Corporate Adaptation Stories: Risky Business

With mid-term U.S. elections less than two months away, I have been scanning the news eagerly to locate any references to the significant Risky Business Project report on climate change released in June. I wondered if the report’s critical findings have stoked any passionate fires within any elected officials or their opponents. Alas, political contests this year don’t seem to rest on the future of our country – or any of its political districts – as far as the effects of climate change are concerned.

What a shame. Reflecting its remarkable array of leaders on its advisory board, Risky Business has a well-thought-out strategy: Engage influencers from both sides of the political aisle, inform them with potent data that illuminates how climate change is impacting key sectors of the U.S. economy, and then get them to prod their powerful networks to move on mitigating the effects of pollution and other environmental dangers.

When lawmakers grasp that message (if they ever do), then climate change will move to the front burners and, hopefully, lead to ways to counter the effects that Risky Business convincingly demonstrates already are impacting crime, food, health, infrastructure and other vital sectors.

The report notes that the project aims to highlight climate risks to specific business sectors and regions of the economy and to provide actionable data at a geographically granular level for decisionmakers. “Right now, cities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a changing climate without sufficient federal government support, resulting in a virtual “unfunded mandate by omission” to deal with climate at the local level,” the report maintains. “We believe that American businesses should play an active role in helping the public sector determine how best to react to the risks and costs posed by climate change.”

Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review asked, “Has Climate Change become a business story?” It observed that The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times published stories ahead of the report’s release. In addition, leading business publications, including Forbes, Fortune and the International Business Times, ran high-profile articles on their websites the day of the press conference.

Steven Mufson, an energy and finance reporter, wrote about it for The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times’ report ran in its Business section. Long-time National Public Radio economics correspondent John Ydstie covered the news and The New York Times was one of the few that covered the event as a science story.

But I’m looking for a different story – one from the corporations themselves – with business leaders talking about their own climate-risk adaptation stories, perhaps galvanized by this report,

In two weeks during New York City’s Climate Week, ND-GAIN will host an event, What’s New:  Corporations Leading Climate Resilience around the World, where corporate officials will relate their story by unveiling the latest innovations in adaptation.

Come meet the winners of ND-GAIN’s Corporate Adaptation Prize and join them and the judges for a lively discussion addressing food security, water access, health, and infrastructure solutions in the face of a changing global climate.

And, of course, kudos to Risky Business for getting the influencers to shape the biggest change crisis of our time.


Climate Adaptation as a Business Opportunity –ND-GAIN as a tool to help

There are some incredibly positive sustainability trends baring themselves out today:

  • Sustainability is becoming more a part of the ethos of the c-suite
  • Non-profit and public/private partnerships are growing in impact
  • Sustainable growth is being fueled by innovation in business/technology

Yet these hopeful trends are paired with a more sobering theme:   climate risk

This year, 4 out of top 10 global risks derived from World Economic Forum’s global risk perception survey,,  relate to climate disruption

3.Water Crisis

5. Failure of Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

6. Greater Incidence of Extreme Weather Events

8.Food Crisis


These risks share space with other risks such as high unemployment, fiscal crisis and political and social instability.

More specifically, one statistic from CDP’s supply chain survey,,  really caught my attention:  more than 70% of corporate respondents saw risks to their supply chain from climate disruption.

And indeed, these risks are baring themselves out. 2011’s unprecedented flooding in Thailand alone resulted in $20B economic losses, Honda’s losses totaled more than $250 million when flood waters inundated an auto assembly plant, and  - to take another climate impact - General Motors calculated that a one-month disruption at one of its production facilities in Mexico hard hit by drought, could result in a loss of $27 million in net income.

But, as with any business risk, known risk can spell opportunity.  Vulnerable sectors crucial to human health and prosperity that also can be greatly improved by innovation – such as food, energy, and water –  are prime for investments that help us adapt to climate risks.

The US Military calls climate change a threat multiplier and instability accelerant, and some suggest that climate change fueled conflicts in Chad, Darfur, Yemen and Syria.

And it is not just civil conflict:  A report from the World Bank,, says that many important development advances of the 20th Century, such as food security, global health and poverty reduction, may be undermined by climate change.

Recently, the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index produced an analysis that showed it will take more than 100 years for lower income countries to reach the resilience of OECD or richer countries.

While I am concerned for all of us that unprecedented climatic variations are making the world more vulnerable, I reflect on the positive business trends and am certain we can apply our innovation, leadership, and partnerships, to building resiliency.

In fact, there are countless examples of corporate-lead climate adaptation around the world that are helping to decrease the impacts of droughts, superstorms, fires and floods caused by climate disruption.

Leading companies are leaning in, showing the importance of adaptation for their value chains by applying themselves to those vulnerable sectors crucial to human health and prosperity.

