It turns out the arc of climate change is short, and it bends towards 2℃ being a floor rather than a ceiling. For far too long the impacts and likelihood of man-made or anthropogenic climate change was placed on a distant horizon. This led to a general lack of societal action in both the public and private spheres. This imbalance was particularly true in the evolution of the green movement in the early 80s and 90s, during which time climate change and climate science labored under the misnomer “global warming.” The climate change denial camp quickly dismissed anthropogenic linkages spurred by inexorable carbon-hungry economic growth each time there was a cold winter. This added another four decades of unchecked carbon emissions and half-hearted international commitments that sought to lock Co2 emissions in a time capsule, coupled with promissory statements of concerted climate action, with little meaningful movement. Rather, the term climate change denotes the very extreme weather patterns that have marked the last two decades with increasingly severe, multi-billion dollar catastrophes from which even “fortress nations” have not been spared. In short, the climate change challenge of today implies that this is no longer a horizon issue to be orphaned and managed by future generations of leaders. In a word, time is up!
Gone are the days where gradualism and careful scientific reports could present a case for better equilibrium between our unrelenting dependence on carbon-hungry industrial production with the need to control Co2 emissions. Rather, the climate change imperative of today—in effect the business case for societal resilience and survival—is one in which investments in climate resilience need to work in lockstep with divestments from the carbon economy that has fueled one-sided global economic growth since the industrial revolution. The fact that climate change is ever present, and the deniers are slowly becoming an endangered species, means that we are no longer confronting a global challenge in the abstract. No country, community, or household (anywhere in the world) has been spared from the acute and attritional effects of climate change. So much so, that we must treat the words, henceforth, in the present tense, climate changed and the timeline for action in the here and now.
This should not suggest that the war is lost and that the case for global resilience and response has fallen on deaf ears. Rather, the fact that the effects are ever present means the debate for causality has been won. Now it is time to outline concrete, difference-making actions. Climate change has moved to the forefront of our collective awareness from being a “slow boil,” frogs in a boiling pot issue, to an urgent case for societal action. The linkages are clear. From the very real connection between climate change and the spread of novel zoonotic and vector-borne diseases like COVID-19 or Zika, to the prospect of wars over natural resources as fundamental as water, climate change can be defined as the “risks of risks,” and it is deeply interconnected to all other forms of societal threats.
Now that climate change impacts are observable, they are therefore measurable and can spur action in developed economies, who for far too long enjoyed the embarrassment of riches from carbon-based production, while the climate change impacts were externalities borne by developing and emerging countries. The difference between risk and uncertainty is that you can measure risk (often with scientific precision), uncertainty on the other hand cannot be measured, which is why it paralyzes people and stalls action. The denial camp argued circuitously that the absence of climate change evidence, demonstrated the evidence of climate change absence. The evidence is now clear. Tragically, with impacts of climate change becoming a widespread global phenomenon, like the predictable calamity caused by Hurricane Katrina, or the arid tinder box environments that have contributed to a run up of record-breaking wildfires from Australia to California, climate change impacts are moving into the realm of measurable and catastrophic relevance. This vindicates climate scientists who have been dismissed as “Catastrophe Cassandras” for far too long.
Now, the world can do something about it. We always could, but the failure of climate change action is partly borne from the fact that the risk was perceived to be so intangible or unmeasurable so as to be reduced to abstraction and uncertainty. Or, more insidiously, too great for us as a species to do anything about.
Everything has changed in the last decade, which was the hottest instrumentally recorded since scientific record keeping began, and by far the worst in terms of the very nightmare (Day After Tomorrow) climate impacts scientists have been warning about for decades. From record-breaking cyclonic storms like Super-Typhoon Haiyan, which levelled the Philippines in 2013 triggering the most severe blackout since home electrification began, to Hurricane Maria, an unrelenting Category 5 storm that leveled Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, claiming more than 6,000 lives and triggering the second longest blackout in history as Puerto Rico’s sclerotic infrastructure failed in the face of a monster storm. Even Siberia, a place synonymous with bone chilling cold, recorded temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit this summer. These events have all the hallmarks of climate change-exacerbated threats. Indeed, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season saw not one, but three record-breaking storms in Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria. Each of these events triggered clear societal impacts and the federalization of response and recovery efforts. This is a thin line of defense and all too often communities are relying on their last lines of defense first, proving how very porous climate resilience is.
In Houston’s case, the 4th largest city in the U.S. and a chokepoint for 25% of the country’s oil refining capacity, Hurricane Harvey unleashed an unprecedented hydrological event in the form of a “nuclear” rain bomb, or bombogenesis. More rain was dropped by Hurricane Harvey when the water-logged hurricane stalled over Texas than any weather event recorded in the U.S. Harvey turned Houston into a lake (the third 1,500-year flood event in three consecutive years) and required a citizen flotilla springing to action to save their neighbors. Perilously, like the under-penetration of earthquake insurance along the seismic fault lines of California, Houston’s hardest-hit homes enjoyed little in the way of private or public sector flood insurance protection, passing on the economic costs to taxpayers.
