Helping Businesses Adapt to Climate Change

Helping Businesses Adapt to Climate Change

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Wimmera

[Editor's note: This article was authored by BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability.]

As climate change sets in, its impacts -- increasing severity of storms and weather disasters, receding snow and rivers, advancing deserts, and more frequent landslides and floods -- will test companies' ability to effectively deliver high-quality products and services.

In response, BSR is launching a series of briefs to illustrate how these changes will affect each industry and what current adaptation practices look like, beginning with an examination of the food, beverage, and agriculture sector (PDF).

Some effects of climate change will be familiar, such as crop failures and ensuing price shocks, but over the next several years, they will happen with more frequency and with even higher insurance costs. Beyond direct business impacts, companies will also need to understand how climate change will affect their most vulnerable stakeholders -- the poor, citizens of developing countries, and women -- who will face increasing risks due to drought, disease vectors, and the perils of migration.

The good news is that many resources on business adaptation to climate change are already available (see end of article). McKinsey & Company developed a cost curve for adaptation (PDF), for example, which highlights different adaptation options and shows that investment paybacks can be short. Also, companies do not need to choose between adapting to climate change and helping to mitigate it; the distinction between these two is rarely clear and we should do both together.

There are also tools that translate state-of-the-art climate monitoring, prediction, and imagery into practical information to help companies improve their relevant governance and decision-making processes. These tools include: the Climate Administration Knowledge Exchange (CAKE), Google Earth Engine, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, and weADAPT. Companies can also take advantage of new market opportunities by providing solutions to enable effective adaptation.

There are several obstacles to climate adaptation, even for those most committed to proactive and responsible responses. First, the language of adaptation does not resonate well beyond specialists, so communicating on the topic is difficult. As Carmel McQuaid, Climate Change Manager at Marks & Spencer, recently told us, it's usually more effective to engage stakeholders by communicating on the topics that matter most to them. For example, retailers would be most concerned with their ability to continue to sell high-quality products, such as coffee. For companies that thrive on innovation, positioning adaptation as part of the portfolio of trends affecting the industry is usually more effective than treating it as a standalone topic.

Another obstacle is the complexity and uncertainty of the climate. This goes for today's weather, let alone the future of the climate more broadly, as evidenced by the fact that we are not well-equipped to handle disasters such as the recent floods in Pakistan and Australia. The fact is that we do not know how to properly prepare for disasters even when they are expected. This is partially due to the cognitive difficulty of coping with low-probability, high-impact consequences, and it is also a result of markets and organizations that don't encourage or reward proactive preparation.

Third, our first reactions may not serve us well. Companies are at risk of taking seemingly sensible actions that may lead to adverse effects elsewhere or on others. Such "maladaptation" (PDF) can take many forms, such as combating heat by turning up the air conditioning (which would produce more greenhouse gas emissions), using desalinization technologies that pollute marine environments, raising prices or otherwise excluding vulnerable customers that depend on insurance or other essential services, or giving customers more resources without the incentives to conserve.

This is partly a result of focusing on the specific, current problem at hand while not taking into account the broader repercussions. It is also a result of failing to identify where weather risk and other familiar issues have climate change dimensions.

Identifying the Hotspots

Over the past year, we've been following the topic of adaptation through discussions with BSR member companies, leading and participating in workshops and forums, including the U.N. climate talks in Cancun, and examining business responses to the Carbon Disclosure Project on climate risks and opportunities.

In doing so, we've found that while climate change impacts are ubiquitous, there are some approaches companies can use to identify and focus on vulnerable "hotspots" in their operations, supply chains, and key markets. Hotspots emerge both as physical locations and features of the company.

In terms of location, companies with operations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America face some of the greatest risks due to the extreme water loss or flooding predicted for those regions. In addition, these areas suffer from a general lack of resources to respond to problems.

In all parts of the world, coasts, flood plains, and ecological boundary zones, including mountains and islands, are vulnerable. In many cases, cities (PDF), as well as settlements where subsistence is marginally viable, are especially risk-prone. Companies should consider how their direct operations and key partners and markets are situated in relation to these physical areas.

As for companies themselves, a key vulnerability is a dependence on natural conditions to foster crops, snow, and other climate-sensitive inputs, which are likely to migrate and, on average, degrade. In general, long-lived and fixed assets, such as mines, as well as extended supply chains and distribution routes, tend to be more exposed to physical disruption.

Finally, lack of transparency is a problem: A combination of weather events and climate-related political actions are increasingly likely to disrupt energy availability and general operations of suppliers and other partners. While companies may be able to take steps to mitigate their vulnerability, they will have a hard time doing so if they are unable to make informed judgments about their partners' key issues, options, and systems for making decisions.

When companies look ahead, here are some issues that they should tune into:
   
Communicating about climate risks and opportunities: Investors expect companies to report on physical, regulatory, and other risks and opportunities of climate change through the Carbon Disclosure Project. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has also made informed reporting on climate risks a requirement. Also, working with distressed communities to cope with climate change is an increasingly material issue for annual sustainability reporting.

Meet needs responsibly: The private sector is being called upon to drive an effective response to climate change, ranging from delivering hydration and other growing basic needs, applying finance and information and communications technology to build more resilient infrastructure, and solving the potential problems of maladaptation.

To do so, businesses need to foster connections and discussions that help deliver sustainable solutions to society under dynamic and uncertain conditions.

Create climate-resilient local benefits: Many sources of risk for companies are likely to be found far away from their headquarters and centered in local communities where, for example, vulnerabilities to floods, windstorms, and droughts are growing. These communities need help with local investments to developing disaster-response systems and continuity plans. Companies should look for ways to help their community partners achieve triple-win impacts by reducing the effects of disasters, adapting to climate change, and safeguarding development gains.

Each month through July, we will produce discussion briefs for specific industry sectors on what they are and should be doing about climate adaptation. Each brief will include basic tools and references. As we produce this series, we'll be holding discussions with BSR members and inviting feedback. We'll also store our resources and other tools at www.bsr.org/adaptation.

Further Information

Climate change adaptation can be defined as "adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts," including "changes in processes, practices, and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change." For more information and a list of suggested reading, visit www.bsr.org/adaptation.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Wimmera.

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