From Science to Action: Using Climate Science for Adaptation

We have all heard about the doomsday climate change can bring. Rising seas, blistering heat waves, and epic storms are but small samples from the chronicle of destruction possible due to climate risk.  When considering the doomsday scenarios, questions arise about where, when, and how these changes will take place.

Recent research from a team of climate scientist led by James Hansen posits that the timeframe in which we will begin to see the impacts from sea level rise and super storms, may be more severe and shorter than expected. The paper argues that the phenomenon of stratification (when melting freshwater from glacier melt disrupts the saline pumps of the deep ocean, causing warm water to collect at the bottom of the sea where it melts ice shelves) along with other feedback loops, have not been fully captured in previous climate models.

The Hansen Theory

Hansen and his team suggest that with the new math in place “ice mass loss from the most vulnerable ice, sufficient to raise sea level several meters, is better approximated as exponential than by a more linear response. Doubling times of 10, 20 or 40 years yield multi-meter sea level rise in about 50, 100 or 200 years.” In other words, ice melt that was previously thought to be occurring at a predictable rate is now potentially occurring at rate several times higher.

This is not the first time that the science has been updated and caught the eye of the media. As a result, climate scientists like James Hansen and Michael Mann have become well known in environmentalist circles.  In 2012, climate activist Bill McKibben became especially revered when his article in Rolling Stone Magazine: Climate Change’s Terrifying New Math gathered similar attention and reactions from the media as the Hansen report.

As suggested by the new research and steady stream of media updates, it is clear that climate science is a constantly evolving and improving practice. While it is true that the data points are becoming more robust, and new discoveries like stratification are being baked into the latest climate models, scientists will be the first to tell us that we still have a lot left to learn about how climate change is altering our earth’s systems.

Climate Scientist James Hansen stands by a 1000 ton boulder that is theorized to have been lifted by a super storm 120,000 years ago onto the cliffs of North Eleuthera in the Bahamas. At the time of the ancient storm, ocean temperature was only 1 degree C warmer than today.
Climate Scientist James Hansen stands by a 1000 ton boulder that is theorized to have been lifted by a super storm 120,000 years ago onto the cliffs of North Eleuthera in the Bahamas. At the time of the ancient storm, ocean temperature was only 1 degree C warmer than today.

Michael E. Mann, the scientist who popularized the classic hockey stick graph stated in response to the new report “Some of the claims in this paper are indeed extraordinary. They conflict with the mainstream understanding of climate change to the point where the standard of proof is quite high.”

Towards Climate Adaptation Science?

While the work climate scientists like Hansen and Michael Mann continues to advance the science, some members of the climate community are beginning to question the value of continuing to refine the accuracy of climate science. Suggesting instead that it may be time to refocus resources traditionally spent on increasing the degree of confidence towards adaptation science.

The argument is that after a certain point the ability for climate science to generate new insights is subject to diminishing returns. As such, it doesn’t matter as much to nail down exact predictions of when and where and by how much the impacts of climate change will hit, when we know they are already here and will continue to grow. With the climate science we have now, we are very good at projecting what 60 cm of sea level rise looks like, and how that sea level rise will impact our coasts. However, we are not great at knowing when that sea level rise will happen.

Those wanting to focus resources on adaption science argue that this distinction shouldn’t really matter. Think of the results of climate science like a high blood pressure reading, how bad the reading is doesn’t change the fact that you still have to go exercise and change your diet if you want to be healthier; and its better to hit the gym sooner rather than later.

Using Science for Decision-Support

This is not to say that advancements from Hansen and other climate scientists are irrelevant. On the contrary, it is extremely valuable work, but their findings provide information that should be used to spark interventions that buffer vulnerable regions from the worst of climate change.

At Four Twenty Seven we are picking up where the scientific reports stop. By translating the key warnings and lessons of climate science into strategies that can reduce financial, infrastructural, and social risk, we can prepare for the impacts of climate change regardless of when they occur. By analyzing, monitoring, and providing site specific insights into how climate change affects normal operations, we manage the complexities for stakeholders whose responsibilities cover a wide range of populations and global facilities.

“LIDAR data is often collected by air, such as with this NOAA survey aircraft (top) over Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, CA. Here, LIDAR data reveals a top-down (bottom left) and profile view of Bixby Bridge. NOAA scientists use LIDAR-generated products to examine both natural and manmade environments. LIDAR data supports activities such as inundation and storm surge modeling, hydrodynamic modeling, shoreline mapping, emergency response, hydrographic surveying, and coastal vulnerability analysis.” (source)
“LIDAR data is often collected by air, such as with this NOAA survey aircraft (top) over Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, CA. Here, LIDAR data reveals a top-down (bottom left) and profile view of Bixby Bridge. NOAA scientists use LIDAR-generated products to examine both natural and manmade environments. LIDAR data supports activities such as inundation and storm surge modeling, hydrodynamic modeling, shoreline mapping, emergency response, hydrographic surveying, and coastal vulnerability analysis.” (source)

Having reliable climate data and a robust understanding of the changes climate change has put in motion is a great starting point for determining risk factors. LIDAR data from NOAA and other hydrological data sets can be used to anticipate coastal vulnerability to climate charged changes like sea level rise.  NASA has its own set of valuable climate data, which has been used to map everything from melting ice in Greenland to diminishing wine grape harvests in France and Switzerland. Such robust and continuously updated datasets allow for meaningful vulnerability assessments that can inform effective adaptation plans.

Our team has been putting climate data like this to use for our clients. As part of our commitment to the White House Climate Data Initiative we created a dashboard tool of Heat and Social Inequity in the United States, designed to help health care providers understand the risks climate change poses to their community and hospital operations.  It’s through tools like this that we hope to help our clients prepare for the risks climate change presents to the businesses and communities they serve.

It is our hope that the science continues to advance, and new research like that presented by Hansen and his team continues to give us a better picture of the rate at which we can expect climate change to escalate. We also hope to use this information to advance the important work of adaptation. Solving climate change takes both good science and a roadmap forward.  A ‘climate doomsday’ becomes less scary when we realize the power is in our hands to be prepared regardless of when it happens.

Learn more about our work to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Insights in Resilience: Climate Change and Human Health

The healthcare sector is often the first to witness the impacts of poor air quality, extreme weather patterns and other climate related hazards that impact the health of their community. From heat waves to floods and exposure to rapidly spreading vector borne illnesses like malaria, lyme disease and more recently the Zika virus, the nexus of climate change and human health gets stronger every day.

We asked our director of research, Nik Steinberg, to present his work to inform the healthcare industry about the effects of climate change and the trends he is observing in how healthcare professionals approach climate change.

 

1. Tell us more about your work with the healthcare industry and how you help them build resilience into their operations.

Last year we built a new decision-support tool for hospitals across the United States. The work was fascinating because it combined systems analysis, climate science, and epidemiology. We started by identifying all the projected climate hazards within a hospital’s service area and then we sorted out the characteristics of those hazards – their projected frequency, severity, and timing. From there, we determined if the hazard was likely to impact the hospital itself and/ or the health and safety of the community. Next, we attempted to co-locate the hazards with exposed populations and facility systems to get a better idea of which type of patients are most exposed to heat waves and poor air quality, and where those patients live.

Our work is quite novel because it transforms something that once might have felt uncertain and ambiguous for some healthcare professionals — climate change impacts — and places it in context of their local hospital, community, and the people they interact with everyday.

We have observed that resilience building in the public health sector starts with a willingness and capacity to change – for whatever reason that may be. Our tool facilitates the information gathering and lays the foundation for an impact assessment, giving health professionals a defensible starting point and powerful communication tool on the local impacts of climate change on their patients.

2. What can healthcare professionals gain from learning about the risks of climate change, and your work specifically?

After our detailed research is complete, we step back and look for hotspots and correlations. Do future heat waves and poor air quality pose a considerable health risk to the community? Which patients are most exposed and where do they live? Is there a strong poverty-health connection in the community? How likely is it that heavy rainfall will become more severe over time and affect ambulatory services and hospital access?

These are the questions we try to address in our work so that hospitals can prioritize their resilience efforts and reach out to certain parts of the community or strengthen parts of the facility.

Many healthcare professionals are aware of these climate-related risks and their connection to the communities they serve, but this work helps outline the linkages that connect climate change and health at a local level and assigns real numbers to the expected impacts of that dynamic connection.

3. What trends are you seeing at the nexus of human health and climate change?

Human health has always been influenced by climate and weather, but the growing frequency of extremes like drought and flood and extreme temperatures generates a whole new set of challenges. Take, for example, the recent spread of the Zika virus and the drought-flood cycles that led up to heavy downpours across much of Brazil, leaving pools, puddles, and ponds for mosquito breeding, and allowing the Aedes spp. mosquito to surge across the country and eventually the rest of the Americas.

Unfortunately, changing rainfall patterns, like many climate impacts, tend to have a disproportionate effect on the vulnerable. A similar story can be told about oppressive heat. Global temperature increases also mean more severe extreme temperature, and recent heat waves in India, Russia, and even the U.S. hit the poor and outdoor laborers the hardest. Changing weather patterns and shifting climate zones will also expose new populations to these extremes.

