The Climate Desk

By Felix Salmon
March 10, 2010
Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Reuters, Slate, The Atlantic, Wired, and WNET. It's called The Climate Desk, and although its website isn't up and running yet, it does have a mission statement:

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I’m a little scared and more excited to kick off a serious and ambitious exercise in collaboration across a spectacular range of websites, including Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Reuters, Slate, The Atlantic, Wired, and WNET. (Update: the Nation Institute is also involved.) It’s called The Climate Desk, and although its website isn’t up and running yet, it does have a mission statement:

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact — human, environmental, economic, political — of a changing climate.

My job is to look at the corporate side of things: whether and how big companies are preparing themselves for the downside of climate change. Already the SEC has decreed that companies have to disclose the effect of climate change in four different areas: actual and potential laws and legislation; international accords and treaties; regulatory and business trends, including changes in demand for goods with high or low emissions; and, finally, this:

Companies should also evaluate for disclosure purposes the actual and potential material impacts of environmental matters on their business.

Of course, disclosing risks is a very different thing to actually doing something about them. So what I want to have a look at is two main questions: how should companies be managing their climate-change risks, and how are they managing their climate-change risks?

Some companies (like property insurers in coastal regions) I suspect are already reasonably sophisticated about these matters. Others, of course, simply aren’t set up to think deeply about long-term strategy regarding risks which will unfold over decades; it would be silly for most small tech start-ups to waste management time on that kind of thing. But I suspect there are some very interesting and surprising stories out there which are worth exploring: when, for instance, does an asset start to look more like a liability?

If the public sector can do this — the Pentagon has, unsurprisingly, already started thinking along these lines — then the private sector should be able to do so as well.

Helping me out in looking at all this will be a group of great bloggers and journalists, including Alexis Madrigal of Wired, David Roberts of Grist, Mark Schapiro of CIR, Kevin Drum and Kate Sheppard of MoJo, and Nicole Allan of The Atlantic. But I want your help too: email me on felix at with your ideas, and I’m even welcoming PR pitches on this one.
There are two things I don’t want. I’m not interested in the green-tech story, or in companies which are trying to position themselves to benefit somehow from climate change. I really want to focus on the way that companies are managing downside risks, here, as much as possible.

And I’m absolutely not interested in having a debate about whether climate change is real, or anthropogenic, or overhyped, or anything along those lines. If you think that the downside risks of climate change are zero, then that’s a different story, not this one.

Eventually I’m going to write this all up in a self-contained piece. But right now, I’m starting at zero. Help me out here!


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What are you talking about? Everybody knows AGW is a scam – it’s over. Why don’t you look at how much money was wasted on climate audits and other tree-hugger nonsense over the last 20 years?

Posted by RobSterling | Report as abusive

Talk to the guys at Ren Re, Montpelier Re, PartnerRe, State Farm and Allstate. They will give you the lowdown on what they are doing with pricing due to “climate change.”

The climate is always changing; always has been. What we are seeing is normal.

Full disclosure: long ALL PRE

Posted by DavidMerkel | Report as abusive

Excited to work with you on this, Felix. I used to love a good 10-K, but I haven’t worked out those muscles in quite a while.

Aside from the insurers, I’m wondering about port authorities, ship builders, and other businesses literally lapping at their shores. But perhaps sea level rise is a little too easy.

How do businesses think about the downside risks of changing precipitation patterns, i.e. droughts? If you’re an Atlanta-metro business that uses water, are you changing your behavior to assure continued access to water right now, whether or not you call that adaptation?

What about companies that built tracts of vacation homes near Colorado forests that now look like this ( thanks to the mountain pine beetle? Faced with ambiguous evidence about whether or not the beetle infestation was climate linked, will recreation and development companies change their behavior?

Just some possible directions.

Posted by AlexisMadrigal | Report as abusive

“My job is to look at the corporate side of things: whether and how big companies are preparing themselves for the downside of climate change.”


The key to understanding anything seriously is asking the right questions – There is a hidden assumption in your mission statement, which is that climate change (if it’s happening) has only a downside.
It’s simply not serious to assume such a thing, and if you can’t see the potential upside for certain regions of the globe, as well as some sectors in the economy, you should at least open your mind to this possibility.
The good news is that it’s a no-brainer to find such upside, unless of course you’re too much into catastrophe movies.

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive

Felix, is there a place where to find all Climate Desk articles?

Posted by lucaconti | Report as abusive

yr2009, I don’t think Felix made that assumption. There *is* a downside to climate change, and that’s what Felix is writing about. He even said specifically that he doesn’t want to hear the upside stories.

I’m very interested to read this piece when it’s done.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Well perhaps there is a change in climate that everyone can agree is not theoretical – it is the quasi normal fluctuation in El Nino/La Nina. I think everyone would agree to these two phenomena and the interesting way they disrupt economies, industries and so forth: Reuters today has posted two articles on the crisis in hydroelectric power in Venezuela and its political and economic impact on Hugo Chavez. In his country, drought is associated with the El Nino phase of the jet stream and oceanic fluctuation and drought is anathema to hydroelectric power generation. Our big noise in the USA this winter is bizarre precipitation effects in the NE USA. This is due to the jet stream entering USA from so. Cal, rather than the Portland area. All I know is that when drought returns to the USA you will see the St. Claire River controversey rev up with loss of water upstream of this. The New York Power Authority/Ontario Hydro rely on the Lake level in Erie Co. to generate power for the NE USA, using water from regions upstream from its electricity market (and outside of service). This is a threat to the NE grid and to the bond ratings of NYPA/OH and the potential for binational and interstate conflict, water rights etc. Do you think this is a legitimate scenario to justify meteorological interest in the economy?

