The draft “National Assessment of Supply Chain and Other Developing Risks” was issued just last month. It outlined increasing threats to infrastructure, food and water supplies, air quality, national security, public health and public safety, and ecosystems. It also discussed measures to reduce those risks and to address them. In short, the Assessment should be required reading for everyone involved in planning a company's response to the things that could destroy the company. Only it won't be because of one small detail. That title, the "National Assessment of Supply Chain etc.," is a fabrication. The real title is the draft Third National Climate Assessment Report (Assessment). (It's 147 MB so here's the Executive Summary too.) Thus, for many companies, the report will be shunted to the EH&S office and the C-Suite will remain oblivious. This is unfortunate.
"National climate assessments act as status reports about climate change science and impacts." Their legal basis is the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (codified at 15 USC §§ 2921-61), which mandates periodic reports to the President and Congress evaluating the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). Under the USGCRP the effects of global change (not just climate change) on all facets of the nation (including agriculture, energy, water resources, human health and ecoystems) are analyzed. Trends are reviewed and projected for up to 100 years. “The NCA aims to incorporate advances in the understanding of climate science into larger social, ecological, and policy systems, and with this provide integrated analyses of impacts and vulnerability.” The last National Climate Change Assessment was in 2000.
What is particularly rewarding in the Assessment is that it gets right down to the nitty-gritty. We have picked only one topic to focus on, Transportation, but one could take a deep dive in over a dozen. Ports are obviously at risk from sea level rise, but some might think that is manageable because sea level is only changing gradually, even if the worst predictions are accepted. If it were only that simple. "When sea level rise is coupled with intense storms, the resulting storm surges will be greater, extend farther inland, and cause more extensive damage." Draft at 200. Even without sea level rise, the increase in extreme weather and flooding will result in increased sedimentation. "Channels that are not well maintained and have less sedimentation storage volume will thus be more vulnerable to significant, abrupt losses in navigation service levels." Id.
Climate change predictions also include increasing temperatures, but so what? The Assessment offers the following: "expansion joints on bridges and highways are stressed and asphalt pavements deteriorate more rapidly at higher temperatures. Rail track stresses and track buckling will increase. Lift-off limits at hot-weather and high-altitude airports will reduce aircraft operations." Draft at 197. Each of these conclusions is referenced to research. Airports too are not out of harm's way. Thirteen of the nation's largest airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of current sea level. Draft at 201. Readers will remember that the storm surge from Sandy was 14 feet in New York. Draft at 203. They may not remember that the storm surge from Katrina was 15 feet along the entire Mississippi coast, and much higher in some places (like an "astonishing 27.8 feet at Pass Christian, Mississippi"). Our business is not freight forwarding or overnight delivery but we bet that those running such businesses pay close attention to the reliability of their transportation routes. If supply chains matter, one needs to be looking at roads, rails, ports and airports, and we mean locally, as well as abroad.
The Assessment is a trove of information and provides citations to the vulnerability studies of numerous cities and states, including Boston and New York City, California, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington, and Wisconsin, which have already begun assessing their transportation vulnerabilities. Draft at 209. Although there is a lot of information out there, the Assessment also sounds a note of caution in preparing: "Impacts of climate on transportation system operations, including safety and congestion, both on road systems and in aviation, have been little studied to date." Draft at 213. "[E]xisting models used for snow and ice removal procedures are no longer reliable, requiring better monitoring and new models, as well as better roadway condition detection systems." Draft at 211. This uncertainty, however, should not be a reason to do nothing. As the Assessment states, preparation helps a lot: " the vulnerability analyses prepared by the metropolitan New York authorities [prior to Sandy] provided a framework for efforts to control the damage and restore service more rapidly." Draft at 204.
Another approach taken by the Assessment is to comment on the impacts from climate change that can be expected in various areas of the country such as more hot days, or more heavy precipitation (or more drought depending on location). For businesses that don't include weather considerations in their planning, the Assessment won't change anything: heavy rains have come since the dawn of time and humans have responded. But for those that do any sort of weather preparation and planning, the Assessment points out what extreme weather means, and thus suggests what steps might be worth taking.
For example, torrential rains from Hurricane Irene in Vermont damaged over 500 miles of state-owned roadways and 200 bridges. Draft at 554. Some communities were isolated for days. Id. Why should people in the Northeast take notice? Because "between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw a 74% increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events." Draft at 551. In other words, the fate of Vermont is increasingly likely to be the fate of others.
And this is a fundamental feature of climate change. "Climate change is statistical weather, and manifests itself as a change in the frequency of events that would still occur (but with lower frequency) in the absence of climate change." Draft at 218. The risk of untoward events is increasing. No one will be able to point to a flood or a hurricane or a heat wave and say this is climate change-related. But that is not necessary, or even relevant. As the risk increases, prudence requires that one spend more time and expense thinking about and countering the risk. The Assessment is a good place to start. And a good first step to start one's thinking would be to submit comments on the report. The deadline is April 12.