Health effects are not always physical, and there is growing research showing the association between mental health and climate change. For illnesses like Lyme Disease or West Nile Virus, the mental health effects are very direct, but more often, the psychological responses to both disasters and acute ongoing impacts can induce a range of mental health consequences. I think the discussion around mental health and climate change will continue to grow as public health officials work to identify vulnerable populations and decipher the attribution of things like severe heat, poor air, and disasters to well-being.

There are positive trends, however, in the way researchers and public health officials are tracing vulnerability and identifying pathways of exposure. The body of research at the nexus of public health and climate change is growing, and one of the most promising outcomes of this work is the story it tells. From hospital directors to policymakers, decision-makers understand that our community’s health calls for aggressive action on the public health front to minimize and respond to a range of imminent new threats that were once uncertain or distant.

COP21: Climate Adaptation in the Paris Agreement

b9f7640e54975ccb-a6ddcAt the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, France, 196 countries reached a landmark climate change agreement, which for the first time puts in place a regular, iterative process for evaluating progress and enhancing actions.

In 2018, Parties to the Convention will reconvene for a global “facilitative dialogue” to assess collective progress on achieving mitigation targets. This will be followed by a periodic global stocktake to gauge collective progress on mitigation and adaptation goals, including the state of overall adaptation efforts, priorities, and the efficacy and adequacy of support. The first global stocktake will be conducted in 2023; it will then take place every five years. (See the World Resources Institute’s blog for more information.)

The Paris Agreement also seeks to strengthen adaptation efforts under the Convention and, together with the accompanying COP decision:

• Establishes the adaptation goal of “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.”

• Calls on countries to carry out national adaptation planning processes, which may include assessing climate change vulnerabilities and impacts to inform prioritization of actions, implementing actions to adapt and build resilience, and monitoring, evaluating, and learning from adaptation plans, policies, programs, and actions.

• Requires each country to submit and periodically update an adaptation communication, which summarizes adaptation priorities, efforts, and support needs.

• Encourages international, regional, and financial institutions to report on their efforts to integrate climate resilience considerations into their development assistance and climate finance programs.

• Urges developed countries to increase adaptation support and extends the timeframe for mobilizing $100 billion annually for climate change from 2020 to 2025; a higher funding target will be set after 2025. Developed countries have pledged $19 billion to assist developing countries, and the US has indicated it will double its support for adaptation to $800 million a year by 2020. Vietnam has also pledged $1 million to the Green Climate Fund, and various subnational entities, including Paris and Quebec, have committed funding to mechanisms such as the Least Developed Countries Fund.

• Requests that the Green Climate Fund provide expedited support to developing countries to prepare national adaptation plans and implement the priority actions identified in these plans.

For questions about international climate adaptation and climate finance, contact our expert Yoon Kim.

 

 

The “Tragedy of The Horizon:” the Economic Risk of Global Warming

On September 29th, Mark Carney, recently appointed Governor of the Bank of England, gave a speech on the risks of climate change to financial stability at a Lloyd’s insurance event. Carney referred to climate change as the “tragedy of the horizon,” citing outcomes like the impact of rising seas on the world’s coastlines and infrastructure as one of the largest risks to financial stability around the world. Carney cited three major risks to financial stability from climate change.

1.    Climate change presents physical risks

First risk: “The impacts today on insurance liabilities and the value of financial assets that arise from climate- and weather-related events, such as floods and storms that damage property or disrupt trade.”

In the context of sea level rise, the impacts of climate change on infrastructure and property along the world’s coastlines are readily apparent. Carney referenced a Lloyd’s study that “estimated that the 20 cm rise in sea-level at the tip of Manhattan since the 1950’s, when all other factors are held constant, increased insured losses from Superstorm Sandy by 30 percent in New York alone.”

Rising seas already compounded the impact of hurricane Sandy, knocking out power grids, flooding subways and causing financial damages estimated to be between $30 billion to $50 Billion. Under current projections of sea level rise up to a 6.6 foot increase is possible by 2100; and as oceans rise so will the physical impact of superstorms.

A U.S Army Corp of engineers and the National Weather service map of storm surge inundation if it hit with sea level rise projections for 2100, illustrating economic risk of global warming
A U.S Army Corp of engineers and the National Weather service map of storm surge inundation if it hit with sea level rise projections for 2100.

2.    A changing climate creates liability risk

Second risk: “The impacts that could arise tomorrow if parties who have suffered loss or damage from the effects of climate change seek compensation from those they hold responsible.  Such claims could come decades in the future, but have the potential to hit carbon extractors and emitters – and, if they have liability cover, their insurers – the hardest”

Carney suggests that those who suffer the majority of asset loss from climate change could look to hold polluters, governments or private firms accountable for risk exposure.

