This article is sponsored by AT&T.
From an unprecedented ice storm in Texas in February to New Year’s Eve wildfires across Boulder, Colorado, 2021 was another year full of extreme weather events. An ever-growing body of research links these natural disasters to climate change. Every community needs to understand this reality and take the appropriate measures to be resilient to an already changing climate.
Businesses also have a critical role to play. As BlackRock CEO Larry Fink reiterated in his 2022 letter to CEOs, companies are under increasing pressure from investors to assess and disclose climate-related risks in parallel to reducing emissions. But it can be daunting and complex to begin to tackle the physical risks that climate change poses to businesses. Here are five lessons from AT&T’s efforts to understand the threats we face from climate change and take steps to prepare our infrastructure to withstand more frequent and severe extreme weather.
With an incredible amount of infrastructure spread across the United States, AT&T has always put an emphasis on disaster preparedness and response because our customers rely on the strength and resilience of our networks. In recent years, we’ve started looking ahead, planning for the long-term impacts of climate change. We’ve begun integrating forward-looking, actionable climate data into our planning systems to inform smart infrastructure decisions for the future. In addition, we’re making our data publicly available to empower municipalities, businesses and NGOs to assess and address their vulnerabilities.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far on our journey toward building climate resilience.
Lesson No. 1: Understand why climate resilience is critical to your business
Analyzing and addressing climate risk is no longer a "nice-to-have"; stakeholders, especially the investor community, are expecting it. To launch this work, you should identify a business priority, pinpoint how climate change threatens your company’s ability to deliver on that priority and consider the assets, vulnerabilities and geographical areas that you want to look at more closely to develop responses.
Sometimes it makes sense to start small. At AT&T, when we decided to engage the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory to assist us as we built our Climate Change Analysis Tool—which helps visualize how climate change could affect our network and operations at the neighborhood level—we started with a pilot in four southeastern states. The pilot confirmed the value of the tool, building the case for expanding the project to include the remaining contiguous U.S. states and additional risks such as wildfire and drought.
Lesson No. 2: Be prepared to be surprised by what you uncover
You may be familiar with some consequences of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten coastal communities. Warming temperatures create conditions for more wildfires. Heat waves are becoming more frequent and more intense, threatening lives, especially in urban centers. But when we dug into our data, we found many unexpected nuances that go beyond conventional wisdom.
For example, we identified risk of potentially impactful flooding due to precipitation in areas that have not been covered by traditional flood maps. Another fascinating finding was that wind speeds are expected to slow down in the future for certain parts of the country while increasing in others. Reduced wind speeds over the Atlantic and Gulf could result in hurricanes moving slower, allowing them to expand and cause more damage. However, the reduction in wind speeds may help lower certain wildfire risk. These are the kinds of granular insights that allow us to be strategic and almost surgical in how we assess risk and deploy resilience measures.
Lesson No. 3: Resilience is a team effort
Obtaining and analyzing climate data are only the first steps toward resilience. It’s crucial for this information to be integrated into the systems that your business uses for long-term decision-making — and that requires close collaboration with internal stakeholders such as leadership, system owners, end users and more. In AT&T’s case, we presented the business case for climate resilience to senior leaders while working with experts across the company to determine an accessible, visually compelling way of presenting our climate data. Taking this approach, leadership supported the work and the data were transferred into a customized format for the network planners. We also engaged with engineering managers that have dealt with disaster recovery to understand what types of extreme weather threaten different kinds of equipment.
Lesson No. 4: Be prepared for headwinds
Like any major undertaking, building climate resilience requires time, money, extensive collaboration and a healthy amount of problem-solving along the way. Another important determination is how to pay for the resilience measures that your analysis suggests you implement. Hardening existing and future infrastructure can be costly upfront. Once you assess your company’s climate risk, you then need to figure out funding streams for adapting your operations to more extreme weather.
To make the case for funding, consider how the resilience measures could lead to long-term cost savings. For a company with a lot of physical infrastructure, such as AT&T, hardening at-risk assets can mean lower disaster recovery expenses when extreme weather hits. For electric utilities, resilient power generation equipment can prevent service interruptions. And for companies with extensive supply chains, helping their suppliers address climate vulnerabilities can avoid product shortages in the future.
Lesson No. 5: Find collaborators that can help scale your resilience efforts
Climate resilience can’t be achieved by one company in a vacuum. For instance, when local telecommunications equipment is hardened, communities are better prepared for natural disasters. But they become even more resilient when other essential infrastructure, such as power and water, can withstand extreme weather as well.
It is important to think about resilience holistically and look for ways to collaborate with other relevant external organizations. For example, AT&T is sharing climate data with the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the largest state public power organization in the U.S. To help make utility infrastructure more resilient in New York State, NYPA, with support from Argonne National Laboratory, is using this data to conduct climate modeling for its electrical grid and assess which power generation and transmission assets are vulnerable to location-specific climate hazards. The analysis will help NYPA make informed decisions about where and how to harden existing and new infrastructure and should lead to improved reliability. Since AT&T relies on electricity to power our networks, and NYPA relies on telecommunications to run its business, everyone benefits.
We believe building climate resilience is critical to our company’s long-term prosperity. Planning for and adapting to the future has served us well over the last 145 years. So has being a good partner in our communities. We invite you to take a look at our free datasets (PDF) (with more coming later this year) as you start your climate resilience journey and to learn about our Sustainability Professional Services if you’re looking for additional expertise. Together we can build a more resilient world.