When Hurricane Sandy hit the United States east coast on October 30, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development annual meeting was simultaneously kicking off in Seoul, South Korea. As top executives from nearly 200 global companies met to discuss how to scale up business solutions for sustainability, all eyes were half a world away, riveted to the unfolding story of destruction. These images stood as a grave reminder that the response to climate change is more urgent than ever and that everyone, including the business community, has a stake in the outcome.
While some have denied any link between Sandy and climate change, the science says otherwise. Many of the business executives attending the WBCSD meeting in Seoul aren't waiting around for the precise details on how climate change and extreme weather events are linked. They see and feel the urgency for action. They understand that there are ''planetary boundaries'' that provide clear limits to the total human footprint on our environment. Exceeding these limits threatens humanity's safe operating space and, therefore, business.
The global population is expected to reach nine billion people by 2050 and unless business is able to ''scale up'' sustainable solutions, these people will not be living well within, the boundaries of our planet. Given this reality, the WBCSD is using its landmark Vision 2050 report to identify key pathways to achieving the sort of change that's needed and at the necessary scale.
Hurricane Sandy was the most intense (as measured by barometric pressure) hurricane ever to make landfall along the US east coast. This was likely no accident. The temperature of the upper layers of the ocean in the region of the hurricane, from which it draws energy, were three degrees to five degrees warmer than average. Climate change - in particular the long-term increase in global average temperature from human emission of greenhouse gases - contributes to such temperature rises.
But the story doesn't end there. Much of the destruction of the storm was caused by extensive flooding along the east coast and again the hand of climate change is evident. Coastal flooding is caused by a storm surge - a wall of water pushed onto the coast by a storm out to sea - coincident with a high tide. Added to that is the fact that the base sea level has risen by about 20 centimetres over the past century, has continued to rise at a higher rate over the past two decades, and will continue to rise for centuries into the future. A rise of 20 centimetres may seem modest, but even small rises such as this lead to a surprisingly large increase in the probability of damaging floods. The primary reason for rising sea levels around the world is climate change.
An even more intriguing link between Sandy and climate change is to consider the direction that the storm took. The most common track for hurricanes or tropical storms that move that far north is to drift away from the US coast out into the North Atlantic and dissipate. But this time the atmospheric circulation pattern that steers the storms was different. A high-pressure system - acting like a big traffic cop in the middle of the North Atlantic - steered the storm westwards and directly onto the most heavily populated area of the coast.
Such high pressure systems may well be linked to another phenomenon caused by climate change - the increasing loss of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean. Loss of ice exposes open ocean water, increases evaporation of water from the ocean surface to the atmosphere, and leads to a larger number of high-pressure systems that move down from polar regions to the North Atlantic.
While more research is needed to pin down this link more firmly, the evidence that this aspect of climate change is affecting atmospheric circulation in the North Atlantic region is strengthening.
So, how do we respond to these impending challenges? This means changing business as usual and massively scaling up low-carbon solutions to combating climate change now.
Achieving sustainable development is daunting at the best of times but, when natural disasters strike, the scale and urgency of the challenge becomes self-evident. The timing of this massive ''Super Storm'' also comes at an interesting time. This month negotiators from around the world will gather in Doha, Qatar, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP18) to work on setting a binding agreement to combat climate change. But the outcome of these negotiations will likely not have the global commitments and impact needed to combat the threats we face. This creates an even greater urgency for business to take action and begin implementing the business response to climate change.
Business must take the lead in mitigating greenhouse gases by committing to measuring, managing and cutting their emissions output. Business is also the best source for developing the innovations that will create a low-carbon economy and prepare society for future threats by developing the technologies to adapt to a changing climate.
But all this cannot be accomplished strictly within the market. Businesses can drive these changes when they have strong and clear frameworks from governments that will unlock business solutions and put us on a path toward a more carbon-free future.
WBCSD president Peter Bakker recently laid out the argument for business action: ''It is unfortunate that it takes a weather event like Hurricane Sandy, which has taken lives and caused widespread devastation, to make people sit up and take notice. But it underlines the urgency of the situation we are in. Climate change is happening now and its effects are being felt all over the world. In my work I represent business and I just cannot emphasis enough the crucial need for business to scale up its initiatives. Unfortunately, this tragedy has proved to be a case in point.''
Business leaders such as Bakker understand that the challenges of climate change will only grow more severe and that we are already hitting the tipping point on action. Hurricane Sandy should not only act as a wake-up call for the need for increased business commitments but also a co-ordinated effort among every level of society, business and government.
>> Will Steffen is executive director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute.
>> Gail Whiteman is professor-in-residence at World Business Council for Sustainable Development.