“Academics for academic’s sake” is a pretty common approach among the research community world-wide, and, climate science is no different than any other field. For over 25 years, I have studied and written on issues relating to climate change, the hydrological cycle, and the response of extreme weather events to global warming. The more that I learned about climate change and its causes (anthropogenic and otherwise), however, the clearer it became that societies and governments around the world were not ready for the impacts of climate change. Global warming does not simply just warm the climate, but also increases the risks from floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and extreme rainfall. Anthropogenic climate change is not a prediction; it is already happening. However, the level of preparedness and resilience of our infrastructure is not keeping pace with a rapidly changing climate.
For example, over the past 40-years, the number of natural disasters causing financial losses in excess of $1 billion has risen steadily. Natural disaster insurance claims were the highest ever in 2017 at $144 billion, and most of the annual losses (a total of $337 billion) were uninsured according to Swiss Re. Wildfires in 2017 caused a record $21 billion in losses. The sequence of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 caused losses equivalent to 0.5 percent of the US GDP according to BlackRock Institute. Of the top ten costliest catastrophes ever recorded in the US, eight were hurricanes and four of the eight occurred in the past 7-years.
In 2007, I was a lead author of the 4th IPCC Report that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore. The IPCC is an intergovernmental body of leading researchers from around the world. Their reports provide an objective, scientific assessment of the growing knowledge of climate change and its economic, societal and ecological impacts. The purpose of the report is not to advocate for policy changes, but to inform policy makers of the risks posed by climate change under a wide variety of future energy scenarios. The reports are “policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive.”
As a scientist, I try my best to follow this philosophy. I avoid advocating for policy changes directly, but strongly believe that policies should be based on an accurate understanding of the science. We are already living in a different climate than what our parents did. That’s a fact. And, regardless of future policy choices, the climate will continue to warm due to the enormous thermal inertia of the oceans. This is also a fact. This warming will be accompanied by further increases in sea level rise and extreme weather events. There is no debating these statements.
In late 2014, I found an opportunity to put my years of climatological research and scientific expertise to practical use in helping individuals and communities prepare for the inevitable. My colleague, Dr. Leonard Berry, who was the Director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and a Lead Author of the Third National Climate Assessment, was also thinking about how to take his lifetime of academic research on the impacts of a changing climate and use it practically. Len was retiring from his position at FAU and we began to brainstorm about how algorithmic computing and big data could be appropriately leveraged to provide fast, accurate and affordable, property-level flood and climate impact risk assessments. Our goal was to make scientifically-valid, risk assessment reports available to individuals, businesses and governments. With the help of some non-academics, including environmental attorney, Albert Slap, and international CFO, Rajiv Krishnan, we raised $2 million in seed capital funds and spent most of 2015 bringing together world-class scientists, GIS professionals and software developers to create www.floodscores.com. The product of this year-long effort was the first, property-level, flood and climate risk assessment for sale to consumers online. We launched floodscores.com online in January of 2016.
Fundamental to this effort was not only good science to evaluate the risks, but also excellent risk communication, so that the scientific output could be more easily understood by individuals, governments and businesses who received the reports. We believed that simply providing numerical outputs alone would be ineffective to reach the end-users and to help them make key decisions in their lives such as: buying and selling real property, relocating away from risk zones, insuring, lending, and protecting themselves and their properties.
We developed models for heavy rainfall flooding, tidal flooding and sea level rise, hurricane storm surge, and riverine flooding. We also brought in science advisors from various areas of academia to peer review and field-truth our models. We incorporated and improved upon FEMA flood maps, NOAA SLOSH models, and run-on/run-off models, using a variety of big data sets from both the public and private sectors. In 2017, we expanded our risk assessments to include: wind, tornados, earthquakes, wildfires and tsunamis. And, in 2018, we expanded our holistic risk assessments to include extreme heat, drought and cooling degree days.
Since January 2016, Coastal Risk’s reports have been provided to over a thousand homeowners, insurance companies, commercial real estate investors, developers and managers, commercial lenders, local governments, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and many others. In addition to the vertical markets of real estate, insurance, lending and government, we also realized the investment community and fund managers, who for many years had been examining the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria of the companies in which the funds invested, were beginning to evaluate the physical risks of the changing climate to their investments. So, in essence, a “two-sided coin” has emerged with regard to investment scoring for climate risks. Side one (ESG) is what a company or an investment is doing to the planet – helping or hurting the environment. Side two, however, and equally important, is what the changing climate is doing to the company or investment, including its facilities, personnel, supply chains, etc. According to a recent study by Conservation International, “[T]here is a growing concern among the investment community — the managers of US$143 trillion held outside banks worldwide — that companies are not accurately characterizing climate change risk in their reporting nor adequately preparing for its physical impacts.”
One conclusion of a recent study by BlackRock and the Rhodium Group is: “[H]urricane-force winds and flooding are key risks to commercial real estate. Our analysis of recent hurricanes hitting Houston and Miami finds that roughly 80% of commercial properties tied to affected CMBS loans lay outside official flood zones — meaning they may lack insurance coverage. This makes it critical to analyze climate-related risks on a local level.”
To this point, Coastal Risk’s technology already models at the local level all four types of flood risks, wind, and 5 natural hazards, including climate-related heat risks -- for every property in the US at square meter resolution.
Our management team at Coastal Risk realized that our Flood and Natural Hazard Risk Assessment Reports (FNHRA) could also be expanded to score physical climate risks (and calculate potential damage and economic loss) in most areas of the world, as well. Coastal Risk recently began offering flood risk reports and damage/loss assessments in South America.
As we thought about the significant lack of resilience to floods, natural hazard and climate change around the world, we realized that we did not want to just be the “bad news bears,” handing out the “bad news”, without helping individuals, businesses and governments understand what possible
solutions there were to mitigate risks and to make people, properties, and investments safer. So, in addition to high-quality, scientific risk modeling, Coastal Risk developed expertise in risk management, flood defenses, both structural and non-structural, and created software code to calculate the return on investment (ROI) from risk mitigation. Our mission became accelerating resilience.
My role at Coastal Risk is to leverage the rapidly evolving scientific knowledge of climate change, storms, weather and flooding and help translate that into technology with practical value that is directly relevant to individuals, businesses and communities. The enormous growth in technology, enables us to provide both planning level advice, as we do now, and real-time intelligence by utilizing IoT, machine learning and AI. At the end of the day, I am grateful to have an outlet like Coastal Risk with which to utilize my scientific expertise to help protect lives, property, and investments in the US and around the world.