Nestle is now being sued for the use of water in Southern California and their impact on the California drought. Lawsuits against corporations, governments or private land owners who have shifted the true costs of their behavior onto the commons have the potential to be held accountable for their behavior as extreme weather events become more common and impactful.

Liability for the loss of property and adverse health affects due to climate change are not only held by private firms, but also my American taxpayers. In Alaska, the town of Kivalina is already being displaced by sea level rise and melting sea ice. In response the Obama administration has proposed $50.4 Million in federal aid for relocation costs.

3.    Climate change will create more stranded assets

Third risk: “The financial risks which could result from the process of adjustment towards a lower-carbon economy.  Changes in policy, technology and physical risks could prompt a reassessment of the value of a large range of assets as costs and opportunities become apparent.”

What Carney is getting at here is the fact that an assessment of liability will change the valuation of an asset. This includes what is commonly referred to as “stranded assets”, in particular fossil fuel reserves — and the plants that process and burn them — will become useless is a world focused on carbon-free energy.  But it also includes a much greater class of assets that could become stranded, for example real estate on properties that experience frequent and increasing flooding. After the world has seen enough primary property loss and secondary liability loss due to impacts like rising seas our markets will compensate by devaluing at risk assets.

Conclusion

Climate science has been warning us for decades that the impacts of unbridled emissions are on the horizon, but what Carney adds to the conversation is the translation of the risks into financial terms. As acceptance and information about climate change increase so too does the desire to find innovative solutions that build resilience into how we do business and navigate the risks.  Being informed about the potential impact of sea level rise and extreme weather events can help industry and government adapt and keep out of the deep waters of rising seas.

 

By Sam Irvine

Climate Change and the Maritime Industry

Maritime shipping boat
Maritime shipping is particularly vulnerable to climate change. (Image source: www.internationalshipping.com)

If there is a front line in the war on climate change, it is the world’s coasts. And if there will be casualties from the hard-fought battle, the hardest hit could be the maritime shipping industry.  This was the case in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina charged into Louisiana, battered the Port of Gulfport, handily tossed aside shipping containers, prompting $250 million worth of repairs.

The maritime shipping industry, comprised primarily of ports and shipping companies, is positioned in a truly difficult spot when it comes to dealing with the adverse effects of climate change, which will be hitting the industry from all angles.

First and foremost, sea level rise – caused by melting glaciers and the expansion of ocean water as it warms – threatens port infrastructure, which is by necessity situated at sea level. It’s worth noting that the rate of sea level rise is slow and varies a great deal from location to location. According to a 2011 survey, many ports note that they tend to plan with less than a 10-year outlook, although infrastructure is built to last multiple decades. So although sea level rise will occur at what may seem like a snail’s pace, the change is certainly large enough to be a factor when considering the current state of the industry’s planning and building practices.

Ships pile up on land after Hurricane Katrina
Ships pile up on land after Hurricane Katrina (Source: NOAA)

Of course, sea level rise itself is not the main direct impact, it is what happens because of it – more frequent and intense flooding. As sea level rises, it will take increasingly weak storms and their resulting storm surges to impact infrastructure on land. This is not just an issue for port infrastructure. Inundation from storm surge can impact the operations of port facilities by preventing laborers from getting to work, by increasing downtime and consequently delays, or by raising costs from relocation or repair of flooded facilities.

 The list of direct impacts for the maritime shipping industry are numerous: higher temperatures increase refrigeration costs, increased storminess could force longer and more expensive shipping routes, or intensified rainfall events delaying loading/unloading of cargo at ports.

 While these impacts are highly concerning, the degree of their impacts can be reasonably well understood, and actions can be taken directly by ports and shipping companies to mitigate their risks.

Perhaps more disconcerting are the indirect impacts that climate change presents to this industry. Widespread climate change will bring macro-level changes to the demand and supply of goods handled by shipping companies and passing through ports.

DroughMississipiRiver
The 2012-2013 drought in the Midwest stranded dozens of ships on the Mississipi and impacted supply of agricultural goods (Source: Bloomberg)

Take for instance the largest port in the country, the Port of South Louisiana, which lies along the southernmost stretch of the Mississippi River and processes 60% of the Midwest’s grain exports. As drought and extreme heat continue to ravage the region, corn, soybean, and wheat output from states like Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois, which traditionally export their product via the Mississippi River, will plummet. The indirect consequence is that shipping companies will have less demand for their services, and ports will not earn as much profit as the quantity in business diminishes.

The maritime shipping industry is directly in the cross hairs of climate change, and yet strikingly few port administrators are planning for its consequences. Depending on location, infrastructure, and products, there are myriad negative consequences that will be felt by shipping companies and ports. It is time for this sector to prepare for changes and ensure that they can rebound from disasters and be responsive to a changing climate.

By Colin Gannon