WEATHERING THE NEXT STORM:
A Closer Look at Business Resilience
September 22, 2015
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Global Environmental Executive, Bank of America
Global Environmental Director, Diageo
Corporate Sustainability Officer, PG&E
Join us as we explore insights from our new report on corporate resilience including:
- How companies are assessing and addressing their climate vulnerabilities
- The materiality of climate risk; and
- Tools, data and partnerships that can drive action to the next level.
The wildfires ravaging the Western United States are among the most damaging on record, and the season isn’t over yet. For those who have been following the region’s changing climate patterns, however, the damage is hardly surprising, and this could be only the beginning.
So far this year, 41,000 fires have burned 7.5 million acres of forests and grasslands across the United States. Only nine years have seen more acres burned in total than have already burned this year. The record is 9.8 million acres in 2006.
In Alaska, the 2015 wildfire season will likely go down as the second-biggest on record. More than 5.1 million acres – or 8,000 square miles – have burned so far this year. The most damaging – 6.6 million acres – occurred in 2004. Although this was an extreme fire season, the state was fortunate that the weather eventually cooperated. By mid-July, the fires had already charred 4.5 million acres, or 88 percent of the total.
The fires that plagued central Alaska during the late spring and early summer months are now mostly under control, as the dry summer heat gives way to cooler and wetter weather. The persistent ridge of high pressure has broken down as waves of moisture now stream in from the surrounding waters – the annual sign that autumn is quickly approaching.
As the fires die out in Alaska, the attention now turns to the lower 48. What was a sporadic, yet manageable, start to the fire season has now turned into conflagration of tragic proportions.
Why the shift to the Lower 48?
A shift in the weather pattern over Alaska set into motion changes in the atmosphere that would affect the Lower 48. An upper-level low dropped down from the Gulf of Alaska and moved off the coast of Northern California. The low-pressure system met up with a persistent ridge of high pressure situated over the Western United States. The same system is responsible for waves of record-breaking heat from Phoenix to Seattle, and for extending the magnitude of extreme drought conditions from California into Oregon, Washington, and the Northern Rockies.
The clash of weather systems culminated in a series of dry thunderstorms, which produced lightning that sparked numerous fires across the Northwest. A series of weak low-pressure troughs have since moved along the northern parts of the ridge, cranking up the wind and fanning the flames.
How bad is it?
The result was a perfect storm of ingredients that have set the west ablaze. Currently, 1.5 million acres are burning. Five states – Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, and Montana – all have at least ten active large fires, and all have states of emergency in effect to receive federal relief money.
Current large-scale wildfires (8/25/15). (Source: National Interagency Fire Center)
More than 30,000 wildland firefighters have been called in to battle the blazes, the largest number in 15 years. The fires have grown so numerous and so large that U.S. Forest Service resources are spread thin. Last week, the Army got involved for the first time in almost a decade, mobilizing 200 personnel to assist. Canadian firefighting forces are also responding with additional crews and equipment. The USFS has also called in help from Australia and New Zealand.
And those firefighters who spent the first half of summer in Alaska? They are now being redeployed to fire locations throughout the Northwest.
Thirteen firefighters have died in their efforts to stop these fires. Thousands of people have been displaced, hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed, and livestock killed.
Cabin Creek Fire outside of Dillon, MT (8/14/15). (Source: US Forest Service)
And while these numbers are dramatic, they shouldn’t come as much of surprise. Climate change is altering the landscape of the Western United States. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average annual temperature in the Western United States has risen 1.9°F since 1970. The average winter snowpack is also shrinking, now melting up to 4 weeks earlier than in previous decades. And those are the years when there is a measureable snowpack. This creates dry ground conditions that are more conducive to the start and spread of fires.
Weather conditions like the ones that sparked and fanned the flames are also becoming more common. The multi-year, persistent ridge over the Western U.S., dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR), has intensified the hot and dry conditions. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research has concluded that climate change has intensified the California drought by roughly 15 to 20 percent. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the wildfire season is now more than two months longer that it was a generation ago.
