential risks, and asking the question: “How and to what extent are these risks relevant to decisions I am making today, tomorrow, and in the near future?” is an important action for government at all levels, large and small businesses, and even households to take.

The screening process included in the report takes you through a flow chart of questions that, first, evaluate the importance of potential climate impacts to your particular business and identifies 3 categories of risk, with Catagory 3 being “Climate is not a high priority” and Category 1 being “Take action to assess risk in detail and respond.”

Planning for the local impacts of climate change is hard to do because climate modeling and forecasting has been relevant to planetary and, at best, regional conditions such as latitudinal bands (mid-latitude, tropical, subtropical), and landmass areas such as the American Southwest or the Gulf Coast. Now a coalition of organizations based in North East England has conducted a study that makes the above claim of being “the most detailed and area-specific” of its kind anywhere.

Citing recent periods of record high temperatures and record destructive floods on the main British Isle, the authors of North East Climate Change Adaptation [PDF doc] described their motivation:

In the North East region, we too have suffered impacts from floods, wind, heatwaves and other weather-related incidents. These events are set to increase by the 2050s under scenarios of climate change. In recognition of the threat posed, a number of North East organisations have formed a partnership to take forward a study to better understand the climate changes, to assess the threats and impacts they pose, and to identify how we need to adapt now to best manage these projected changes and impacts.

The ultimate purpose of such a study must be to establish a sense of director for risk assessment and preparative planning, providing the maximum cushion of time for adaptive planning. The knowledge gained reinforces local resilience by reducing the uncertainty that leaves the local populace wondering, “Why bother if we have no idea what the impacts will be?” Thus, the study describes its accomplishments as having:

  • Projected climate changes across the region to the 2050s using state-of-the-art modelling techniques;
  • Assessed the impacts of the projected climate changes on current services, assets,
    communities, business and infrastructure;
  • Identified what needs to be done to adapt to the impacts; and
  • Identified which organisations are best placed to take the lead in taking forward the identified adaptation actions.
  • So what could any other similar-sized area do to achieve the same level of knowledge? First of all, a coalition of organizations makes it possible to assemble information from different centers of expertise. The study team took modeling data from very specific and key locations in within the assessment area. They collated data and information according to different sectors such as transport, public utilities, tourism, businesses and coastal erosion. Then they applied the professional expertise of team members to assess climate impacts on each of those sectors. Taking those assessments, local knowledge was then applied to them in a series of consultation workshops.

    The study provides more detailed scenarios through the year 2050 than were previously available, projecting more winter flooding, more health impacts during warmer summers, more wildfires in parkland, loss of business productivity and continuity, infrastructure damage, increased pressure on emergency services and increased pollution from contaminated land.

    These results drive the study’s authors to insist that both mitigation and adaptation actions be taken in parallel beginning immediately. They provide an Adaption Action Plan to key the next steps.

    I can’t help but think that if every locality were to conduct such a study, the outcome would be more serious local efforts to effect change. Reading the report really brings home the reality of the medium-range future. The impacts are all related and include factors that get lost when all you hear is “more flooding and hotter summers.” Think of the side effects – more polluted ground, more rats, more erosion, more fires.

    With increased likelihood of events such as flooding, heatwaves and wild fires, there is a need for more awareness amongst the general public so that appropriate preventative actions can be taken to avoid, or minimise, the likelihood of impacts.