Where it hurts Tidal surges from big, climate-change-driven storms are eroding valuable waterfront property in Miami Beach. (Seth Resnick / Science Faction / Corbis)
One of the more robust periods of study in the modern history of climate change has taken place this past year. It began in September 2013 with a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which supported the idea that a large portion of fossil fuel reserves will have to stay underground to avoid dangerous rises in temperature across the planet. Then, in March, came one from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which claims to be the world’s “largest general scientific society.” Among its conclusions was that we are at risk of pushing the earth’s climate system toward “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes.” By May, the federal government had weighed in with the Third National Climate Assessment, making similarly dire predictions and underscoring the wisdom of its prophesies made five years earlier.
But something different happened in June. Another report, yes. Only this one was of a different character. It was called “Risky Business,” and the team that produced the analysis wasn’t at all like the other climate-change sages. It was co-chaired by A-list titans of American business and former government officials, including Michael Bloomberg, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer. With such headliners, media coverage wasn’t hard to come by.
The novelty of the report was that it talked relatively little about science and more about what this whole threat is going to cost us. With its emphasis on the economic impact of climate change, it broke down each region and endangered economic sectors to assess the looming damage. And with this shift in focus—from the physics of climate change to its financial consequences—came a subtle yet perhaps significant change in media coverage. While science and political reporters have primarily covered the topic during the past decade, the “Risky Business” report garnered the attention of business reporters and their editors.
The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times published stories ahead of the report’s release. Leading business publications, including Forbes, Fortune, and the International Business Times, ran high-profile articles on their websites the day of the press conference. Steven Mufson, an energy and finance reporter, wrote about it for The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times’ report ran in its Business section. Long-time economics correspondent John Ydstie covered the news for National Public Radio. The New York Times was one of the few publications to cover the event as a science story. Environment and energy reporter Kate Sheppard covered the news for The Huffington Post, but her piece was accompanied by the headline: “Hardcore Capitalists Warn That Climate Change Is A Big Deal For American Businesses.”
As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, there’s a growing understanding that the costs could be catastrophic.
Not since the UK’s 2006 Stern Review on the economic impacts of climate change has the lens so tightly focused on the financial aspects of the story. The public stature of Bloomberg, Paulson, and Steyer helped grab headlines, but it was the idea that doing nothing to mitigate climate disruption carried major financial risk that upended the usual cycle of debate. Pulled in a new direction, the discussion tapped into social anxieties about economic instability and the fragility of American infrastructure and food production under stress after several years of successive drought and extreme weather events. Business reporters, like political and economic elites, seem to have brought a degree of legitimacy to the climate-change story by putting it in terms that most anyone can understand—money.
“There have been so many reports that have come out in 2014 on climate and all of them have basically shown increasing concern, increasing awareness of climate change. Yet ‘Risky Business’ stands out and is possibly the most significant one,” says veteran environmental journalist Bud Ward of Yale Climate Connections, which provides analysis of climate-change coverage. “I think it helps to move climate change off the science page, where it has been ghettoized.”
At the heart of “Risky Business” is the economic analysis of the Rhodium Group, which applied a risk-management approach to climate change. Risk-management analysis identifies likely financial losses due to things like legal liabilities, uncertainties in credit markets, and the probability of infrastructure failure.
In other words, “Risky Business” identifies the likely impacts of climate change—heat waves, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts—and estimates how much they might cost 50 years from now, or by the end of the century, if greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise at current rates. The report breaks down these costs by region and economic sector, because, say the authors, climate change will affect business differently from state to state.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Risky business."