A similar market failure was evident in California’s increasingly severe and infernal fire seasons, which have seen a worsening trend since 2017 when the Camp Fire turned the town of Paradise, California into an ashen wasteland. In all, 85 people died, thousands were displaced, and at the height of the fires all of the major cities in the state had “code red” air quality alerts. This was a clarion call that the impacts of climate change are not only about smoking crater events, they are also “blue sky” emergencies that can paralyze a functioning society. The Martian red skies over major cities in California caused by record-breaking fires that were clearly-linked to anthropogenic impacts (in this case, a gender reveal party gone horribly wrong), has brought insult to injury to the COVID-19 weary state. In all, 64,000 people have been displaced, 10 have died, and a record three million acres of forests have burned. It is difficult to guard public health and observe social distancing directives in a mass evacuation and sheltering assignment, in which already strained disaster response professionals are battling a many-headed hydra of complex risks.
Sadly, examples like these abound from around the world, where the combination of droughts, record-setting floods, and sodden monsoon seasons are causing the wholesale displacement of a new generation of climate change refugees or disaster displaced. This introduces the hard reality that even so-called “fortress nations” are being caught flat-footed by climate change, which should be little comfort for the world. A societal response, therefore, is about not letting a neighbor’s challenges fester, for in a world where Zika-carrying Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes or a novel coronavirus do not respect national borders, an approach that will require defense-in-depth is imperative in responding to climate change.
Much like the race to find a cure for COVID-19, climate change is a solidarity moment and the world has thus far failed to rise to the occasion. This response, like all risk and resilience frameworks, must cover preparedness, mitigation, recovery, and resilience, with resilience being the highest order achievement in the face of a threat so certain. We would do well in remembering that risk management is an avoidance function, therefore it is hard to justify a return on investment. Investments in resilience on the other hand, accrue and can have compounding effects, therefore they are entirely recoverable from an economic perspective. Amsterdam’s famous system of levees and dikes, which mark centuries worth of investments from the low countries in their fight against the gods, have arguably been recovered and protected the vibrant, sea-faring, cosmopolitan Dutch society over the ages. These investments in infrastructure that supports climate change resilience and disaster proofing, must also contemplate respecting nature’s boundaries, which in so many ways (from fire prevention to coastal flooding and tidal surge abatement afforded by mangroves and coral reefs) conservation is our best defense. In many cases calls to “build back better,” should be tempered with questions of should we build back at all, especially in locations that are proving to be seasonably vulnerable to record floods, fires, and storms.
California’s novel approach of banning the sale of new gas powered vehicles starting in 2035 is an example of government directed mitigation and resilience efforts which can, and should, be replicated in the rest of the country and ultimately, the world. A mandate like this creates a ripple effect across the value chain; oil companies, car manufacturers, battery manufacturers, parts suppliers, and other stakeholders will adapt to the new operating reality of carbon reduction by developing new technologies and methods for the mass production of electric vehicles. As a by-product, new jobs and job retraining programs will flourish. This same type of pattern holds true in California’s overall target of decarbonizing its economy by half by 2045, which also includes solar-enabling new homes beginning this year, which prospectively means 80,000 new homes each year can form a part of a more resilient, renewable energy microgrid system. Contrary to the narrative, the renewable energy sector already employs more people in the U.S. than carbon-hungry energy production, including, oil, coal, and gas. This proves that investments in climate resilience are not a zero-sum proposition, but a pro-growth option.
Few sectors have the balance sheet and investment horizon long enough to adequately contemplate pre-investing in climate change resilience. Therefore, a societal approach adequately factors the costs of climate change, which have hitherto remained unincorporated costs in our economy. As carbon-emitting sectors, such as the case of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), ostensibly the world’s first climate change bankruptcy, is emblematic of the fact that the costs of climate change can no longer be treated as a financial, economic, or a liability externality. Rather, climate resilience must incorporate these costs and their consequences into the near-term operating reality for specific industries and firms. In the same way risk disclosures form a part of many financial transactions (from home loans to public company annual reports), the quantum of climate-related impacts, positive or negative, needs to be normalized, accounted for and disclosed. In the same way systemically important financial institutions (so called SIFIs), must create a living will to account for their implied public backstop or global importance, should carbon-hungry or heavily polluting sectors carry a similar obligation?
From households (prioritizing the most vulnerable), to businesses of all sizes, from the public sector, to regional and global bodies, the costs and consequences of climate change can no longer be diffused nor can the clock on carbon emission be “set back” to 1980 levels, like the Kyoto Protocol once aspired to do. COP21 in 2015 produced a rare global consensus of more than 191 countries that signed on to the Paris Accords (with the U.S. keeping odd company with Syria and Nicaragua). The five years since have been a stark reminder that the global consensus on climate change must be followed with concerted cross-sectoral action. The time for action is now and the horizon for investments in climate resilience is short.