With temperatures rising to record levels around the world, climate change is putting infrastructure, individuals and organizations under considerable strain.
Steve Bowen, Head of Catastrophe Insight at Aon, discusses heatwaves and how leaders can plan for the new risks arising from climate change.
The northern hemisphere has been sweltering under extreme temperatures this summer – which has caused both flooding in Europe and wildfires in places as far afield as Hawaii, North America, Greece and Turkey. As the world gears up for a key conference on limiting the effects of climate change later this year, we sat down with Steve Bowen, Head of Catastrophe Insight at Aon, to learn more about the risks of heatwaves and sudden shifts in temperature and weather.
STEVE BOWEN: So often times we hear the word unprecedented used to describe large scale disasters in the sense that records are broken and it’s a big deal and it generates a lot of headlines.
In this case, we had all-time records broken by 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which is off the charts in terms of what we typically would see in terms of longer-term records being set by newer events.
in this instance, the probability of this type of occurrence was at least one in 1000 years, which means there is a 0.1% chance, so a fraction of 1% chance of this type of event occurring in any given year. So really off the charts and there’s really no question that the fingerprints of climate change are certainly all over this in terms of how the blocking pattern as heat dome really was not able to move for so long. And that really is a hallmark of what we would expect during climate change.
With many cities and regions unprepared for this type of heat, the humanitarian impact is severe, with hospitalizations and death. But also, new risks have emerged.
STEVE BOWEN: Homes that were built decades ago were not built with heat in mind. There is no air conditioning. Even the infrastructure, there were a lot of photos of roads that were literally melting under the heat.
So it really does change how we have to think about the impact of climate change and temperature extremes in areas where there just hasn’t been any planning or preparation around it because no one ever assumed that something like this was ever going to occur. And this type of heat stress specifically can really have significant impacts on physical risk. Buildings can weaken, the foundations can weaken under prolonged heat.
Where there’s heat, there is fire. With record-breaking heatwaves come associated risks, including wildfires and even flooding.
STEVE BOWEN: When we see the extreme extremes of heat and putting the strain on infrastructure, on agriculture, on the ability to do proper fire mitigation, fire suppression because conditions are just so extreme right now that even a controlled burn can very quickly burn out of control and can do much more harm than what’s anticipated because really it’s supposed to just be good thing in clearing brush, but conditions are so dangerous right now. This is a risk that continues to grow.
These fires are becoming much hotter, they’re becoming more intense, they’re becoming more extreme in terms of how quickly the winds are shifting and how firefighters are able to establish containment lines. Because when you get these fires are so hot that they’re essentially creating their own environments. And when that happens, all bets are off.
In 2020, for instance, the National Weather Service in the US issued its first fire tornado warning, or we’re starting to see with more regularity these fires are so hot and the wind directions are shifting within these fire induced atmospheric environments where you’re starting to see fire tornadoes with more regularity. It’s being picked up on Doppler radar. We can get tornadoes of up to EF3 intensity. So wind speeds of, say, 150, 160 miles per hour, which is just really almost unfathomable.
With the frequency of previously unprecedented events increasing, climate change seems to be accelerating.
STEVE BOWEN: We really reached an initial tipping point back a couple of years ago when we surpassed the 400 parts per million in terms of carbon dioxide concentration within the atmosphere. That was really a tipping point in terms of a warning sign that there’s so much warming and there’s so much human involvement in terms of accelerating climate change on a global scale that we knew that we were going to start seeing more of these types of extremes.
And that unfortunately has continued to accelerate. In fact, we hit 421 parts per million earlier this year. So that rate of emission continues to go up. In terms of whether the impacts are accelerating, I would say that a lot of what we’re seeing is not completely surprising. We do have various levels of uncertainty around different perils and what climate change is going to do.
How can companies prepare for these sudden and unexpected shifts in weather? Planning in new ways is a must for the reality of climate change.
STEVE BOWEN: In terms of planning and preparation, a quote that I like to use, that I’ve started using in the last couple of weeks is we need to stop building back to meet the effects of the events of yesterday. We need to start building for the effects of the events we’re going to be seeing tomorrow. Climate change is not something that’s hypothetical that is going to happen in the future. The impacts are already being felt today.
The risk is not going away tomorrow. This is a systemic problem that is going to justify a completely fundamental change in terms of how we think and how we plan for the future. But the good news is that there’s such a spotlight on it, and there’s so much work being done to not just plan for and help people from a consulting aspect to understand where the risks is growing, but also products becoming in place that if you are focused primarily on the physical risk that you can start to point to and purchase and things that are not overly expensive, to make sure that you’re starting to protect yourself for when the inevitable next large scale event does happen.
Thanks to Aon’s Steve Bowen for sharing his insights and perspectives. Additional resources from Aon can be found on aon.com.