Climate Adaptation

Chicago: Taking Tips from the Screwworm

This blog originally appeared on Triple Pundit.  See here

Given the typical irreverence of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I’m pondering something I think he might like to know: He could be the Screwworm Mayor.

Some of you may know that the lowly screwworm threatened Southwestern cattle in the 20th century, decimating Texas ranchers’ livestock with the wasting disease it triggered.  The tenacity of those hard-scrabble ranchers in the Southwest Cattleman’s Association eradicated this invasive pest by introducing of millions of screwworm flies sterilized by radioactivity. (You with me, Rahm.) The Association contends that this was the most beneficial 20th-century program to livestock producers than any other.*

As science and policy swirls around the introduction of sterile male mosquitoes to help eliminate the global scourge of malaria in some regions, Chicago has its local version.  Here’s our story: In 1986, the mosquito Aedes albopictus – also known as the Asian tiger mosquito – arrived by way of standing water in used tires (which had come full circle from stripped rubber rings in the U.S., then via ship to Asia to be retread and home again) and bamboo.

The mosquito survived in Chicago, despite being well outside its native range, because of the urban heat island effect that increases the temperature of urban areas with lots of black, heat-trapping surfaces. (Think: tar paper roofs and asphalt roads and parking lots.)  In the meantime, while shipping rules for tires and bambooprevented the introduction of more of these pests, every year (10 generations in a mosquito’s life) some live on in Chicagoland, contributing to our mosquito population. As the climate changes, the range for this mosquito will move north.

What if Chicago established a Midwest Mosquito Infertility Association, introducing sterile males specifically for this invasive pest, thus halting that progression?

While mosquito fertility is a topic of much debate, the unique situation of Tigris mosquitos in Chicago gives us a chance to control this experiment and address two of the biggest issues in that debate: One, the population affected isn’t over an entire continent or state (making it harder to eradicate, given the scale of effort), and two, the population is not native to the area (thereby, the web of life does not depend on its existence to keep itself in balance).

Let’s give those tiger mosquitos a wrangle!

*Update:  Those sterile males may need to be called back into service.  The Washington Post reported this fall:  Screwworm outbreak in Florida deer marks first U.S. invasion of the parasite in 30 years.


Vanguard Adaptation Leader: U.S. Department of Defense

The community of adaptation leaders should, indeed must, bolster its essential link with the national security apparatus.  Three reports suggest why:

1.     The Department of Defense has created a Roadmap (2014) with an objective to collaborate with stakeholders, including the adaptation community. Specifically, it says it seeks to promote deliberate collaboration with stakeholders across the Department and with other Federal, State, local, tribal and international agencies and oorganizations in addressing climate change considerations.

The report maintains that climate change “is a long-term trend, but with wise planning and risk mitigation now, we can reduce adverse impacts downrange.”  The authors’ use of the term “downrange” is important. While it’s not necessarily the future, it’s a target that may be farther away and, therefore, requires careful preparation to nail. 

The report concludes: “By taking a proactive, flexible approach to assessment, analysis, and adaptation, the Defense Department will keep pace with a changing climate, minimize its impacts on our missions, and continue to protect our national security.”

2.     In 2015, the DOD released another report on the national implications of climate change that notes the need to adapt military facilities – many located along the coasts and/or in arid environments – and to develop adaptation strategies to diffuse risks in developing countries.

3.     The White House in September released a Statement and a National Security document about integrating climate change into national security. But, in a missed opportunity, the documents do not mention adaptation.

As panel submission deadlines loom for the biannual National Adaptation Forum, I hope its steering committee has invited the DOD to speak at the May 2017 forum.  The Defense Department is at the frontline in its adaptation leadership. We should try to leapfrog one another, helping to inform adaptation strategies for communities of stakeholders and to enhance research to action.




Stranded Assets: Preventing the Next Era of Climate Change

I first heard the term “stranded assets” at a Bloomberg event in New York City during Climate Week 2014.  For me, the term conjured up images of homeowners and their dogs waiting atop roofs to be rescued during Hurricane Katrina.  Yet that didn’t seem right for the context of the discussion, and a quick Google search set me straight: They were talking about coal-fired power plants that would be worth nada on Wall Street should a carbon tax change the market.  (That was almost two years before Peabody Coal went bankrupt.)

Two years later at Climate Week NYC 2016’s Sustainable Investment Forum, stranded assets still seems to mean the same thing to investors – coal – and they mull it increasingly. The industry understands the term as holdings that need to be written down before the end of their expected life span. 

But BlackRock is an early leader in unveiling it's future meaning. Read more here at my oped published in Triple Pundit:

Financing Projects that Address the Physical Risks from Climate Change

I asked the Intentional Endowment Forum, run by a former boss of mine Dr. Tony Cortese, if they were aware of adaptation finance, that is, finance that addresses the physical risks of climate change.


I thought the response from Dr. Maximilian Horster a Partner at south pole group focused on the financial industry was particularly succinct, recapping what those of us in the adaptation finance investigation space are discovering. 


