Climate scientist professor Sir Brian Hoskins led a Norton Rose Fulbright debate held at Lloyd’s

Climate Change Smoke

Business as usual will be impossible as climate change continues its current trajectory, a leading climate scientist told a City audience in London this week.

The risks posed by climate change were the topic of discussion at an event held by law firm Norton Rose Fulbright at Lloyd’s of London.

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins addressed the audience on the topic of “Climate change: are we up for the challenge?”.

“There is no such thing as business as usual in the future,” said Hoskins. “We can’t expect to go on releasing greenhouse gases and live the life we have lived in the past.”

Hoskins is professor of meteorology at Reading University and director of Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change.

Recent cold weather patterns in the UK and US in 2017 and 2018 can, anecdotally, give the impression that temperatures are not warming; Hoskins noted that taking a global average during those spells, the world was still warming to set new records in overall terms.

It is a misconception that climate change just means higher average temperatures; it will also change weather patterns, he highlighted. “Rainfall records are expected”, noted Hoskins, “because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water.”

Droughts can also lead to broader consequential risks, he suggested, using the example of a 2006-2010 drought in Syria, which badly affected farmers in the Middle Eastern country.

“Climate change is often mistaken for one problem on its own,” said Hoskins, referencing connected factors of urbanisation, population growth, geopolitics, and sustainable development goals.

Climate models began life as weather forecasting tools, he noted, adding in other data over time. Furthermore, Hoskins stressed, modern computational climate models are tested against historical climate data to check their validity for predicting the future.

While the world is certainly hotting up – by some 0.8 Celsius since 1880 already – the land is warming more than the oceans.

Coping with today’s extreme temperatures is already tough for developing countries, he noted.

The Paris agreement (COP-21) agreed in 2015 “only takes us a quarter or a third of the way” towards curbing temperatures before a “crucial threshold” is likely to be crossed, he suggested.

The seas are rising by around 3.3mm per year, “which doesn’t seem like much”, but can be closely watched from space by satellites, and translates into 3cm per decade and 33cm within a century.

Hoskins linked this to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the US in 2012, causing great damage along the US east coast, including New York.

“The sea level [for Sandy] was about 20cm higher than it used to be,” said Hoskins.

By 2050, temperature rises mean there might be no ice left in the Arctic except in winter time, he explained.

Within a couple of centuries – depending on mitigation efforts – there may not even be any ice in the Arctic in winter time.

It is hard to undo the level of carbon dioxide that has been allowed to build up already. For every 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the air now, Hoskins noted most it will still be there for hundreds of years to come.

On a more optimistic note, he suggested mitigation efforts are improving thanks to technology – particularly by harnessing renewable energy and developing electric vehicles to the point where they become desirable among consumers.

Climate risk is decreasingly a matter for “future generations”, he noted, allowing greater urgency in mitigation efforts. “We can’t put off the problem into the future – we have to deal with it now,” he added.

A panel discussion followed his speech, which highlighted some of the industry risks already coming to the fore because of climate risk.

Neel Lane, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, highlighted new risks for architects and engineers, as they face new professional standards and legal risks should, for example, floods exceed previous models used for construction projects.

Higher standards of knowledge and care will likely be balanced by competitive costs, creating climate-related risks for the construction sector, Lane suggested.

Tricia Hobson, global chair of Norton Rose Fulbright, highlighted that after Queensland floods in Australia in 2011, dam engineers are already being blamed in a class action lawsuit.

Climate risk could be the next cause celebre for plaintiff law firms and activist shareholders, she suggested.

Aldo Argento, a Canada-based partner at the law firm, suggested it was “only a matter of time” before business interruption claims hit insurers because of protesters disrupting oil pipelines.

Drought risk was highlighted by Maria Philippides, a South African partner at the firm, noting a risk that in 2019 “Day Zero” will occur in Capetown, when taps are expected to run dry.

Political risk, protests and civil commotion are expected to ensue, she suggested, as residents blame the municipality and others for failure to supply water.

She also highlighted heightened war and political risks from migration, noting the huge refugee camp set up in Kenya to deal with people displaced by recent drought in East Africa.

Previous, prehistoric warmings of the earth have not taken place in an era with political borders to stem migration, pointed out Hoskins, while developing countries will struggle most to mitigate the effects of climate change on society.

He also had a word for those who remain sceptical in the face of a weight of scientific evidence.

“When asked do I ‘believe’ in climate change I say ‘no, but the evidence for it is very strong’ – this is not a credo,” Hoskins concluded.