Increasing resiliency in food:

- Monsanto is developing new drought-tolerant corn varieties through the Water Efficient Maize for Africa, project, in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

- The global reinsurance firm Swiss Re is helping farmers in Ethiopia tackle current and future precipitation uncertainty, providing insurance against climate-related losses.

- PepsiCo is rolling out its i-crop precision-farming technology, enabling farmers to monitor, manage and reduce their water use while maximizing potential yield, in collaboration with the Columbia Water Center of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Increasing resiliency in infrastructure:

- Engineering firms such as AECOM and CH2MHill are integrating adaptation into coastal and energy infrastructure systems to protect future generations living in urban areas.

- Ushahidi, a small nonprofit software company, uses the power of crowdsourcing software to distribute real-time information including about roadways and transportation, during disasters in lower income countries and around the world.

Increasing resiliency in water

- Unilever, in partnership with the UN Global Compact and the World Food Program, is spearheading local water use reduction, freeing-up water previously used for clothes washing for other applications in India.

- Ecolab is creating water efficient technologies for commercial and industrial infrastructure that are more resistant and resilient to climate change.

But how do we join these proactive companies on finding market value in resiliency?

As companies are starting to realize that their bottom line is intimately connected with climate disruption, the private sector wants to know where do we get relevant information to inform our leadership?

There are many valuable tools out there.

The ND-Global Adaptation Index,, ranks the 193 UN countries annually based on how vulnerable they are to droughts, super-storms and other natural disasters and, uniquely, how ready they are to successfully implement adaptation solutions.

We measure the countries’ vulnerability of health, food, water, and infrastructure and the social, governance and economic readiness of the country to take on investment, thus informing many elements of our value chain.

Using 17 years of data, we examine over 50 indicators for each country in the index, and some real winners emerge from these hundreds of thousands of data.

It’s no surprise, European and North American countries are among those most prepared for climate risk.

And many developing countries are making the most and the fastest improvements – as companies invest in these growing markets.

The BRIC countries are doing better than the global resiliency average.  And there are some surprises, like Rwanda, which has moved up  the rankings 40 positions, primarily by improving its economic, governance and social readiness measures, making it a more viable investment opportunity.

Many companies may find the greatest business opportunities in more vulnerable countries with a high demand for adaptation products and services, but also high readiness based on a transparent, safe and fair investment and regulatory environment.

We can use the ND-GAIN matrix to examine countries in our supply chains, consumer markets, capital assets and community engagements to better understand our relative risks and opportunities.

I’ve found that one of the reasons climate adaptation is resonating with the private sector is that it is a very personal issue.  The indicator of climate adaptation success is not an ethereal Metric Ton of CO2e.  Adaptation is about direct impacts to our most important assets - our employees, our customers and our communities and their prosperity yesterday, today and tomorrow.

We have the opportunity to save lives and improve livelihoods for millions around the world while improving our market positions by matching the power of data, with corporate innovation, leadership and partnership.

Adaptation provides collateral benefits to

  • Mitigate greenhouse gas emissions
  • lift more out of poverty,
  • strengthen economies,
  • prevent civil conflict,
  • buttress food security,
  • protect natural resources and
  • ensure a brighter future for generations to come.

I encourage you to ask yourself the climate adaptation question of your work to create business opportunities out of resiliency that offer rewards for humanity.

(This is the One Great Idea presentation I gave at the Greenbiz Forum today).

Adapt, media, we need you!

I’m sure you’ve noticed, as I have, the pick up in media reporting on climate change whenever a weather-related disaster occurs, especially around major events such as Hurricane Sandy, the prolonged Texas droughts and the Colorado wildfires.  And reporters are coming from a wide variety of beats, including politics, community affairs and real estate.  That diversity of story approaches is a dream come true for communications professionals such as I.  I am eager to see more proactive climate-change coverage, not just that in response to a crisis. That encouraging development is why I’m so bummed – and disturbed – to see the demise of the environmental desk at some of the top news outlets in the U.S.  This is troublesome because objective third-party reporting helps us understand the issues, the politics that often surround them, and the solutions to these precarious challenges. We need that coverage, perhaps even more than we need the reporting that accompanies a weather-related emergency.

What does it reflect that the NYTimes is dismantling its environment desk of seven reporters and two editors and placing them elsewhere, while at the same time dropping its Green Blog?  Why is the Washington Post reassigning its lead climate reporter off the environmental beat? They’re not alone. Four years ago, CNN dropped its environmental team and the network’s environmental coverage today is weaker. NBC slashed its staff of environmental reporters in 2008 – in the middle of Green Week!

