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@SustMeme editor, Jim McClelland looks at the effects of climate change on business

There is bad weather and then there is extreme weather. As a catalogue of events relating to the latter, Economic Losses, Poverty & Disasters 1998-2017 does not make for light reading.

Undertaken by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNIDSR), in association with the Centre for Research on the Epidemology of Disasters (CRED), the study lays out what climate risk really means for human life and economic welfare.

Over the 20-year period, their estimates suggest that climate-related and geophysical disasters killed 1.3 million people and left a further 4.4 billion injured, homeless, displaced or in need of emergency assistance. Of these disasters, 91% were caused by floods, storms, droughts, heatwaves and other extreme weather events.

In addition to the human cost, disaster-hit countries reported direct economic losses valued at $2,908 billion, with $2,245 billion (77%) being climate-related.

In absolute monetary terms, the US was the biggest loser, at $945 billion.

Sadly, it is not the case that things can only get better.

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker

2018: Half a Trillion Dollars and 10,000 Lives Lost

Sadly, it is not the case that things can only get better.

The very latest Disaster Review from UNISDR and CRED reveals that 2018 brought another 281 climate-related and geophysical events, with 10,733 additional deaths, and over 60 million people affected across the world.

The 10 most destructive weather events of last year, as identified by Christian Aid, each caused damage of over $1 billion, with the combined total exceeding $85 billion. Four of them – drought in Europe, floods in Japan, the Camp Fire in California, plus Hurricanes Florence and Michael across the US – cost more than $7 billion each.

At current prices, the World Bank has therefore calculated the annual cost to the global economy in lost consumption to be a whopping $520 billion, driving 26 million people into poverty every year. To make matters worse, only about half of all global macroeconomic losses from natural catastrophes were actually insured, according to figures from Munich RE.

Whilst some economic impacts are immediate, some perhaps are in the post. The knock-on effects of forest fires or rural floods, for instance, might register in a flash with crop and livestock loss impacting on food production and distribution. However, they could also echo further away and later on, when availability of timber starts to suffer, plus prices begin to rise.

USA: Wildfires, Hurricanes & Sea-Level Rise

In the US, business impacts were keenly felt last year, as wildfires and hurricanes hit logistics hard with road closures and delays. Also, in September, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross acknowledged the potential impact of natural disasters on sea freight, as hundreds of ships lay marooned offshore while Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc in the Carolinas.

Looking ahead, the most recent US National Climate Assessment predicts that continued growth in emissions at historic rates (without mitigation) could result in economic losses amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century – up to 10% of national GDP in total and more than the current GDP of many individual states.

As well as highlighting key risks such as natural disasters, the report also discusses potential impacts of ongoing sea-level rise on the viability of major US ports and shipping hubs, critical to the vast majority of overseas trade.

To put this threat in perspective, the top 20 US ports handled nearly 98% of the country’s total import volumes in 2017, with the two biggest – Los Angeles and Long Beach, California – particularly vulnerable to climate disruption.

UK: Health, Safety & Brexit

By no means all climate impacts on business are disaster-related, of course. An exceptional summer heatwave can be enough for staff in a poorly ventilated, overly glazed building to be sent home for their health and wellbeing.

Strictly speaking, whilst there is a legal minimum temperature of 16°C for worker comfort in the UK (or 13°C if your job involves significant physical activity), there is no upper limit. The TUC has, however, set out the case for a legally enforceable maximum, with employers required to take action at 24°C, to avoid full workplace shutdown happening if the mercury hits 30°C (27°C for those doing strenuous work).

Where work takes place outdoors, on such as construction sites, there are additional ‘rain-stopped-play’ scenarios – as severe inclement weather, including heavy downpours, high winds or freezing cold can make operating conditions impractical, or unsafe.

In the case of the UK, though, one impending supply-chain impact is arguably a ‘disaster’ of different kind – related to the political climate, rather than the natural one: Brexit.

Unlike the weather, Brexit cannot be forecast with confidence. As with climate change, however, the question still remains: How (much) can we mitigate the risk?

From wildfires and hurricanes, to Brexit, there is a sustainable response to risk; and it is all about building resilience, fast.

Resilience is the answer as I will explore in my next post, here on The Hub.

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker