Harvard Business Online

Copenhagen: Accepting a Warming Planet


Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 17, 2009 2:49 PM

No matter what happens in Copenhagen, or in the follow up meetings in Mexico and elsewhere, the world is warming. It's happening today, and even the majority of skeptics seem to agree on that point (often the debate is whether humans are behind it and how much money we should invest in "fixing" the problem). But the very real changes we're already seeing are prompting many in the climate-watching world to talk about not just reductions in emissions but "adaptation."

What used to be seen as a dirty and defeatist word is now a central discussion point, even in Copenhagen. The G77 (the developing world) is demanding significant aid from the rich countries not to help them combat climate change, but to help them adapt to it. Just a couple weeks ago, President Obama said he sensed some consensus around mobilizing "$10 billion a year by 2012 to support adaptation and mitigation in developing countries."

Given the cold reality of a warming planet, adaptation is now a strategic issue for countries and companies alike (whether or not they realize it). The changing climate can mean many things, but includes, according to an important report from the state of California, threats to ocean and coastal resources and land, water management challenges, major changes to agriculture, and stress on transportation and energy infrastructure. In California alone, $2.5 trillion of assets will be exposed to extreme weather and wildfires, costing many billions a year.

For companies the same basic issues apply. Specific industries, such as agriculture, face massive change. But all companies will find impacts up and down their value chains from weather, changing water availability, and temperature shifts. But just laying out doom scenarios and risks doesn't help much. So let's look at a couple of excellent (and short) reports on adaptation and business.

Some big institutional investors, with the guidance of the consultant Acclimatise, recently released "Managing the Unavoidable" (register for free to download it here or get the similar 2008 report on similar topic here). A few key findings struck me as dead on and important:

1. Climate change adaptation is starting to receive more management attention but management systems and processes are much less developed than those for climate change mitigation. Basically, most companies are not thinking about this, with a few exceptions—Coke comes to mind since it's been mapping water availability for years. But they are in the minority.

2. There appear to be significant weaknesses in companies' risk assessment processes. They say that "incremental changes are being under-emphasized" (we all focus on extreme weather events rather than 'creeping' changes) and "indirect impacts on business models are being neglected" (we focus on risks to our own fixed assets and haven't looked at supply chain disruptions). Meaning, even if you don't think you rely on water in an arid region, someone in your supply chain might.

3. Companies are more concerned about risks than opportunities. While it may seem cold to talk about how to profit from a warming planet, it's a reality that there will be winners in this. More importantly, we actually need companies to pursue solutions to greatly reduce human misery. And, yes, there will be profits.

And this brings me to the second report that's worth a look. "The New Adaptation Marketplace" from global NGO Oxfam lays out some helpful categories and sample companies that stand to profit from the changes to come. These include, water management (Pentair, Siemens), energy supply (GE), insurance (Swiss Re), climate change information and consulting services (ICF International), and of course agriculture projects (CH2M Hill).

On the last one, consider one of my clients, Bayer, which has a sizable crop sciences business. In its last annual report, Bayer identified drought-tolerant plants as a major investment opportunity. Clearly, the world needs to keep food volumes growing, even on a dryer, warmer planet. The companies that can solve this kind of problem will grow and win share.

Or think of the more extreme needs that might arise and the entrepreneurial opportunities. As some smart people have pointed out, cutting carbon won't be enough—we'll need to drag it out of the sky. Imagine what new technologies we'll need to do that.

From my conversations with Oxfam, clients, and other corporations, I can tell you that most organizations—including ones that already have products that will help with adaptation—are not yet thinking about the risks and opportunities from climate change. Are you?

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