Sustainability Digital – March 2021

Material climate change already here

The impact of climate change is already material, said Woodwell Climate Research Center’s Philip Duffy who warns that thawing permafrost could mean the loss of control of ever being able to manage climate change. Elsewhere, he urged investors to use their voice to bring about change.

The impact of climate change is already material said Dr Philip Duffy, president and executive director of Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Speaking at ‘Sustainability Digital: A Planet in Trouble,” he said that increasing wildfires, hurricanes and rising sea levels are all signs of change with profound economic and social consequences.

Last year’s extreme hot and dry weather in California is a continuation of a trend feeding into wildfires, while storms in the north Atlantic and rising tides and flooding are also part of a long-term trend. In Australia, trends in wildfires will evolve, threatening the east of the country, the most populated area with the highest vegetation. In the Mediterranean additional months of drought every year will lead to water scarcity, fire risk and have an impact on human migration. Duffy also warned of the impact of rising temperatures on crop failures.

Unstoppable momentum

Melting permafrost will also have a “major impact on life on earth,” said Duffy, who works with governments – as well as some institutional investors including CalPERS and OTPP – to help inform policy decisions. Permafrost is thawing as the Arctic warms, emitting carbon dioxide and methane in a vicious circle whereby the more the frost thaws, so it speeds up the thaw.

“We risk losing control,” he said, explaining that even after humans stop emitting greenhouse gases the warming will continue.

“We don’t know the probability of this, but it is a risk, and a risk we haven’t got to grips with yet.”

Meanwhile, he said a key consequence of climate change is that parts of the world will become difficult to inhabit with implications for migration.

“The potential for large scale migration and political uncertainty concerns me,” he said.

In a sobering message to delegates comprising over 300 global investors with a combined AUM of $12.7 trillion, Duffy explained that when we stop emitting greenhouse gasses, the impacts of climate change won’t reverse – they will just stop getting worse.

However, he stressed the importance of action now, and observed from his vantage of years working on climate change that “people are finally getting it.”

He said there is “no such thing as it being too late” and said strong action now and into the future will push the negative consequences of climate change into the future, making a “liveable” future more likely.

Duffy outlined the challenges of climate capture technologies that remove carbon, explaining that the technology and energy use is expensive. It is easier to slow emissions via man management or natural methods like restoring carbon to agricultural soils and re-forestation.

“It won’t get all the way, but this is something we can do right now and it’s inexpensive,” he said, adding that there is growing interest in agricultural methods that restores carbon to soils.

Duffy’s work includes advising pension funds like CalPERS and Canada’s OTPP on how to evaluate assets through a lens that takes into account physical climate risk.

“When we started this, it was something quite new; it wasn’t something investors were used to thinking about when assessing where to allocate capital.”

Duffy also explained that some regions and countries could benefit in the short term from climate change. For example, Russia and Canada may find more land suitable for agriculture. However, he stressed that long-term “we all lose” because of the impact of migration and political instability.

He urged rich countries, that have contributed most to climate change, to do more to help poor countries which have contributed the least but stand to suffer most.

“Like with COVID, it is in the interests of rich countries to help poorer countries,” he said.

Emerging economies are potentially significant sources of emissions going forward and if they develop their economies using fossil fuels, it will exacerbate the problem.

“It is in our own interests to help them develop their economies with low carbon and help them cope with climate change.”

He concluded that change hinges on increasing wealth but via lower carbon solutions – rather than asking people “to make do with less” – and espoused investor power.

“The financial industry and business sector has a strong political voice if they decide to use it.”

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