Have the continual readership studies that news shops take in today’s fiercely competitive media world revealed that readers and listeners tune out on such coverage? Are other beats suddenly becoming more newsworthy and requiring additional resources?  I would like to know.  I also would love to ask veteran Pulitzer Prize judges whether they see fewer entries of investigative stories or series on environmental issues.

We’ve seen environmental-reporting cycles before. But why is this happening again at a time when Congress, the administration and corporate leaders are acknowledging climate change and the damages it’s triggering? As for consumers, surveys certainly indicate they are interested in environmental issues and what companies are doing to combat greenhouse gases and other pollutants. So what gives?

I seriously doubt that Mother Jones can go it alone on the environmental front within the print media, along with respected bloggers such as Marc Gunther and Aman Singh to pick up the slack.

In less than a week, a sell-out crowd will converge at the National Adaptation Forum in Denver.  Government, corporate and academic voices will debate, provoke and solve.  It’s a frame up for the media to get ahead of climate adaptation or, if they would prefer to think about it in their market’s terms, the next storm that undoubtedly will grace their websites’ home pages in the next 12 months.

I, for one, am going to look with interest at how many journalists – environmental specialists and those who aren’t – will attend the Forum. It will serve as another litmus test of the media’s genuine interest in covering issues that will determine if our planet withstands what the experts maintain lies ahead on climate change.

One more thing: Let’s give a shout out to a kickstarter-type campaign to pay for climate journalists. And let’s all ante up to help us adapt! Because what are the consequences when media interest evaporates as our environment evaporates?

Climate Change Communications

Here are some reflections on the current state of climate change communications from my participation in a September roundtable hosted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research with participation from McKinsey, SustainAbility, Cater Communications Climate Communication and Climate Nexus, among others: Cultural norms matter, may be playing a major role in how we act about climate.  Two channels exist for science communication – information driven and cultural driven. It turns out that in order to influence climate actors, addressing climate actions as a personal choice that others in our community are making works better than honing in on the science information.  Yale’s cultural cognition project is loaded with interesting research about this, including a paper on Why We are Poles Apart on Climate Change.  So

As a climate actor, I may be frustrated that scientific evidence does not equate to climate leadership.  But, as a communications professional, I appreciate that my clients may be more compelled to act by what their peers and competitors are doing than by evidence of the benefits of those action to their business.

Language matters in communicating about climate change. Communicating the Science of Climate Change offers some great suggestions about science communications that apply to other complex information, too:

  • Start with what we know, rather than with what we don’t.
  • Use language the public understands, not necessarily the language of a particular industry.
  • Consider community, political and ideological frames for storytelling to inspire action. A local frame proves particularly helpful.  So the Colorado fires, Texas drought, and Illinois flooding all provide great entrepoints for helping people see that climate change is having an impact on THEM, not just on the earth



Earth the Operators Manual


Video matters, too, in relating and relaying what is sparking climate change.  On reflection, the most memorable part of the two day roundtable was an introduction to Earth the Operators Manual, and particularly its clever “How to Talk to An Ostrich” with tips on how to engage folks who stick their head in the sand about climate.  In the spot called: Who says CO2 heats things up?"  they note it was the US Air Force that studied CO2 most carefully: it's heat-trapping properties could interfere with heat-seeking missiles. This entire video effort inspires me to believe in the value of climate change communications as a means to cause climate action.

What do you think is the most effective climate change communication you’ve seen/heard recently?

Framing Climate Adaptation Messages for Corporate Action

When addressing climate adaptation, it could prove advantageous to frame your messaging in ways other than strictly using climate change as the backdrop.  Recent studies show that framing such messaging under the clean energy or public health heading resonates well with most audiences. Opportunities certainly arise for using public health as the direction for addressing such issues as heat stress from increased urban heat-island effects, water-borne illnesses from flooding and the change of ranges for vector-borne disease as they relate to morbidity and mortality.

All of this leads to the real opportunities for messaging about climate: during and just after a local climate-related event.  When people view climate change as being harmful to their business, their community and their families, they are more likely to take action to adapt.  They work to “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable,” asserts climate adaptation maven Rosina Bierbaum.

Speaking of mavens, those of us in the business of communicating should always remember Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” helpful categorizations of folks:

  • Messengers, he maintains, are socially connected people
  • Mavens are those offering new information or perspectives, and
  • Salespeople are persuaders

For the corporate sector to be climate adaptive, we need all three types.

Ten Point Checklist for Making Corporations Resilient

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has published an interesting guide:  Making Cities Resilient:  My City is Getting Ready. Its ten-point checklist for making cities resilient begs for a companion list.  I’ve added my two cents by developing a “Ten Point Checklist for Making Corporations Resilient.”

