Climate Adaptation – Corporate Learning from Past Disasters

  I advised a group of thought leaders recently at a workshop on Climate Adaptation:  Building a Community of Practitioners, funded by the Kresge and Johnson Foundations.  It proved to be a great opportunity to consider climate adaptation with a group of seasoned professionals who have helped their communities thrive after weather disasters.  As with any good workshop, I left with more questions than answers.  Today, though, let me share some key takeaways:

  1. Climate (extreme weather) events have a disproportionate impact on companies.  When floodwaters entered the Des Moines (Iowa) Water Works, the damage cost the government $14 million to repair. Overall, flood damages to that city’s businesses were estimated at between $300 - $400 million. Source: Project Impact (Clinton administration NOAA program)
  2. Corporations that often benefit from a changed climate (Wal-Mart saw an uptick in business from Hurricane Katrina, Target Corp. in Florida for annual hurricane protection and Siemens for power generators) are good places to identify climate adaptation leaders who understand the risks, prevention strategies and opportunities.  Sometimes, corporate engagement in disaster scenarios has occurred initially through Chambers of Commerce.
  3. Corporations already engaged in significant climate adaptations (Chiquita Banana finding alternate supplies for their delta-produced bananas) also offer lessons in business continuity planning, risk management, and community engagement.  And private sector tourism entities may also prove to be low hanging fruit for climate adaptation engagement.
  4. The broader climate adaptation community needs corporations for a variety of reasons but, primarily because corporations have powerful influence over elected officials (and elected officials are key to resource allocation, research and executive-level promotion). The President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) (conference participant), charged with enforcing the president’s executive order to all federal departments to prepare and execute climate adaptation plans, may not translate its work to compel the private sector for awhile.
  5. Speaking of the CEQ, private institutions have lots to learn from governmental institutions about what climate adaptation is and how to create an institutional commitment to climate adaptation (this how piece may be the bigger surprise for corporations).
  6. Companies prepared for a climate-related event can use the event to make major changes (instituting telecommuting policy, diversifying supplier chain to other countries and decreasing office space: employee ratios), to enhance their reputation through community engagement.  (Big  Box retailers identified as cooling centers during heat events; hardware stores offering reduced-price disaster-recovery goods and installation advice; C-suite advisors helping small businesses to develop recovery plans).
  7. We have an opportunity to translate science into action for corporations. Focusing on hazards occurring now may be helpful since evidence is crucial for engagement.  Corporate risk management and business continuity planning managers may be our best areas of entry.