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 January 27, 2012
The silent alarm of climate change

 If your workplace is anything like mine, the weekly fire alarm test is greeted with nothing more than quiet acceptance as people simply get on with what they are doing. Which rather begs the question, what if a fire broke out at that exact time - would anyone be able to act?

The reason I bring this up is there are a lot of alarms going off at the moment and yet few people are doing anything about it - you wonder if alarm-fatigue has set in.

Today, Defra publishes an ambitious Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA), providing the latest in a long line of climate reports that businesses really should be paying attention to.

Weighing in at around 1,000 pages it's not exactly recreational reading, but the key message is this: climate change is happening, the impacts will be severe, and we have to act now.

For businesses, the risks are both direct and indirect. Flooding is the biggest threat as incidents of heavy rain increase and, in the longer term, sea levels rise. The cost of flood damage could rise significantly from as early as the 2020s according to Professor Sir Bob Watson, Defra's chief scientific advisor.

While warmer winters could mean fewer seasonal duvet days, Defra estimates the summer heat in cities will lead to an average of between one half and two days off per employee - surprisingly few of whom will be on the beach. Instead, they'll be more likely suffering from heat stroke.

Then there are all the complications created by water scarcity, damage to infrastructure, increasing demands for cooling, and so on. Higher air temperatures could even mean National Grid will be forced to reduce the amount of current passing through overhead lines to avoid over-heating.

There are those who will dismiss this as climate alarmism, but you can forget that idea: this report has been peer reviewed up to hilt. These predictions are as solid as any scientific predictions can be.

The simple fact is that any business planning up to 10 years ahead should not only be aware of this report, but acting on it.

Yes, there are still uncertainties about how big the problem will be and how much it will cost to respond, and business will be wary of wasting money on mitigation efforts.

But as Bob Watson told reporters yesterday: "It is decision-making under uncertainty... [but] do you want to sit back and just say nothing's going to happen? I would argue that there is uncertainty in these projections [but] it's a lot better than having no information at all."

And after all, moving quickly on the issue means companies can capitalise on the potential opportunities climate change offers.

As Dr Matthew Brown, head of energy and climate change policy at the CBI, points out: "the UK has much expertise it can sell in other countries, including advice on water efficiency, insurance and other financial products."

The alarms are ringing - and just like in a fire, it's those who act quickly who will get out unscathed.