He writes:


“Currently, the investor focus is indeed mostly on transition risk: legislation, regulation, behavioral change, carbon pricing etc and the subsequent effects of asset stranding potential, energy transition and the like. Keep in mind that also here, we only see the beginning of actual stress tests among a – still small – group of investors and for only a few asset classes. Although the uptake is increasing rapidly, we are far from having established consistent standards, benchmarks or best practices.


For physical risks, we are even further away from an investor understanding. Often, data availability on physical climate risk is cited as the big hurdle but that is only half the story: Data on the likelihood of climate related extreme weather events (flooding, droughts etc) exist for most geographies and is used by insurance companies to price liabilities. However, it is not yet utilized for asset management, not even by that very same insurance firms that produce this data.  


What is missing is a mapping of these physical risks to the actual assets (such as production facilities), but also supply chain locations and end markets. We are developing this right now, but interestingly, investor interest is much less than one would think. Main reason is that - according to climate science - the full swing of physical risks are still 15-20 years away and therefore beyond most investors’ investment horizon (“tragedy of the horizons”).


Because of this, we see very few investments into climate change adaptation by mainstream investors. The exceptions are of course the multi-lateral funds under the UNFCCC and other outfits that have a strong focus on climate change adaptation, mainly for rural population and agriculture in developing countries since some time:”



Laurels for Credit Rating Agencies:Levers of Change in the Climate Adaptation Market

The voices and actions of the financial industry are critical to change capital market policy and practice change. That’s why I’m thrilled credit rating agencies are seizing their role as levers of change in the adaptation market. Consider these three examples of their newfound interest:

  1. Standard & Poor’s explicitly weighs adaptation in its new Proposed Green Bond evaluation tool.

  2. S&P proposes an Environmental Social and Governance risk exposure assessment.

  3. In its proposed ESG assessment tool, S&P acknowledges the differences in the time horizon of risk

Read my oped published in Triple Pundit for more insights:

Hi, Leaders! It’s Adaptation Time!

I treated myself to two days of conferencing last week in my own city at the Chicago Forum on Global Cities, which focused on climate and other global challenges. Co-hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times, the event featured luminaries from 30 countries.  

The FT’s beautiful salmon-colored newsprint caught my eye both days, first with its special city supplement proclaiming in its cover article: “This would mean that, by the second half of the present century, some big cities could be as much as 10C hotter than their surrounding hinterlands….Many large cities are situated in low-lying coastal areas, leaving them badly exposed to the dangers of flooding that come with rising sea levels and storm surges.” And next with its front page showing an alarming image of central Paris under water. 

Despite the respected business publication’s stark climate prognosis, none of the panelists addressed climate adaptation and none responded to a question posed to the closing full plenary: “Climate Change and Global Cities,” “What role do cities play in increasing adaptive capacity to withstand climate change stresses and shocks?” However, when pressed by the FT moderator, the EU’s former commissioner for climate action only noted, “In Dakha Bangladesh, all they care about is adaptation, not mitigation.”

Tubingen, Germany, Mayor Boris Palmer, an erudite crowd-pleaser, proclaimed:  “It cannot be about adaptation, it must be about mitigation.”  He wisely noted that his success reflects never tiring of explaining the virtue of climate action at a level his audience understands. 

So here goes, an explanation geared to the panelists on the Global Threats to the Global City,  (which did not mention climate change once in 75 minutes).

Abu Dhabi: Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi

The potential exposure of the United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi, in particular, to the impact of sea level rises is quite significant, given its current socioeconomic conditions in coastal areas.  In addition to the effects of such rises on social and economic structures, the vulnerability of coastal ecosystems is also of particular concern.


In the 2011 winter, Chicago incurred over $1.8 billion in losses and 36 deaths when a blizzard dumped two feet of snow on the city. In 2012, Illinois had the second-highest mortality (32 deaths) due to heat nationwide.  


Twenty-nine percent of bus stations and 26 percent of underground stations are at risk of flooding, along with 14 percent of schools and 27 percent of police stations. The number of days per year when overheating could occur is projected to rise from 18 to between 22-51 days by the 2020s (central estimate is 33 days).


From 1972 to 2014, the annual mean temperature increased from 26.6°C to 27.7°C. The mean sea level in the Straits of Singapore also has increased at the rate of 1.2mm-to-1.7mm per year in the period 1975 to 2009. 

Rainfall has intensified in recent years. Singapore's Second National Climate Change Study found a general uptrend in annual average rainfall from 2192mm in 1980 to 2727mm in 2014.

Washington, DC

In 2012, damages from Hurricane Sandy required over $3 million in FEMA public assistance grants to rebuild and recover in the District of Columbia. The previous year, D.C. suffered damages from Hurricane Irene that required over $2.4 million in FEMA public assistance grants to rebuild and recover.

From Abu Dabhi to Washington, cities have shown a sincere desire to address climate change by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.  That’s more important than ever, and it must be accompanied by a sincere desire to learn about and employ climate adaptation. Why? Because every $1 invested in adaptation avoids $4 in future losses.

Tubingen Mayor Palmer, as a member of the Germany Green Party (which puts climate change at the center of all policy considerations, including environmental policy and safety and social aspects), has the splendid chance to again demonstrate leadership by turning his refusal to embrace climate adaptation into an opportunity to embrace it and all collateral benefits for his constituents.  