Posted by eichelberger | Report as abusive

I’ll do what I can.

Posted by STORY-BURN | Report as abusive

I just traveled a semi-arid region for two weeks. Something is certainly changing, 51 degrees celcius at 5pm in a lush mountain region. Maybe if CNN and the like start reporting actual temperatures, the added 10 degrees will in all likelihood cause mass hysteria, Saudi will be pegged at 50 degrees throughout Summer.

The changes are causing extreme weather patterns to become more extreme, I don’t take heed of studies, it is obvious from weather reports.

Then we mix waste into the equation, shoddy reasoning.

On thing is for sure, we are too many and the large cities need to reduce headcounts, de-urbanisation,they are the main sources of waste concentrates and will also not cope with evacuations.

Then of course, the saddest part of my trip, a diamond mining company that completely destroyed a very large estuary/delta on the Atlantic Seaboard. It looks like Saudi on a good day. Who cares about rehabilitation legislation and fines ?

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

…AlexisMadrigal – I forgot, to me it looks like global freezing up north and global warming down south, that is a very different scenario to the potpourri arguments we are used to.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

Felix – you can’t be serious. Wasting your time shilling for the likes of Al Gore. (He’ll take the money and run, thank you very much). What a complete misuse of your intelligence.

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

maybe the zoom’s a little tight, on single companies. downsides would be more across sectors or along chains? and the example of regional water use is a bigger issue than climate — all industry will have to adjust to constrained supply there, warming or not, as groundwater is tapped.

to me i guess i want to know from businesses, beyond trying not to be a big part of the problem, and beyond new regs, new raw materials pricing/sourcing, new transport regimes, maybe even on the other side of planned obsolescence, if all your externalities are on your books (like ), what’s your business model look like?

cuz there’s too much else. to silo climate.

Posted by hapa | Report as abusive

as for some other comments, i love how capitalists’re only supposed to profit by polluting. what’s that, a requirement of dirty money?

Posted by hapa | Report as abusive

Felix, go for it, dude… I understand your constraints ..

Posted by gramps | Report as abusive


Being interested in one side of a story (if such story exists at all), and not in other aspects of it may produce amusing stories and anecdotes, but it’s not exactly good journalism.

As for fears about Earth becoming a “Dune” style planet, they are absurd, since warmer oceans increase evaporation, and that leads to an increase in precipitations – inevitably.

As for fears about shortage of food, just think about the huge land masses of Northern Asia (a.k.a. Siberia), Canada and Alaska changing climate from cold to temperate. In terms of additional arable land this would be the equivalent of discovering a new continent.

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive

Start in California and the other Western states that rely on the Colorado River. Then look at industries that rely on weather and water — like California’s enormous agricultural industry (don’t forget fisheries and timber), and the secondary industries that feed in, from seeds to equipment to labor.

The economic recession did a nice job of killing off the construction industry in Las Vegas. But there’s a pretty powerful argument that Las Vegas is built out, not due to lack of land, but to lack of water. Arizona has pretty junior rights as well and looks to be facing tough times over the next few decades as the Colorado River gets drier. There’s a blog called Inkstain (here) that’s pretty good on Southwest water issues.

Posted by FrancisL | Report as abusive

Good to hear, Felix.

Speaking of Portland, we are anticipating a terrible year for hydro runoff. And here is where the economic impacts start. The Bonneville Power Administration, the regional federal power distribution agency, monitors snowpack throughout the Northwest including up into eastern British Columbia where the headwaters of the Columbia River are, and most of the storage for the spring-summer freshet occurs.

As of last week, expected runoff at the big dam at The Dalles, Oregon (right by the Google net center) is projected at about 67% of average, down from a projected 74% just a month ago. article-display/7044873436/articles/hrhr w/News-2/2010/02/decreased-runoff_could. html

This is directly related to the fairly strong El Nino we’re currently having, but the climate models in this region show earlier and “peakier” runoff that will significantly affect hydropower, fish passage, domestic water supply (especially in Seattle and other parts of the region directly dependent on glacial runoff for drinking water) and agriculture in the future.

We are even wondering whether climate change is already affecting the ENSO cycle, but that’s just conjectural at this point. The irregularity of the cycle over the last decade is cause for some concern, however. And the visuals of crews trucking snow into the Olympic sites leaves a big impression in these parts.

Posted by FredHeutte | Report as abusive

Great news, Felix – and a great crew. Plenty of story ideas here: usiness.php and happy to help drill down!

Posted by coolplan | Report as abusive

Another good place to look is the Alaskan Arctic, where the impacts of climate change are being felt more than anywhere else on the planet. The Alaska Natives in particular, have had to adapt their subsistence way of life to climate change. Also, villages along the Arctic coast are having to relocate because of climate change. As the ice melts up there, many are looking with renewed interest at industrial development, shipping, commercial fishing etc, and it is interesting to consider how such businesses and the government move forward in the Arctic – hopefully with an eye toward not making things worse for the Arctic environment.

Posted by alaskaemilie | Report as abusive

Several years ago I did some research on the re-insurance industries take on climate change. I focused on Swiss RE and Munich RE. I was suprised to learn that they both had depts. dedicated to the issue and were contemplating the possibility of refusing to insure CEO’s that put stock values at risk by ignoring the necessary changes required by a changing climate. Their websites have changed over the years and much of the detailed research may no longer be available but these links should provide some insight into what corporate interests are taking steps to begin mitigation. ange_and_insurance/strategy_and_policy/d efault.aspx the-climate-principles/

Posted by Greensleeves | Report as abusive