However, as summer progresses to autumn, and autumn to winter, fire season will come to an end, as cooler air and much needed moisture – a result of the effects of El Niño – begin to overspread parts of the drought-stricken region.
Potential El Nino impacts across the United States. (Source: NOAA)
The winter rain and snow will provide some drought relief, but it is highly unlikely to end it. There are large water deficits throughout California and the Western United States. According to a recent study by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it would take a year’s worth of rain to alleviate the drought.
The fact remains that even with a high likelihood of much needed precipitation this winter, the climate of the Western United States is changing. One season of rain and snow will not be enough to solve the myriad of water crises, nor will it help to buck the trend of longer and more dangerous fire seasons.
The record-threatening fire season is the result of prolonged drought and extreme heat, and should act as a wake-up call to continue the push toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigating its effects. Without these efforts, these extreme events will become even more commonplace. Simply adapting to a hotter and drier Western U.S. will not be enough.
The latest working group meeting of the Montreal Protocol in Paris produced much useful discussion, but few concrete results due to limited but vocal opposition to an amendment to phase down hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs), a fast-growing, extremely potent family of global warming gases.
Efforts to achieve an amendment at the upcoming Meeting of the Parties in November had gained considerable momentum over the past year. Four proposals for an amendment had been submitted by India, the European Union, the Island States, and North America (Mexico, Canada and the U.S.). Beyond those proposals, the African States also have voiced their clear support for an amendment and recent meetings between President Obama and his counterparts from Brazil, India, and China had produced joint statements in support of action on HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.
Despite support for these proposals from nearly 100 countries, the week-long meeting in Paris this month failed to reach agreement on even starting the negotiating process through the creation of a contact group. After opposing these efforts over several meetings, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries) voiced their willingness to allow a two-stage process to move forward, but Pakistan stood firm in opposition, blocking any agreement.
In the absence of a mandate to begin negotiations, a number of sessions in Paris focused on a very useful exchange of views on issues raised by the four amendment proposals. India, China and others identified concerns about the costs and availability of alternatives to HFCs (including concerns about obstacles created by patents), the performance of these alternatives in high ambient temperatures, the time required to address flammability concerns of some key alternatives, the importance of energy efficiency, and the need for financing through the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund.
All agreed to hold another working group session prior to the November Meeting of the Parties. But time is fast running out on this year’s efforts to reach agreement on an HFC phasedown amendment.
What can be done to break this stalemate?
In the past, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has sometimes played an active role convening senior representatives from key countries and driving needed compromise. During the early years of the Protocol, UNEP’s Mostafa Tolba was masterful in bringing key countries together to find a workable solution. Through informal, senior-level consultations, Tolba either forged a compromise text acceptable to all, or developed his own proposals that he would offer as a way forward.
While times have certainly changed, it may be that the moment has now arrived for Achim Steiner, UNEP’s current executive director, to actively engage with senior officials from key countries with the goal of advancing efforts at bringing HFCs into the Montreal Protocol.
National security leaders deal with deep uncertainty on a daily basis about everything from North Korea’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon to the location and timing of the next terrorist attack by non-state actors such as ISIS and al-Qaida. Security decision-makers don’t use uncertainty as an excuse to ignore security threats.
Borrowing a page from security analysts, a new report out today by renowned climate experts and high-level government advisors from China, India, the United Kingdom and the United States assesses the risks of climate change in the context of national and international security.
Photo Courtesy Xiquinho Silva, via Flkickr
St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis brings a clear and powerful moral voice to a climate change debate too often clouded by competing ideologies. He reminds us of our responsibilities to the planet and to one another, and makes plain the stakes and the urgency of stronger action.
Pope Francis’ encyclical, a top-level teaching document to more than 1 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, builds on a foundation of accepted science that tells us the Earth is warming and that human activity is the primary cause.