Earth Hour Sheds Light on 5 Grim Climate Facts

This post originally appeared on Climate change affects lives each day around the globe. From summer heat waves to drastic floods, it touches the wealthiest individuals living in modern cities and the poorest in developing countries. The effects of climate change can reach far beyond the expected ecosystems, economic sectors and populations.

CRS and our partner in El Salvador are helping farmers like Candido Hernandez Orellana build back harvests ruined by drought. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS

CRS and our partner in El Salvador are helping farmers like Candido Hernandez Orellana build back harvests ruined by drought. Photo by Oscar Leiva/Silverlight for CRS

On March 19, from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. local time, cities, landmarks and businesses around the world will turn off their lights for one hour. The goal of this Earth Hour is to highlight climate change dangers.

Climate change is happening now, and predictions for the future are grim.

Below are five of the most shocking climate statistics that you may have been in the dark about:

  1. Events influenced by climate change took 12,994 lives in 2015.

This startlingly high number, provided by the International Disaster Database at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, is up from 8,056 in 2014, showing just how dangerous climate change is becoming. There is a pressing need to adapt to climate change in order to protect lives threatened by droughts, fires, heat waves, storms, floods and landslides.

  1. The total monetary cost of events influenced by climate change in 2015 was $74.6 billion.

This data from the International Disaster Database highlights the huge economic impact. Besides the social, physical, and environmental needs, among many others, to mitigate and adapt to minimize future damage, there is an increasing economic need as well.

  1. 90% of the recorded natural disasters from 1995 to 2015 were influenced by climate and weather.

According to the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the United States had the highest number of disasters, followed by China, India, the Philippines and Indonesia. Resilience and disaster planning are needed to reduce risks and mitigate impacts of floods, heat waves, droughts and other potentially catastrophic climate-related events.

  1. With no action, climate change costs and risks will accumulate to an equivalent of an annual loss of at least 5% of global GDP.

A report by Jonathan M. Harris, Brian Roach and Anne-Marie Codur at Tufts University, “The Economics of Global Climate Change,” predicts losses of land area, species and forests; and water supply disruption, increased human health dangers and drought. These changes—affecting biodiversity, agricultural production and human survival—will likely be irreversible. Other, less predictable, effects may include changing weather patterns, rapid melting of major ice sheets and glaciers, and an increasing rate of global warming.

  1. The total annual cost of climate change on human health will total about $2 to $4 billion by 2030.

This estimate from the World Health Organization accounts for the detrimental effects of climate change on vital basic resources, such as clean air, safe water, adequate nutrition and protective shelter. WHO also estimates 250,000 more deaths will occur annually between 2030 and 2050 because of climate change.

These numbers underscore the great sense of urgency to act against climate change to protect innocent lives.

Author: Joyce Coffee is managing director of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. 

Patricia Holly, a University of Notre Dame student, contributed to this article.

Let's Create a Climate Adaptation Opportunity Standard to Catalyze Investors

Three examples illustrate a need  to inspire an adaptation marketplace. 1. the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, unlike its 20 predecessors, prioritized adaptation & finance. 2. the 2016 Global Risk Perceptions Survey (WEF 2016) ranks failure to adapt to climate change 1st of 28 risks in terms of potential negative impact. 3. UNEP (2015) calculates the adaptation finance gap will be US$140-300B/year by 2030. There is a need for increased funding for adaptation projects, many of which create jobs & stimulate economies as a co-benefit of protecting human & natural communities from the effects of climate change. One barrier is the absence of an adaptation market, a mechanism by which adaptation projects can be traded as commodities, financed by private, government and development investors.

This absence is partly due to a lack of a standard measure for adaptation success that would e.g. create tradable adaptation credit, increase adaptation project bankability, and direct finance to short- and long-term adaptation projects.

What type of measure is needed to evaluate the potential success of adaptation projects? What types of investment decisions will it influence? Is it the same need for development and private sector investors? Addressing these questions will help to benchmark and establish a draft adaptation Standard in collaboration with  the private and development sectors.

A nascent investor-lead Global Adaptation & Resilient Investment (GARI) group is attempting to address this need. ND-GAIN & GARI have identified missing knowledge that will spur the adaptation market: a globally accepted project-level measure of adaptation success that assesses progress thereby quantifying opportunity for investors & inspiring a new marketplace that will improve both lives & economies in the face of climate change. The standard will direct investment flows into projects that have climate adaptation & market benefits, inspire investment for adaptation projects not previously considered, credit existing projects, & shape growth of investor tools, such as debt instruments.


This standard will be comprised of a unique & efficient set of indicators that measure the success of adaptation investments. Potential indicators will be evaluated against outcomes including avoided death & damage, avoided cost & collateral job, ecosystem & greenhouse gas mitigation benefits.


The creation of an international standard to measure climate risk & opportunity entails:

  1. Establish theoretical baseline standard of adaptation measurement
  2. Improve Standard concept through feedback from users
  3. Support investor community to pilot the Standard on existing & proposed adaptation investments
  4. Draft paper proposing a standards for adaptation project measurement
  5. Share knowledge with marketplace


The goal is to reduce barriers and foster growth in a global market for adaptation projects by expanding the number of projects, investors and improved human lives.

The ultimate outcome of this Standard will be to inspire a global market for adaptation projects that save lives & improve livelihoods through private sector & development agency investments that help prevent the avoidable & manage the unpreventable in the new era of droughts, super-storms, flooding, fires & other climate stresses & shocks.

Let know if you are interested in joining us in this important work!

WEF's Global Risk Report: Clarion Call for Adaptation

WEF Global Risks of Highest Concern 2016

WEF Global Risks of Highest Concern 2016

In 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report concentrates on the likelihood and impact of environmental and societal risks. Three of the top five most likely risks are environmental, including failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation ranking as 3rd most likely and as the most potentially impactful. This year is the first time in almost ten years that an environmental risk has ranked first in terms of impact. Water crises and involuntary migration also rank in the top five for most impactful risks in 2016.  

Over time, climate-related issues have increasingly ranked higher in potential impact and likelihood of occurrence in this vanguard report.. These risks feature prominently in the highest concern list for the next 18 months. And, with a longer term view over the next ten years all five of the risks of highest concern relate to climate change: water crisis, failure of mitigation and adaptation, extreme weather events, food crisis and profound social instability importance of climate-related events.

The report presents many risks that are interconnected, such that they may be mitigated or aggravated by the same action or event. Climate change, as a trend, is heavily weighted, indicating strong connections with many other risks, including extreme weather events, water crises, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse. These data indicate a need for nations, as well as businesses and local governments, to collaborate to address climate change – especially to implement and measure adaptation projects.

Important questions are now presented to the world. Climate change must clearly become a global priority, but what is the best way to go about both mitigating it and, adapting to it?  Some of those questions were addressed in the Paris Decision and Agreement, where a mitigation target is on par with not only a global adaptation goal, but also the humbling Loss and Damage. With Loss and Damage an official part of the agreement and the educated elite that participate in WEF’s survey defining major risks as the lack of adaptive capacity, there is a resounding clarion call to create adaptation actions in water and food security today that save lives and improve livelihoods.

Thanks to Patricia Holland, ND-GAIN Intern, for her help with this blog.

COP's Legacy: A New Era

This blog appeared on Triple Pundit on 15/12/15 At a private event Wednesday in Paris, Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, noted two significant differences between the 21st Conference of the Parties that ended Friday and previous COPs. One, the role of non-state actors – the private sector and others not under state direction – and, two, the emphasis placed on finance.

These are heartening changes for an incredibly bureaucratic process that to many celebrates its coming-of-age 21st birthday with so little past progress. I would add another difference to Bakker’s list: These climate talks differed substantially from the prior ones because they gave audience to resilience. Not only was the first resilience day held as an official part of the two-week conference, but the final agreement released Saturday includes the word adaptation more frequently than the word mitigation.

The mood for adaptation has changed, too. Perhaps this reflects that even the well-off countries are experiencing climate change. Notre Dame Global Adaptation Indexscientists calculate that those living in upper-income countries have a 10 percent chance of experiencing a climate-related event in 2016. That contrasts to a 1-in-5 chance in lower-income countries, which are a century behind the level of resilience (aka adaptive capacity) of upper-income countries.

As many of us dig deeper into our sustainability work, we are aware of this inequity, and we feel the moral responsibility – the ethical drive – to address the humanitarian challenge of our time. This determination, while acknowledging the incontrovertible role of aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation, also naturally draws us to the new era of climate change: adaptation.

It is a humbling era that requires significant responsibility from us and our brethren around the world. Still, the two themes that the WBCSD’s Bakker elucidated – enhanced engagement from corporations and cities, and forthright inclusion of climate action finance – suggest we are in a good place from which to act for the betterment of humanity.

COP21's Outcome: Adapt or Bust

This blog appeared on Triple Pundit 21/12/15 As the Paris climate negotiations closed Saturday, you heard a great deal of hope and optimism as well as congratulations for vision and progress emanating from COP21. Indeed, important commitments have been made – but they’re pledges, not actions, and they don’t reverse the adverse climate change underway.

Which is why adaptation is more important than ever.

Among conference influencers, I heard many reasons against adaptation. Such projects aren’t bankable, contended the head of Regions20, a United Nations investor collaboration. Mitigation is more interesting, maintained a global nonprofit agriculture sustainability advocate. And from the United Nation’s adaptation chief: Lessening greenhouse gases is the only thing insurance companies should spend money on.

But these leaders, among the most active climate actors at the historic conference, postpone adaptation at their peril – and so does the rest of the world. Consider the warnings that sound so loudly from Stanford and Berkeley calculations: Global incomes could decline 23 percent by 2100 relative to a world without climate change. And by 2030, annual costs of adaptation could be $150-300 billion a year, by the UN’s own estimate. .

UN officials acknowledge that even in the best-case scenarios of greenhouse gas mitigation under the agreement, climate change will persist for at least three-to-four decades. So much for helping the health and safety of our children and grandchildren.

On the other hand, one group that seemed willing to consider adaptation at COP21 was the private sector:

  1. The sustainability director of Mars Inc. notes that he often starts discussions with climate adaptation in discussions when conferring with his government hosts about doing chocolate business in Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria.
  2. An executive of nonprofit health plan Kaiser Permanente defined his role as climate adaptive in supporting human resilience.
  3. Investment firm South Pole Carbon, leveraging its growth in mitigation markets, has seen exponential growth in its developing-country water purification adaptation investment partnership.
  4. PepsiCo, a historic adaptation leader, continues to innovate throughout its food-and-beverage supply chain.
  5. The UN Global Compact had the courage and foresight to release a paper of adaptation best practices at its Caring for Climate business forum. ND-GAIN participated in creating The Business case for Responsible Corporate Adaptation

The biggest adapters at the COP21 negotiations seemed to be – wait for it – the United States government, which Thursday pledged $800 million for adaptation.

As I joined other tired souls exiting the climate talks and onto the crowded bus to the metro station, I thought to myself: Adapt or Bust. For while I share hope that countries will make good on the significant commitments emanating from COP21, I’m a pragmatist. I recognize from similar pledges made in both private and local government sectors over the years that the best of intentions differs from impact. And making good on mitigation commitments can be slow, failure-prone work.

Still, recognizing the important mitigation actions galvanized by COP21, I’m encouraged that the private sector is opening doors to new markets, creating collateral benefits, building efficiencies and innovating for adaptation. Well beyond the hope and promise of the Paris Agreement, private sector voices will help ensure that extreme events do not become disasters.

The Paris Agreement: A Not Bad Outcome Compels Corporate Action

This post appeared on 9 December 2015 on the RANE Network  

As the Paris Climate Talks enter the final frenzied hours attempting to come to an agreement about mitigation targets for the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, how to finance needed mitigation and adaptation to meet those targets, and what to do with loss and damage from unavoidable climate change, I reflect on three important and timely elements of COP21 related to the corporate sector:

  1. Business does not fit in much to the agreement. In the 28 page draft, the private sector is mentioned 11 times, mostly as it relates to access to capital. And while carbon pricing is mentioned a few times, along with euphemisms for international emissions trading, the document is likely to remain silent on the word “market” through its finalization.
  2. Good progress on both national commitments and an international agreement is being made. Although the most zealous climate mitigators continue to call for a 1.5 degree Celsius target (versus the two degree target that COP21 ostensibly called for), this may not be in climate mitigators best interest. Those in the know suggest that a “not bad” outcome will be less likely to die upon return to each national government. Thus, ironically, those who want to kill the Paris Agreement may also be want this ambitious outcome, which would no doubt die upon return to Washington, New Delhi and other climate-agreement tenuous capitals.
  3. While the lead up to COP21, and the discussions for the last two weeks, have created the foundation of an agreement with national targets and plans, for business, from 2016 onward, the point will be delivering on the low carbon pathways discussed and committed to here. Corporate innovation, influence, political will and finance will move us forward to a climate-abled future.


This is why, while the world will debate the merit of the diplomatic outcome of COP21, we are positive about Paris’ conclusions.

COP21: A Chance in Paris to Save Lives and Improve Livelihoods through Climate Adaptation

I wouldn’t miss the United Nations conference on climate change that begins Monday in Paris, even though it’s the event’s 21st birthday and there’s little to toast from past events. Why is COP21 a must-attend confab for me? This is the first time that climate adaptation will be on the table for discussion. That’s a big deal. Adapting to climate vagaries – think of ocean ports raising sea barriers and drought-tolerant crops being planted in the world’s expanding arid regions – is more important than ever. Adaptation must rise to the top of the climate agenda, ignited by the 6.5 million people displaced in Syria’s drought-driven civil conflict and the 7,000 who died in the superstorm Typhoon Yolanda that hit the Philippines.

The Grave Omission of COPs

So we’re in solidarity with those who will be in Paris to work to decrease global climate emissions. And we are focusing our resources on preventing the avoidable and preparing for the unpreventable in the face of climate change. What’s been the grave omission in the COPs of the past decade are agreements on adaptation commitments. Meanwhile, insurers such as Swiss Re report how weather-related catastrophes are mounting and every year we don’t adapt, more lives are lost.

I’m also going to Paris to gauge the potency of Pope Francis’ recent strong encyclical outlining the moral dimensions of climate change. I want to find out to what extent the political elite are embracing the Pope’s assertion that climate change is a principal challenge facing humanity.

I want to meet and hear the new voices emerging in the battle against climate change. Not the familiar voices of the big pollution emitters – China, Europe and the U.S. – but those from the small island nations and poorer countries who are raising persistent and impassioned concerns about how their populations are being harmed. Places such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Sudan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Angola.

I’ve spent half of my career focused on adaptation, beginning in Chicago where I worked for City government on a climate-mitigation strategy at the City that, frankly, hasn’t made much of a dent in curbing energy demand. Why? Because that demand continues to grow along with welcome economic progress. In Paris, I want to see if there’s any city whose economy is prospering that’s experiencing a drop in energy use. And, if one or more exist, I want to know what they’ve done to curb customary energy demand.

A Mother’s Duty

There’s another reason why I’m going. Because I’m a mother. Of an inquisitive grade-schooler fascinated by time machines and is animated by the contrast between my Jurassic-era past and his unexplored future filled with technology and innovation.

He gets somber during our annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Boulder, Colo., when he sees the devastating aftermath of forest fires there and the wreckage from the “once-in-100-years” flood in the canyon near our favorite hikes. He wonders if there’s going to be enough tech in the world to get by.

I want to find out what hope we have for his uncertain future, especially as a major World Bank and International Finance Corporation study recently estimated the economic costs of climate change to our physical environment, health and food security at $70-180 billion annually to 2030 – and rising to $900 billion a year in 2050.

And I go there as a devastating drought bites further across California, causing over $2.2 billion in damage, and as an area equivalent to a quarter of New York State deals with the aftermath of drought-induced fires in the Northwest.

For the sake of people everywhere, Adaptation to save lives and improve livelihoods must be at the forefront of climate action next week and forever.

The Insurance Industry: Adaptation Drivers

An edifying conversation with Tom Herbstein, programme manager for the ClimateWise[1] initiative of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, led me to peruse a ClimateWise case study I had skimmed when published in 2010. It is Adapting to the extreme weather impacts of climate change – how can the insurance industry help? And I was delighted to grasp so much from a resource whose lessons remain very relevant today. Here are my takeaways.  

Overall, the case study reminded me that the insurance industry provides a great resource for adaptation thought leadership. For instance, Swiss Re’s Sigma annual publication on natural catastrophes and man-made disasters and the intriguing and helpful Global Risk Map published by the United Nations’ Principals for Sustainable Insurance are referenced frequently referenced by those of us working in adaptation. Key is that insurance serves as an integral element of the entire risk-management cycle – from identification to risk transfer and recovery. The insurance industry:

  • Contributes to a better understanding of risk through, for example, the development of forward-looking risk models.
  • Adds to risk awareness through risk-based terms and conditions and advice to its customers, and offers incentives to increase prevention and other risk-management measures.
  • Assists policymakers to guide society with such tools as land use planning and building codes.


The insurance industry and ND-GAIN possess a special relationship. ND-GAIN pursues its mission to increase global awareness of the need to adapt and thus inform investments that save lives and improve livelihoods. This helps the insurance industry enhance its customer understanding of risk and risk-reduction measures. As a third-party, university-lead entity, we serve as a tool used by the insurance industry to better promote adaptation with its clients.


It’s important to note that efforts to maintain or create insurability – a key adaptive capacity – provide business opportunities for the insurance and risk-management sector. A range of factors such as profit protection, strategic aims, public relations and corporate social responsibility drives insurers’ engagement in adaptation. But these factors do not necessarily drive insurers to operate in lower-income and least-developed countries, thus potentially contributing to a high percentage of uninsured. When considering adapting to climate change in developing countries, the insurance industry can support adaptation through:

  • Expertise in risk management
    • Placing a price tag on risk.
    • Influencing the design of risk-reduction and risk-transfer activities.
  • Expertise in adaptive capacity
    • Putting a price tag on resilience measures.
    • Influencing the design of adaptive capacity actions.


This expertise should help to incentivize loss reduction by informing stakeholders (governments and regulators, clients and business partners, business and industry, civil society and academia) about the risks they face, advising them on risk mitigation/adaptive capacity options and providing them with existing insurance options for loss reduction.



[1] The ClimateWise Principles were launched in September 2007 by the CEOs of 16 leading insurance industry players, thereby committing their organizations to a wide range of actions on climate change, to reporting in public on those actions on an annual basis and to subjecting themselves to independent review of their progress.


The World’s Poor: Pope Francis Clarifies Their Disproportionate Risk to Climate Disruption

The Papal Encyclical released today focuses on the moral obligation to safeguard the earth and mankind’s common good. In it, Pope Francis defines "the urgent challenge to protect our common home" and reminds us of our shared humanity, our shared risk, and our shared responsibility to save lives and improve livelihoods in the face of climate change.

His opus defines the issue about us as humans and notes that climate change is "one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day." Although many were expecting an encyclical on the environment, his emphasis on climate change helps us to see that specific issue as a humanitarian crisis, not just an environmental problem.

The biblical proportion of climate change's shocks and stress are causing disproportionate harm to those already suffering from poverty, illness and other inequities.  Increasingly, droughts, food insecurity, superstorms and civil conflicts impact poverty and injustice.   Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index quantifies the  disproportionate risk  the Pope describes when he repeatedly returns to his message about global inequities in a climate changed world. He specifically identifies Africa as continent impacted by climate change, defining a "debt" that exists between the global south and north,

The pope defines climate change as a “complex crisis” and urges an integration of the “ecological approach” and the “social approach.”   He clarifies: “Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature.” He notes that "for poor countries, the priorities must be eliminating extreme poverty and promoting the social development of their people.”

He mentions both climate vulnerabilities (specifically water and food insecurity; sanitation and water quality; ecosystem degradation (dependence on natural capital and urban concentrations); and social, economic and governance problems (such as justice, deterioration in social cohesion, corruption, governance, and institutional effectiveness). This helps leaders to bridge from issues that keep them up at night – transparency, rule of law, education and such – to issues of climate change.

Pope Francis notes that “the world's problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation." He acknowledges our human ability to transform reality and calls on us to use it with an understanding of the impact on earth and humanity.

