Puerto Rico is the Private Sector’s Wake Up Call to Invest in Climate Adaptation NOW

Look at Puerto Rico. The earth is in open rebellion! The challenges of climate change, food insecurity, water scarcity, pandemics, and overpopulation cannot be solved by the public sector. The burden of investing in solutions lies on the shoulders of businesses. The private sector must acknowledge and address the pressing challenges faced by our planet. Inaction has a cost. Business bottom lines will directly suffer from a lack of proactive mitigation against the risks we collectively face, but also from a lack of adaptation to the new global landscape.


Climate adaptation is now mandatory. Reinsurance companies like Munich Re Group are reporting that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events are increasing, along with their associated losses. This should not be surprising given what the world has witnessed in the past few weeks. In the U.S. alone hurricanes have devastated major cities, sea level rise is lapping at coastal infrastructure, and wildfires no longer adhere to a season. These recent examples are just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg!


Climate impacts and subsequent devastation have already begun to result in secondary and tertiary impacts that have increasing implications for a business’s bottom line. Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico might suffer from no access to power and water for up to six months! The humanitarian costs are immediately obvious in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and the economic costs of an extended period of brutal recovery are also astronomical.


Ignoring the $74 billion in Puerto Rican government debt, the measly $15 billion slotted for recovery is less than half of estimated hurricanes’ costs. Business will hurt from decimated infrastructure, crop value losses of 80%, up to 3.5 million climate refugees, lost productivity, and additional ripple effects. For companies operating fully or partially in Puerto Rico, the implications for business bottom lines are enormous.


The climate impacts we are witnessing in Puerto Rico will be increasingly repeated in locations throughout the world in various forms (e.g., extended droughts, uncontrollable wildfires, heavy flooding). These challenges must be proactively addressed before the costs of mandatory reaction overwhelm expendable business capital and reserves.


Costs for adaptation are substantial by any measure, and delay in action will only increase these costs. A 2010 World Bank report has estimated adaptation cost at $70-100 billion a year globally by 2050, while the 2015 UNEP Adaptation Gap Report estimates it to be 4-5 times higher taking into account equity, communities, and ecosystems. These costs will vary based on how successful we are globally at mitigation efforts, but even with zero carbon emissions today we need to adapt, and we need to adapt quickly.


The private sector must play a leading role in these efforts. Adaptation costs are too high for governments to solve alone. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria are projected to cost the U.S. hundreds of billions in post-disaster recovery funding. The Universal Ecological Fund just put forward a report titled “The Economic Case for Climate Action in the U.S.” which highlights the hundreds of billions in economic losses from inaction.


Despite what we know about the costs of inaction, relief and recovery, proactive adaptation measures are painfully miniscule. The Climate Policy Initiative reports that adaptation efforts receive less than 10-20% of approved public funding. The private sector has thus far had limited involvement despite the critical role of private finance and investment in addressing the direct and indirect threats to our planet.


The private sector’s delay in leadership and investment in proactive adaptation measures can be traced to three key issues: 1) the risk perception versus real risk gap, 2) the inherent uncertainty of the real risk, and 3) the perceived lack of options for investing in adaptation measures.


First, aligning actual risks to a company’s bottom line with perceptions of risks held by business stakeholders (e.g., shareholders, regulators, consumers) is critical. Closing this gap through the application of advances in the field of cognitive behavioral science is the first step in ensuring precious resources are being prioritized and allocated appropriately. Stakeholder support will be necessary for successful adaptation investments.


Second, the private sector can exhibit leadership in adaptation by voluntarily disclosing an investment’s climate change related risks. While the majority of the private sector is aware of climate change risks to business, hesitation in disclosure stems from the accompanying inherent uncertainty (e.g., what, how big, where). Acceptance that actual impacts, both direct and indirect, cannot be known with certainty will encourage the disclosure needed for better adaptation.


Finally, there is a perception of limited opportunities for adaptation investment and an accompanying uncertainty of return on investment. Investing in higher surge walls or more efficient water pumping systems fall woefully short of the magnitude of adaptation measures required. Transformative climate adaptation and resilience investments (e.g., new business models, transformative technologies, behavioral changes) are where private sector collaboration and leadership are urgently needed.


While there are many examples of “climate-proofing” investments (e.g., drought resistant agriculture, water surge resistant infrastructure), these are primarily short-term adaptation measures. Increasingly, opportunities are being presented to the private sector. From smart grids that protect against extreme weather events to resilient manufacturing companies, sector specific investment prospects are becoming available.


In addition to science and technology innovations, cutting-edge solutions from the field of cognitive behavioral science must be considered as part of the adaptation investment portfolio. Subject matter expertise will be of utmost value as businesses think strategically about fortifying products and services in this new global landscape.


The reasons for private sector delay in proactive adaptation investment measures are no longer justifiable. Companies must act now to offset the enormous costs of inaction. Even with inherent uncertainty of climate change risks, it is clear that risk reduction efforts now will ensure business survival and resilience in an increasingly risky world.



Hurricanes do not discriminate against the affluent and the less affluent.


Hurricanes, exacerbated by climate change, belong to a category of climate change related events (e.g., drought, sea level rise, wildfires) that impact all inhabitants of this planet, regardless of how much is in their bank accounts.


The science community is unified in how climate change will impact every citizen of America. Immediately vulnerable are those on the coast, occupied by both the rich and poor. The rich may choose to self-insure and prolong their luxury living, but ultimately all taxpayers are paying for their choices.


Donald Trump has already received a $17 million insurance payout for previous Hurricane Wilma “damage” to his wealthy, private estate Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach. There wasn’t actually that much damage following Wilma, and the estate has been relatively lucky following Irma. How much taxpayer-funded compensation will he receive this time? Will we continue to subsidize luxurious real estates along our vulnerable coastlines? Our shorelines will be increasingly impacted as ocean temperatures warm and sea levels rise–ensuring progressively frequent and devastating hurricanes going forward. By the mid-century, vulnerable east U.S. coastlines are predicted to experience “Sandy-like” hurricanes every other year!


What about the poor who can’t rebuild and redecorate? They will inevitably retreat from the shoreline. The rich, however, will hold out. Eventually when basic government services become impossible (e.g., postal delivery, emergency services) even the rich will give in and retreat. By then how much more money will be lifted from the wallets of everyday citizens to subsidize elite lifestyles? Where will this money originate? Even extreme conservatives will find it hard to justify government subsidization of vital services to selfish developments.


Entities or individuals with the current means to develop along vulnerable shorelines must recognize their decisions impact their communities and our country as a whole. A collective multi-stakeholder effort (e.g., public officials, economists, journalists) is required to educate and raise awareness of the immediate and future risks of living and further developing infrastructure along the coast.


Economic alternatives must also be explored in order to ensure community sustainability. This type of anticipatory planning has varied considerably across vulnerable communities throughout the U.S. Some Florida cities (e.g., Tampa, St. Petersberg) have proactive measures in place. This will prove vitally helpful as they begin to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.


Part of proactive adaptation to increasing climate change events is discouraging development in flood risk areas and permanently removing structures following disastrous events. Relocation of low-income communities will begin the necessary and inevitable shoreline retreat. Finally and most controversially, properties must be transitioned from private ownership to the public domain. This type of policy has never been popular, but must remain on the table as an option.


If and when Mar-A-Largo receives an insurance payout from Irma, it could lead the adaptation initiative and transition to a public recreation area for the remainder of time it would receive public services. The reality of how long this will be is definitely shorter than what people perceive. Science is very clear. Palm Beach County will be significantly flooded within 30 years! Incentivizing the wealthy to transition prime coastal real estate sooner than later will not only release private ownership from the burden of an increasingly at-risk property, it will also translate to precious shared savings.


Transitioning Mar-A-Lago would be a much needed strong, clear signal for the future of luxury coastal living. Leading in the face of harsh reality isn’t always fun, but it would command respect. Let’s collectively encourage this type of leadership.


As long as there is demand for those ocean views, there will be developers competing to supply. A true cultural shift is required to change the deep-rooted attraction to the shores. This needs to happen before the very beauty that compels us to the beach becomes the very thing that destroys our collective health and safety. Let’s prudently plan and adapt to the reality of climate change impacts before everything is Mar-A-LaGONE!

Earth in Open Rebellion!

Is it obvious yet? Every major disaster converts a few more nonbelievers. There will always be those stubborn final few clinging to their “values” as Earth gets closer to purging itself of the species that sickened it. Let’s not wait for those people to act, but let’s continue to hold out a hand as we do.


Earth is furious with us, and is acting out. The cumulative impact of our actions will be increasingly and painfully obvious if they aren’t already. Smoking one cigarette probably won’t kill you, but the cumulative impact of smoking many cigarettes will land you on life support. We have all been chain-smoking. We are now at the impact stage from our collective bad habits as the human race.


We are seeing Earth’s rebellion all over the world in recent days– from Houston to Niger to Bangladesh. The Pope is calling for global leaders to acknowledge our deteriorating plant! Earth is so clearly over it.


Global warming raises sea level by melting glaciers and ice sheets in places like Greenland and Antarctica, but also by heating up and expanding water. Those rising sea levels make devastating storm surges and subsequent flooding more likely. Warming sea level has DOUBLED the probability of storm-surge flooding since the mid-1900s.


Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put forward that “Sandy-like” storm surges and subsequent sea water inundation would occur more frequently (up to once a year!) from the combination of sea-level rise and warming waters by the end of this century. Imagine the east coast of the U.S. from Atlantic City to Florida flooded every year starting within the lifetime of our mortgage cycles! This isn’t fear mongering. This is a millennial scientist hoping to have some semblance of the life we know now!


The devastating storm surges and flooding that we are witnessing today will not require the same magnitude of hurricanes in the future that they require now because of the increasing and irreversible rise in sea-level. So imagine when the hurricanes are severe!


Global warming makes the strongest hurricanes more intense because hurricanes draw their energy from ocean warmth. Once hurricanes form, warmer ocean temperatures provide more fuel. Warming sea temperatures also translate to more water vapor in the atmosphere, resulting in 5-10% more rainfall. We can attribute several inches (scientists are saying up to 30%!) of the whopping 60 inches of rainfall in some places during Harvey to global warming.


Irma might boot Harvey out of first place, but for now, Harvey has become the costliest storm in U.S. history, overtaking Sandy and Katrina before it. Soon we will have more detailed analysis of the role climate change played in Harvey like we do for Sandy. We know with Sandy that sea level rise added nearly one foot to the total storm surge that devastated the east coast of the U.S., and exposed an additional 25 square miles and 40 thousand people to flooding. The gulf has experienced four feet of sea level rise in the past century, and we will know soon the role of that rise in the destruction we are still wrapping our heads around in Texas and bracing ourselves for Irma.


Let’s hope a positive outcome from both Harvey and Irma is that we do not stick our heads back in the sand. It is utterly irresponsible to return to business as usual following Harvey not just in the areas affected by Harvey, but in areas that are increasingly vulnerable to similar impacts like Florida and the U.S. east coast. If there was ever a time that people, both believers and nonbelievers alike, were paying attention to efforts at adaptation or even retreat from the coastline, it’s now. We need congressional delegations to recognize that Hurricanes transcend partisan politics. The time to act is now.


It is imperative for scientists to advise policymakers on responding swiftly and responsibly from facts entrenched in credible science.  This requires the science community to continue to advance knowledge and communicate with key decision makers. This is mandatory as we approach more critical times.

Without science leaders in key roles in the U.S. government, we must loudly, clearly, and collectively voice consensus on the relationship between severe storms and climate change. Harvey is offering this opportunity to present evidence and facts over politics and ideology. The truth of science will prevail if it is followed.


With Earth sending another rebel in the form of Hurricane Irma to the southeast coast of the U.S., we may be converting a significant number of nonbelievers just in time. Let’s take advantage of people listening and ADAPT to the new normal of living on a planet that is angry with us—rightfully so.

Answers to those questions in your head you think everyone understands but you (e.g., How is more snowfall a sign that the earth is warming?)

I commiserate with your confusion. Despite being a scientist, I am not an environmental scientist and there was a steep learning curve for me going into this space professionally. I get it now. Please allow me to clarify a few key misconceptions that always come up in conversations with my family/friends (I won’t name names).


  1. Droughts and heavy rainfall are both impacts of climate change?


Warming temperatures and air are causing more extreme climate conditions included extended periods of drought and heavy periods of rainfall. Higher temperatures have lead to increased rates of water evaporation. Even in areas where precipitation does not decrease, increases in surface evaporation and loss of water from plants lead to more rapid drying of soils. As soil dries out, a larger proportion of the incoming heat from the sun goes into heating the soil, resulting in hotter temperatures under drier conditions.


Heavier rainfall results from increasingly warmer air, which can hold more water vapor than cooler air. This extra moisture is available to storm systems, resulting in heavier rainfalls. We need to recognize that both wet and dry extremes will increase in intensity, frequency, and duration.


  1. Shouldn’t sea level rise be the same increase globally?


Just as the surface of the earth isn’t flat, the surface of the ocean isn’t flat. The absolute water height of the ocean is higher on the U.S. east coast than on the U.S. west coast. When seal level rise (SLR) is referred to in the singular, it refers to the average global sea level rise trend.


Over the last century, global average sea level has been approximately eight inches. Historical and future sea level change has not and will not be the same everywhere, and in fact, varies greatly. For example, in the U.S., New Orleans has had forty-six inches of SLR while Los Angeles has had only four. These differences are mostly due to land subsidence (i.e., land sinking) or uplift, which increases or reduces the global average sea level change.


  1. Despite increasing water from melting glaciers and ice sheets, we still have less water?


For anyone who’s swallowed seawater, it should be no surprise that filling your cups from the ocean is not an option. Melting ice increases sea level rise, which may seem to imply an increase in water supply, but the energetic demands and financial costs of desalination techniques (which would be required to actually use the “extra” water) are far from being commercially viable.


As ocean levels rise, saltwater intrusion will contaminate drinking and irrigation water supplies, impacting not only surface water, but also seeping into aquifers and other groundwater sources. Saltwater intrusion will penetrate farther inland than in the past, and both current measurements and modeled projections suggest that drinking water losses either have occurred or will soon manifest in numerous locations around the world. For example, it is expected that Bangladesh will experience a shortage of potable drinking water by the year 2050.


In edition to being infeasible for human consumption, saltwater is devastating for agriculture. Twenty percent of the world’s irrigated farmland is already contaminated with salt. Saltwater for a farmer means certain crop failure.


  1. How did we not have more notice that Harvey was coming? What have scientists been doing this whole time?


Scientists widely agree that the pace of warming is tens or even a hundred times faster than at any known period in the last five hundred million years of geologic history. This has created conditions for which there is no comparison historically. The earth’s temperatures and climate events were largely stable for the past several millennia, only recently changing course in the anthropogenic period (or period of man-made climate change). Therefore historical data does not exist from which to make comparable predictions.


  1. How is more snowfall a sign that the earth is warming?


Snowfall and rainfall cascade to the earth as forms of precipitation. Snow falls instead of rain because of the temperature at the time of precipitation release, NOT because of a decreasing global temperature trend. Increased precipitation is caused by more water being evaporated from the oceans due to warmer ocean temperatures. Despite it feeling counterintuitive, increased snowfall has actually been an offshoot of warming oceans.


Oceans have warmed by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) this century. The rate of warming is increasing, resulting in record rainfall (and snowfall when the temperature is appropriate) events worldwide.


  1. Why can’t we reverse it?


No amount of collective global effort can change the fact the sea level will rise. This is because the melting that has already taken place of the earth’s glaciers and ice sheets cannot be undone before the impacts are felt worldwide. In fact, it will take centuries or even millennia to reverse the extent of melting that has already taken place. We must accept that SLR is a permanent new fixture that will permanently change the ocean’s height for generations to come, and subsequently reshape continents, as we know them now.


For answers to more questions, please email me directly sweta@swetachakraborty.com and I will aim to address them in a future blog post.

Killer floods in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India: We need to talk adaptation to Sea Level Rise

My family is West Bengali, a term that only came into existence following Partition and the formation of “West Bengal,” in India, and “East Bengal” originally part of Pakistan, but now present-day Bangladesh. Prior to that, East and West Bengal were simply Bengal. My father’s side of the family has ancestral roots from the land that is present day Bangladesh. My family, primarily based in Calcutta, India, continues to share a language, food, and many customs with the people of Bangladesh. The primary difference is the recognized national religion: Hindu versus Muslim.


This isn’t a post about arbitrary political borders and deep religious divides (I want to sleep tonight), it’s about a geographic area that is very close to my heart and makes up the DNA that manifests as my caramel mocha skin (thanking Starbucks for giving me an alternative to “brown”) and goldfish-like eyes that through most of my childhood were just too big for my face.


This geographic area has recently been devastated by intense rainfall and subsequent flooding, resulting in at least 1200 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Bangladesh, along with Nepal and northern India are in the midst of a major crisis. The immediate reaction by devastated governments and aid agencies experiencing natural disasters is to provide relief, but future planning for population adaptation to these types of events must reach the national consciousness now. This is the new normal.


The flooding is bad, and will only be intensified as sea level continues to rise. Sea level rise is unstoppable. The present day elevated global temperatures have already kicked off the irreversible melting of glaciers and the great ice sheets. There is no viable science or technology solution today to address this stark reality. We can, and we must still work to mitigate against global temperatures increases to prevent against the worst-case scenarios, but even if we were to collectively switch to a sustainable, non-carbon based energy today, or yesterday, it’s still too late.


Impacts of sea level rise are felt in various ways. In the case of Asia, the intense flooding and saltwater contamination is resulting in devastation to human lives and their livelihoods. Communicable diseases are an increasing risk due to the prevalence of conditions that mosquitoes thrive in, and the economic ramifications are also dire. This cannot be another disaster that the relevant governments simply put band-aids on, but rather serious policy upheavals are required. Building another embankment that washes away is futile as the new normal of where our planet is habitable versus inhabitable sets in. Bangladesh and other vulnerable areas that will NOT be habitable must adapt to the impacts of sea level rise. Bengal was divided on man-made conflicts, and might it reunite on man-made climate impacts? We are all caramel mocha after all.