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Drought, Floods and Extreme Heat

Businesses, from ranchers to retailers, are in many cases the ones responding to Extreme Weather stemming from climate Change

Frances Beinecke

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Climate change used to seem remote to many people. This summer, we just had to look out the window or turn on the Weather Channel to see what global warming is doing to our communities.

A record-breaking heat wave seared towns and cities from Texas to New York at the beginning of July. A freak storm powered by the heat left 23 dead and 1.4 million people without power from Illinois to Virginia. As I write this, fires are roaring from Montana to New Mexico, and more than 60 percent of the contiguous United States is in the grip of the worst drought in 50 years.

Intense storms and drought have many causes, but scientists—including those from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—confirm that climate change is contributing to the frequency and power of 2012’s extreme weather events. “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level,” said University of Arizona atmospheric scientist Jonathan Overpeck in the midst of the July heat and fires.

These local impacts can turn people’s lives upside down. They also leave steep cleanup bills and business losses in their wake.

Ranchers across the Midwest and Southwest are struggling to hold on through the drought. “If no significant rain comes, I will have to go out of business,” explained rancher Karen Harrelson. “I just don’t have any grass and won’t be able to afford the hay prices.” She has already had to sell 100 of her 250 herd of cattle. Farmers, meanwhile, are plowing under their crops. The U.S. Agriculture Department has cut its forecast for corn and soybean harvest twice this summer. Just months ago, experts expected to see the largest harvest in more than 70 years, but now the Corn Belt could produce yields 25 percent lower than normal.

Agriculture isn’t the only sector reeling. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, nine out of 10 companies have suffered weather-related disruptions in the past three years, and most of them say these impacts are becoming more intense. Hurricane Irene cost insurers about $400 million in the Carolinas alone, while in New Jersey, the evacuation of tourists in advance of the hurricane could have cost Atlantic City casinos as much as $50 million in lost business over the holiday weekend. Last year’s economic losses due to extreme weather totaled an estimated $53 billion.

These are not one-off events, but a pattern of increasingly extreme weather that is exactly what global warming models have predicted, and many business leaders are starting to prepare for it. Hundreds of investors worth $20 trillion in assets have signed onto the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change, nearly 4,000 companies filed voluntary disclosures of their carbon emissions last year, and a consortium of leading companies, including Starbucks, Levi Strauss & Co, and Swiss Re, released a step-by-step guide for businesses this July on how to assess and prepare for the impacts of global warming.

“If we sit by and wait until the impacts of climate change are so severe that it is impacting our supply chain, then that puts us at a greater risk,” Starbucks sustainability director Jim Hanna said. “From a business perspective we really need to address this now.”

Smart companies are already confronting the reality of climate change. The question is: will our political leaders do the same? Too many have remained silent about the connection between extreme weather and climate change and stood idle while coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, and other dirty industries continue to spew carbon pollution.

This has to change. We must elect leaders who will lead America to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future. This fall, I urge you to find out what candidates are doing to shift away from the polluting fuels that cause climate change. Do they back dirty tar sands oil for instance? Or do they support incentives to expand wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy? These are critical questions, because even after we contain the fires and recover from the deadly summer heat, the pattern will continue: we will see more extreme events in the months and years ahead if we do not reduce carbon pollution now. But if we take action now, we can protect our communities and our businesses. •

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