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Is It Time to Concentrate on Climate Adaptation?

February 7, 2023


Despite decades of warnings by scientists, climatologists, and environmentalists, the world has routinely shrugged its shoulders at climate change. At some point, we are going to have to admit that time has run out for reversing all of the negative impacts of climate change. When that time comes (and it may already have arrived), we are going to have to turn our attention to adapting to the impacts of climate change. Journalist Tim McDonnell reports, “A major paper released on the sidelines of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt has started a countdown. At the current rate of global emissions, the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will likely be permanently out of reach in nine years, the study found.”[1]


According to McDonnell, “The paper assesses what scientists call the ‘carbon budget,’ which is a way of predicting the amount of warming that will likely be produced by a given volume of emissions. Run in reverse, the calculation tells us how much more we can afford to emit before a certain warming target becomes impossible — just as a personal budget tells you how much more you can spend before you go broke. … At current rates, that carbon budget would be exhausted by 2032.” He adds, “If the budget is used up, the only way to walk back to more moderate warming would be through carbon removal technologies that, for the most part, are costly and unproven.”


The Effects of Climate Change


You’ve probably read (or heard about), the target temperature rise scientists are trying to avoid — 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Correspondent Lauren Sommer reports, “The 1.5 degree target has long been championed by developing nations, where millions of people are among the most vulnerable to climate change. … The Earth is already 1.1 degrees Celsius hotter than it was 150 years ago. Though a half-degree Celsius difference in temperature increase might seem inconsequential, the difference for life on Earth could be huge.”[2] Some of the consequences scientists expect, if average global temperatures exceed 1.5 degree Celsius warming by 2100, include: the death of most coral reefs; historically violent storms; heat waves; and melting ice.


Of all those consequences, melting ice is the one that could change the face of the globe most dramatically. Based on data from National Geographic, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and researchers from Vrije Universeit Brussel and University of California Santa Cruz, Business Insider created a video depicting what the Earth would like if all the water currently captured in ice sheets and glaciers melted.



Robbie Couch, a Content Production Manager at Accelerate Change Network, writes, “Considering the two largest ice sheets on earth — the one on Antarctica and the one on Greenland — extend more than 6 million square miles combined … yeah, we’re talkin’ a lot of ice.”[3] If all that ice melted, he notes, “Lots of European cities like, Brussels and Venice, would be basically underwater. … Dakar, Accra, Jeddah — gone. Millions of people in Asia, in cities like Mumbai, Beijing, and Tokyo, would be uprooted and have to move inland. South America would say goodbye to cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. And in the U.S., we’d watch places like Houston, San Francisco, and New York City — not to mention the entire state of Florida — slowly disappear into the sea.”


Although scientists can calculate the amount of water trapped in ice and determine how much sea levels would rise if the ice melts, other consequences of climate change are not so calculatable. U.N. secretary-general António Guterres insists the impacts of climate change are “heading into uncharted territories of destruction.”[4] Clearly, people currently living in areas that could be submerged by rising sea levels would have to find somewhere else to live should the worst occur. Changing climate patterns will also make other places on Earth uninhabitable. Science journalist Dave Levitan predicts, “Over the next 30 years, climate change is likely to uproot hundreds of millions of people around the world from their homes.”[5] If you think the world currently has an immigration problem, stand by. Levitan adds, “This will pose enormous challenges for urban areas across the world. Beyond the political and economic challenges of absorbing waves of refugees, cities are themselves likely to be dealing with climate impacts like heat waves, droughts or stronger storms.”


Adapting to Climate Change


Since the world appears unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to reverse carbon emissions, governments should seriously begin thinking about how to adapt to the effects of climate change. Gim Huay Neo, Managing Director of the Center for Nature and Climate at the World Economic Forum, writes, “For years climate change warnings have followed a similar pattern: act now to prevent catastrophic consequences in the future. … That message alone is not enough — we must also focus on the need to protect ourselves and our planet today.”[6] Humanity has demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive during previous climate emergencies like the ice age. We need to demonstrate that same resiliency in the years ahead.


Neo notes, “Climate adaptation is key to our survival. … The longer we wait to focus on climate adaptation, the more lives will be affected and the more difficult and expensive it will be. The UN estimates that the current cost of meeting adaptation needs is $70 billion. By 2050, it could reach $500 billion.” Of course, the more severe the effects of climate change become the greater the adaptation costs will be. Neo writes, “Until now, climate adaptation has largely been considered the responsibility of governments, multilateral institutions and donor agencies. … But governments cannot do it alone. Even if they meet the goals set out last year, investments into climate adaptation would still fall short of what’s needed. The private sector must also step up — and there is a clear business case for doing so.”


More and more businesses are coming to that same conclusion. Ignoring the negative effects of climate change is no longer an option. Neo observes, “By assessing risks along their value chains and working with suppliers and communities to identify the skills and resources needed to withstand shocks, businesses can better manage and mitigate the risks to their operations and avoid severe economic losses.” Cashion “Cash” East, Director of Analytics for Higg, predicts, “The day isn’t far off when demonstrating lower environmental and social impact will become a competitive differentiator for manufacturers and other value chain partners, but to get there it will take strong relationships to make decisions based on shared data around carbon emissions, energy consumption, wastewater, and other data points.”[7]


Those decisions will require leveraging cognitive technology (aka artificial intelligence (AI)) capabilities. East notes, “Sustainability analytics requires a lot of data from many different sources. Some of that data already exists and is standardized, while other data is coming from new sources with no established standards.” East recommends that companies start doing five things as they begin building out their sustainability insights platform. They are:


1. Focus on the problem you’re trying to solve. East writes, “This sounds obvious, but there is a massive potential for sustainability analytics to become too big to handle. Identify which issues and impacts are your priority and focus on that data first.”


2. Don’t collect data without context. “There’s a tendency to assume that data alone is useful,” East writes, “but it can be difficult to analyze when taken out of context. … Targeting your data collection based on identified hotspots helps to focus your efforts on areas that matter, and helps to prioritize reduction efforts.”


3. Treat data collection as a dynamic exercise. According to East, “Gathering data isn’t a one-and-done, rinse-and-repeat process. It’s a dynamic exercise that may undergo a series of iterations before companies ‘get it right.’ Choosing the right KPIs, time frames, context, etc. is a necessary investment if you want reliable, actionable data.”


4. Communicate your goals with your partners. East writes, “Sustainability is a journey we’re all on together, even if some brands may be further along the path than their manufacturing partners. It’s critical that brands and value chain partners communicate their data needs, what they plan to do with that data, and what their environmental/social goals are.”


5. Understand where your data is coming from. “Before you join data,” East explains, “you need to know the source of that data and its limitations or you risk corrupting your analyses down the road. The details matter.”


East concludes, “Sustainability analysis is still a relatively new discipline and, like most new ideas, we can expect changes along the way as our collective understanding and experience grows. The most important takeaway for companies right now is to remember that we are all working towards a collective goal: solving the climate crisis.” Neo agrees. She writes, “Businesses can leverage their experience with emerging technology and data-driven insights.” Hopefully, the world will get motivated and move more quickly to mitigate climate changing emissions and, simultaneously, take steps to adapt to permanent changes in the environment.


[1] Tim McDonnell, “The world has nine years to prevent climate catastrophe,” Quartz, 11 November 2022.
[2] Lauren Sommer, “This is what the world looks like if we pass the crucial 1.5-degree climate threshold,” NPR, 8 November 2021.
[3] Robbie Couch, “What will Earth look like if all its land ice melts? Here’s your answer.” UpWorthy, 11 November 2022.
[4] Gloria Dickie, “Climate impacts heading to ‘uncharted territories of destruction,’ U.N. chief says,” Reuters, 13 September 2022.
[5] Dave Levitan, “Climate migration is about to explode. Cities will bear the brunt.” Grid, 28 November 2022.
[6] Gim Huay Neo, “It’s time to get serious about climate adaptation. Here’s how,” World Economic Forum, 15 November 2022.
[7] Cashion East, “With Sustainability Analytics, Big Data Can Save the World,” insideBIGDATA, 22 November 2022.

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