Ten-Point Checklist
For Making Cities Resilient (UNISDR) For Making Corporations Resilient
1 Put in place organization and coordination to understand and reduce disaster risk, based on participation of citizen groups and civil society. Build local alliances. Ensure that all departments understand their role regarding disaster risk reduction and preparedness. Include climate adaptation in a member of the C-suite’s job description. Establish a cross-function climate adaptation working group and connections with local and regional governments in key geographies in your enterprise – especially operations and supply chain.  Consider collaborating with key members of your supply chain, industry peers and neighboring businesses on climate adaptation planning and execution. Ensure that all departments understand their role regarding disaster risk reduction and preparedness.
2 Assign a budget for disaster risk reduction and provide incentives for homeowners, low-income families, communities, businesses and the public sector to invest inreducing the risks they face. Include budget lines for both proactive adaptation measures and recoup from extreme event.  Include climate adaptation in performance reviews for the C-suite, lieutenants and managers.
3 Maintain up-to-date data on hazards and vulnerabilities; prepare risk assessments; and use these as the basis for urban development plans and decisions. Ensure that this information and the plans for your city’s resilience are readily available to the public and fully discussed with them. Include climate adaptation in your emergency preparedness and continuity plans initially, with annual updates.  Ensure that this information and the plans for your corporation’s resilience are readily available to your leadership team and fully discussed with them.
4 Invest in and maintain critical infrastructure that reduces risk, such as flooddrainage, adjusted where needed to cope with climate change. Invest in and maintain critical infrastructure that reduces risk, such as flood drainage, snow removal, vector-borne disease prevention, and heat mitigation for workers and machinery, adjusted where needed to cope with climate change. Consider supply chain and building decisions with these risks in mind.
5 Assess the safety of all schools and health facilities and upgrade these asnecessary. Assess the safety of all facilities, especially those in locations vulnerable to extreme weather events (coastal, arid) and upgrade or move.
6 Apply and enforce realistic, risk-compliant building regulations and land-use planning principles. Identify safe land for low-income citizens and develop upgrading of informal settlements, wherever feasible. Engage with local governments to ensure that climate adaptation regulations protect residents and economic growth. Identify your most vulnerable employees (age, income, tasks, geography) and plan especially for their safety.
7 Ensure education programs and training on disaster risk reduction are in place in schools and local communities. Ensure education programs and training on disaster risk reduction are in place throughout your enterprise, not just for disaster preparedness, but also for heat exhaustion, vector-borne disease, and the like.
8 Protect ecosystems and natural buffers to mitigate floods, storm surges and other hazards to which your city may be vulnerable. Adapt to climate change by building on effective risk-reduction practices. Protect and enhance ecosystems and natural buffers in and near your holdings to mitigate floods, storm surges, extreme heat and other hazards.
9 Install early warning systems and emergency management capacities in your city and hold regular public preparedness drills. Install early-warning systems and emergency-management capacities in your enterprise and hold regular preparedness drills.
10 After any disaster, ensure that the needs of survivors are placed at the center of reconstruction with support from them and their community organizations to design and help implement responses, including rebuilding homes and livelihoods. After any disaster, ensure the needs of survivors are placed at the center of reconstruction.  See for communications guidelines.


In a climate-related crisis affecting your business, who serves as chief spokesperson?

In a climate-related crisis affecting your business, who serves as chief spokesperson?

Edelman’s most recent annual Trust Barometer, finds that CEOs must assume that role in crisis situations. But deputies play key roles, too, and need to develop their own pitch.  
Since your CEO can’t be everywhere at once during a crisis, deputies need to be able to respond to questions from the press, the community and other stakeholders with responses to general questions and those with much more specialized content.  Here is one possible explanation:
“You know, we are seeing more and more of these sorts of events, and we are using lessons learned to inform our crisis prevention and response plans to ensure that damage to the community, our employees, and our consumers are avoided and minimized.  For my division XYZ, this week’s experiences have taught me the following as we work to (whatever the major crisis response phrase is – restore service, deliver product, reopen stores…):
That’s a confident answer that builds trust through transparency by laying out a plan.  The three major elements to this working for your company are:
1. A chief who trusts his deputies and vice versa
2. A preemptive internal process that gives deputies a chance to ask climate-related questions of their work, and to plan scenarios about how to decrease risk should certain weather events increase in frequency and intensity
3. A continuous improvement process that activates the three lessons the deputy spoke of in the heat of the crisis.
This post explores an issue dear to my heart:  true leaders are those who prevent crisis and also are poised to use a crisis to put a good idea into action. When a crisis strikes, all hands are on deck, barriers are lifted, and the opportunity occurs to leapfrog barriers and propel your company forward.  If you have your A, B, C on your wish list, the crisis lets you move them into reality.  Consider that when you are dreaming about your company’s next big break – and your own