But he is speaking to all of us, not only the Catholic faithful, about our core values – especially our duty to care for the Earth and all those who live on it.
The Earth is undoubtedly warming. What’s the cause, what are the impacts, and what can we do about it?
Below is a list of resources to learn more about the impacts of climate change, what individuals can do to help, and which policies can make a big difference
What are the Impacts of Climate Change?
The Earth is warming and will continue to do so if we keep releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This warming brings an increased risk of more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts, wildfires, and downpours. To learn more:
What can you do to help?
C2ES works to help individuals learn how they can save energy at work, school, and home. Learn some of the steps you can take to make an impact:
What would make a huge difference?
Sensible policies can spur demand for clean energy and technologies and reduce carbon emissions cost-effectively. Learn about some of the options:
I have an in-law who is, shall we say, rather skeptical about climate change. Any discussion on the topic usually begins with some contrarian science theory that he heard on one of his favorite talk shows (e.g. sun spots, deep ocean magma, urban heat islands), and then devolves from there.
Why do some Americans believe the antithesis of the scientific consensus on issues like climate change?
This topic is explored by Professor Andy Hoffman of the University of Michigan in his new book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. As suggested by the title, Hoffman’s thesis – a distillation of considerable research from social scientists over the past several years – is that the public’s understanding of climate change, like other historically contentious issues such as evolution, acid rain, the ozone hole, and genetically modified food – is as much a cultural issue as a scientific one.
One of the key arguments is that a scientific consensus does not necessarily reflect a “social consensus,” the latter being something that the majority of society would consider to be true. For instance, the scientific consensus that cigarettes harm human health emerged decades before the social consensus emerged.
Last year was the warmest globally in the 135 years since records have been kept. That was confirmed today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
What’s significant about one year’s temperature?
What does one record-breaking year say about climate change? Alone, very little, but 2014’s heat did not happen in isolation. It was part of a longer streak of warm years. The last 38 years have been warmer than the 20th century average. All of the top 10 warmest years have occurred since 1998. Taken together, these warm years demonstrate that the Earth’s climate has changed and continues to change. The “warm streak” also provides a strong argument against those who claim global warming somehow stopped in the last 15-20 years. Although it is true that the rate of warming since 1998 was slower than in prior decades, the longer-term picture is unequivocal. The planet is still warming up. And as we’ve discussed previously, the ups and downs that occur over a few years or even a decade should not be used to undermine (or unnecessarily embellish) the reality of the broad warming trend.
Another interesting aspect of 2014 is that the high-temperature mark was broken without much help from El Niño. El Niño events occur when a large area of the tropical Pacific Ocean maintains above-average temperatures for many consecutive months. So, when we have an El Niño, the planet has a good chance of being warm as a whole. El Niños helped make 1998, 2005, and 2010 some of the warmest years in the temperature record. However, in 2014, ocean conditions fell somewhere between neutral and a bona fide El Niño (see NOAA’s recent blog on the state of El Niño).
|Global average annual temperatures since 1880, from NOAA and climate.gov. The dark red columns represent the 10 warmest years in the record. 2014 is the warmest year in the record.|
Progress on a multifaceted global challenge like climate change doesn’t happen in one flash of bright light. This can lead to the impression that little is being accomplished, especially when stories highlight areas of disagreement.
Nothing can be further from the truth. In reality, progress is more like the brightening sky before dawn. We saw positive steps in 2014, and they’ll help lay the groundwork for significant climate action in 2015 in the United States and around the world.
In the U.S., we will see the EPA Clean Power Plan finalized and states taking up the challenge to develop innovative policies to reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Allowing governors to do what they do best, innovating at the state level, will be a key achievement of 2015.
Internationally, more countries than ever before will be putting forward new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions ahead of talks in December in Paris to hammer out a climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
In the New Year, we will be building on solid progress made in 2014 by governments, businesses, and individuals. Here are 10 examples: