Leaving London during last month’s record-shattering heat wave, I was dismayed – not by the rising mercury, but by the fact that the country seemed so ill-prepared for it.
During the ride to Heathrow, my cab driver pointed out the trains sitting idled by the threat of warping tracks and melting switches, while I fretted about the warning from a friend – a retired RAF wing commander – that the runways were only rated to 100° Fahrenheit. My watch said it was already 98°. Indeed, as I was boarding my plane, the television monitors at the gate suddenly flashed to nearby Luton airport, where the runway had in fact melted, grounding all flights. The scrolling text at the bottom spoke of hospitals without air-conditioning, fires, and all sorts of other real or threatened calamities.
A few minutes later, as I listened to our pilot express guarded optimism at our own prospects of getting off the ground, I found myself wondering why all of this seemed to be taking Britain by surprise. After all, the political leaders of the U.K., as elsewhere, have been warning us about the impact of rising global temperatures for decades. Heck, they’d even hosted a U.N. summit in Glasgow on this very topic last fall. Yet, the idea that temperatures in the U.K. might actually reach the predicted levels seemed an unexpected shock.
It shouldn’t be. And this lack of foresight is hardly limited to Britain: All around the world, the same governments that are struggling to stop global warming have been slow to prepare for the effects of climate change that their own models have predicted.
This was underscored later that day as my flight to San Francisco approached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I saw the plumes of smoke rising like terrible apparitions of our fraught future over Yosemite.
I work with federal firefighting agencies, and I know how much they struggle each year to cobble together enough equipment to battle the megablazes that are now an annual occurrence in the American West.
The most effective and hardest to come by are firefighting aircraft, particularly the purpose-built tanker planes that can land on lakes, scoop up bellyfuls of water, and drop it on the fire line. The best are made by Bombardier, but less than a hundred have been built and delivered to agencies all around the world since it was introduced in 1994, and the lack of orders makes it hard to keep the production line going.
The most powerful aviation asset in the world’s biggest firefighting aircraft, the giant 747 Supertanker, is a one-off that spends its time traveling from fires in North America and the Middle East to Australia and the Amazon. It is operated by a private company, which last year warned it might have to suspend operations due to rising costs of maintaining the aging aircraft.
At a time when huge swaths of the American West are burning every single year, it is almost incomprehensible that the federal government has not purchased and deployed at least one of these planes to support its own firefighting operations. After all, we spend billions of dollars every single year building planes for wars we hope we never have to fight. Why can’t we come up with the money to buy a 747 Supertanker to help our firefighters win the wars they are fighting every summer?
What this has to do with business
You may be asking yourself why I am why I am writing about this in a column aimed at business leaders. The reason is simple: Most businesses are not doing enough to prepare for the impact of climate change either.
I’m not talking about the laudable efforts many corporations are making to curb emissions, cut travel, and produce products with a reduced impact on the earth. I’m talking about preparing for the impacts that are already inevitable from the warming that has already occurred.
For years, scientists have been warning of us that we will see hotter summers, colder winters, increasing crop failures and falling yields, more frequent and more damaging weather events, worse fires and floods, and even a growing risk of infectious disease. All these things are already happening, and all of them are toppling other dominoes, leading to even more challenges – particularly for global corporations.
Businesses large and small need to understand how these developments might affect their operations and develop resilient plans for dealing with them.
Methodologies such as red teaming and scenario planning can help, because they offer tools to help decision makers weigh the potential impact of these events on an organization’s plans and develop strategies for mitigating those risks.
Figuring out how to proactively prepare for these disruptions should be a top priority for every business – and governmental – leader.
Because nobody can say they weren’t warned.
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