While the Pope is critical of corporate motives, he notes that “it is right to rejoice over these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.” He adds that “technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings, explaining:

“Technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life”

For ND-GAIN, the encyclical shines a holy light on both injustices and the need to combine the “elimination of extreme poverty” with climate adaptation. It motivates us to help the world's poor and disenfranchised to adapt to the unprecedented and overwhelming impacts of climate change. We must do so in service to justice for human solidarity and concern for the common good.

Disproportionate Risk

Shifts in thinking in our unbalanced world

At the World Bank’s recent Financing Urban Resilience Workshop, I grasped three clear trends – indeed, shifts – occurring that are changing how adaptation leaders and others are managing an unbalanced world.  

(The workshop was led by Stephen Hammer, Lead Specialist, Cities and Climate Change, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice World Bank and attended by the Rockefeller Foundation, IFC, IDB, Munich Re, cities such as New Orleans, Mexico City, Acclimitise, Arup, AECOM etc.)


The detected changes:

  1. A shift within the traditional sustainability community from natural hazards to other types of shocks such as economic crises, health epidemics, etc. This reflects an overall shift to a more multidisciplinary approach, and it includes a switch from managing risks from specific disaster hazards to handling climate adaptation, which acknowledges the challenge of multiple hazards.


  1. A change from striving to put the world into balance (the aim of much sustainability work) to seeking to manage in an unbalanced world. Among other things, this allows for “safe failures” for affected systems while, at the same time, requiring redundancy, robustness and diversity may differ from what previously was believed to be needed.


  1. A shifting time horizon (the biggie for me) that requires grasping with uncertainties. Development presumes that the pace of change of natural systems remains relatively constant. For instance, the pace of climate change means we cannot rely simply on a natural system’s typical temporal resilience (evolution, migration or other change to accommodate shifts in ecosystems). We must be aware of thresholds, the most common of which is the rise in seas. This is illustrated graphically by Florida in the United States and by Bangladesh and other countries. (See a few trusted visualizations of sea level rise:


While I consider my work well underway on the first two identified shifts, I’m grappling with the temporal change. The radical actions this requires will take courage from many – starting with an acknowledgement that more coastal development puts more lives at risk, unnecessarily.

Advancing Climate Resilient Development

USAID and its Climate Change Resilient Development project hosted a symposium in mid-March on Advancing Climate Resilient Development at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The project, led by Engility/IRQ, was tagged as a project to watch in ND-GAIN’s 2014 Corporate Adaptation Prize competition. USAID ResilientUSAID ResilientThe Wednesday morning panel, Urban Day: Applying Technical Research and Tools in Developing Cities, focused on lessons learned from putting urban adaptation projects in place. A top-notch panel included John Furlow, USAID; Glen Anderson, Engility Corp.; Charles Cadwell, The Urban Institute; and Heather McGray, World Resources Institute (and lead rapporteur).


Heather issued a compelling report and to that, I offer this set of actions for all of us who consider ourselves climate-adaptation catalysts.


  1. We need to look before we leap, especially when it relates to pilot projects, where a healthy skepticism exists. We deserve to be impatient with small-scale action. The failure to glean lessons from pilots stands as a definite problem. Pilots should be chosen with comparability and scale-out in mind. One potential solution: Select an external group of leaders hold you accountable. In Chicago, we tapped a Green Ribbon Committee for our Chicago Climate Action Plan. At ND-GAIN, Kresge-ND-GAIN Advisors serves as our Urban Adaptation Assessment.
  2. We must integrate climate resilience into our work. A segregation/distinction between adaptation and development no longer exists. This is beneficial in a variety of ways, especially helping constituents recognize they already have built momentum and achieved success on adaptation (by reviewing their development work from the adaptation perspective.) But we should not assume all development professionals ask the climate adaptation question of their work, and we should continue to provide assets to help them to do so.
  3. We must emphasize that a good climate tool is one that is customized to the user and crafted from the user perspective. This holds true particularly with the climate scenarios and modeling. While data becomes more and more available, we also need data that is easy to access and interpret. We should invite our IT colleagues to help keep climate leaders on the cutting edge of data access.
  4. We must step up our collaboration with urban planners*, who climate change practitioners only recently have discovered. This is especially important since adaptation is a local issue. (As I have written about before, urban planners serve on the front lines of response, prevention and opportunity.)  Many urban planners reading this might contend they have been pragmatic climate-change practitioners for a long time, dealing with droughts, excessive precipitation, extreme heat, scarce natural resources, and the like.  
  5. We need to grasp that while the Private sector is an important driver of adaptation, it is markets – not plans – that drive what the private sector does.  We should make sure plans and markets follow the same direction. To do this, we must understand that market growth pertains to sustaining lives and supporting livelihoods. Generally, the corporate stakeholder is a sustainability stakeholder when helping to build markets. From that perspective, we review the work of corporate stakeholders, provide them with knowledge and collaborate with them in a way that furthers all of our goals.

*and here is a shameless plug for MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning!

Brazil drought – the Readiness Prophylactic


The bottom of the ND-GAIN Index when ranked by the water sector

Last month, Sao Paolo’s epic drought made headlines around the world, not simply because that’s strange for a place known colloquially as Terra da Garoa(Land of Drizzle). Ranked by the water sector, Brazil sits at a comfortable 20 in the ND-GAIN index. But officials in that country’s most populous city have worried about water supplies for several years and even wonder if it might cause a riot.


In other parts of the world, of course, drought has been oncoming for decades. These are the kind of places that already have progressed beyond riot stage into all-out-war. Simply consider the bottom of the ND-GAIN Index when sorted for water. That Syria lies at the bottom shouldn’t be surprising.


Other countries – Sudan and Pakistan, for instance – aren’t too surprising either because water shortages have sparked popular discontent. In their cases, droughts in agricultural lands have spurred rural migrations to their cities. Some suggest this contributes to fomenting volatile civil discontent.

I am particularly interested in why those countries that share a low berth on the ND-GAIN rankings seem relatively conflict-free. For instance, comparing the trajectory of Jordan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to that of Syria, Sudan and Pakistan, the suggestion arises that improving governance, social structure and economic opportunity in countries could prove to be a prophylactic to water-scarcity driven civil conflict.


That possibility makes me hopeful for countries such as Brazil, whose readiness also has increased over time.   On the graph below, Brazil’s curve resembles a giraffe, just like that of Jordan. So while its readiness rank is 111 in the ND-GAIN Country Index vs. Jordan’s 82, Brazil may be able to increase its resilience to drought and, thus, quell any potential water-scarcity driven unrest.   It appears that it might start is in the social sector.

chart (20)chart (21)

Lunar New Year Predictions from the Climate Leadership Conference

At a session this week (2-23) organized by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions at the Climate Leadership Conference, C2E Staff Scientist Joe Casola facilitated a discussion that asked the 60-plus corporate, nonprofit and government leaders attending to foresee 2035 and predict what business resilience will look like. The absorbing conversation was part of the session “Emerging Best Practices for Identifying Climate Risk and Increasing Resilience.” Other leaders were Rutgers Energy Institute’s Robert Kopp, fourtwentyseven’s Emilie Mazzacurati and Pacific Gas & Electric’s Christopher Benjamin.

Since we are in the midst of the Lunar New Year season, a great time for fortune telling, I thought you would enjoy the group’s top ideas:

Top Six:

  1. Supply-chain risk synonymous with climate risk, making supply-chain, climate-risk mitigation business as usual.
  2. A doubling of interest in small business and Main Street, aided by Chambers of Commerce that help build public/private partnerships to increase local government adaptation.
  3. Climate risk as a shared responsibility across corporate verticals, no longer an exclusive fit with offices of sustainability.
  4. Insurance priced accurately, providing a forcing function on business and land use decisions.
  5. Future cost projections of climate change incorporated into financial and economic estimates for all return-on-investment and strategic decisions.
  6. A generational change in which the leaders in 2035 naturally focus on the question of climate with their work, integrating resilience into their decision making (my favorite).

To these, let me add three of my own:

  • A realization that climate change harms the promise of the growing middle class in lower-income countries, sparking a redoubling of interest in investing in resilience in the global south.
  • A move away from recovery and toward prevention, facilitated in part by mature warning systems, advanced risk prediction and assessment methods that prove the ROI of resilience.
  • A solid pyramid of policies that stack atop each other and form the foundation of good governance. This allows corporations to make resilient business decisions throughout their value chains and to contribute to the good of the commons (worker-protection laws against heat distress, flood plain buffer requirements, landscape water-pricing requirements, etc.)

All of these will be better informed by an agreed-upon measurement of adaptation that rivals the elegant MTCO2E and provides an easy way for everyone to quantify their progress.

What do you think?


Emerging Global Risk: Failure to Adapt to Climate Change

While the world still smarts from years of global recession, experts now identify climate change risks as bigger threats to the stability of the world than economic ones.   The World Economic Forum’s Global Risk 2015 Report ranks failure to adapt to climate change 5th out of 28 risks in terms of potential negative impact on countries or industries, and 7th in terms of likelihood of occurrence within the next 10 years. The WEF defines failure to adapt to climate change as governments and businesses failing to enforce or enact effective measures to protect populations and to help businesses impacted by climate change to transition. Although warnings of potential environmental catastrophes have grown more persistent, few survey respondents see much progress in climate change adaptation and in mitigating other environmental risks. The ten WEF Global Risks Reports taken as a whole illustrate the rising likelihood of storms and cyclones, flooding, biodiversity loss, and climate change, and the escalating impacts of extreme weather events. This year, water crises, a risk predominantly dependent on climate dynamics, tops global risks impacts, putting it above spread of infectious diseases and weapons of mass destruction.

Drawing on the perspectives of 900 experts and global decision-makers, the annual report also provides a glimpse into other risks climate change could exacerbate if society fails to adequately adapt. These include water crises, food crises, and extreme weather events. Further, global trends of urbanization, environmental degradation, and weakening of international governance are linked to adaptation failure. These insights point to the need for greater leadership engagement to implement more robust measures for climate change adaptation.

Some crucial questions emerge for government, business, and civil society communities: How does climate change impact society, economics, geopolitics, and technology, and how should it be prioritized? How effective are current adaptation policies and practices? Which areas need special attention?