Business can’t ignore warming, sea level rise

German scientist Andreas Beck writes down notes on Robert Island in Antarctica. Scientists say the melting of Antarctic glaciers due to global warming is contributing to rising sea levels.
German scientist Andreas Beck writes down notes on Robert Island in Antarctica. Scientists say the melting of Antarctic glaciers due to global warming is contributing to rising sea levels. The Associated Press

We’ve spent our careers evaluating potential risks and making investment decisions based on the best available data. But when it comes to the impacts of a changing climate, these risks have often proved difficult for businesses to quantify, making them all too easy to ignore.

You don’t need to look far to see the dramatic impact that climate change is already having – a recent troubling study on the unexpectedly rapid melting of the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica, the warning of a top NASA scientist that California’s reservoirs may soon run dry.

Luckily, we believe that businesses and cities have the potential to be key players in solving the climate crisis. We joined the Risky Business Project in large part to make the urgency of these issues real and quantifiable to public and private investors.

Our latest report, released Thursday, focuses on California and outlines in great detail the risks climate change poses to the state’s major industries, prosperous cities and hardworking residents. For businesses, developers and communities, the results are striking – even by the most conservative estimates.

Coastal cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco could see sea levels rise several feet this century, increasing the risks and magnitude of flooding and storm surge. If we don’t change our ways, rising sea levels will likely put significant amounts of property and infrastructure underwater by 2050 – with a price tag that grows substantially by the end of the century. Many coastal properties could become uninsurable, property values will decline, and families will face tough choices about whether to rebuild or relocate.

As sea levels rise, we must change the way we think about city planning and development – not to mention the infrastructure that underpins our cities. We also must take proactive steps to make our communities more resilient.

California’s climate risks don’t stop at the coastline. Further inland, extreme heat will increasingly threaten the agricultural economy and pose serious risks to outdoor workers. By the end of this century, summers in California could be hotter than summers in Texas today, and the number of extremely hot days could double or even triple. Warmer and drier conditions will put crop yields and water resources at risk. Across the state, labor productivity will decline and the number of heat-related deaths will rise.

Already, California is in its fourth consecutive year of severe drought. In 2014 alone, the drought was estimated to have cost the state $2.2 billion and put 17,100 agricultural workers out of work.

As is too often the case, rural and low-income communities are hit hardest. Look no further than the San Joaquin Valley town of East Porterville, where many families have been without running water for months after their wells ran dry. Many residents have no way to take showers, wash dishes or do laundry. They are forced to rely on bottled water from local charities for basic necessities. As California continues to endure this persistent drought, East Porterville provides a glimpse into our future if we stay on our current path.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures will drive up energy demand across the state, leading to higher costs for families and businesses. For the region’s energy-intensive manufacturing sector, this could have a real impact on companies’ bottom line. Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue – it’s an economic issue.

The Risky Business Project report offers cities and businesses an opportunity not only to assess the dangers we face, but to consider how we can be part of the solution. We can and should take steps now to reduce our energy and water use, make buildings more sustainable and more efficient and incorporate climate risk into our decision-making. By making changes at the local level, we can inspire action on the national and international stage.

The urgency of addressing climate change grows daily, but together we can rise to this challenge and begin to turn back the tide of climate risk.

Tom Steyer is an advanced energy advocate and a co-chairman of the Risky Business Project. Henry Cisneros is former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a Risky Business Project committee member.