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Or should we say... climate maladaptation?

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By Praveen Gupta

· 11 min read

… She’ll come back as fire

To burn all the liars

Leave a blanket of ash on the ground…

- Nirvana

As I reflect upon the climate coverage whizzing past from North America, I wonder whether we are in a state of dystopia already. We could get there soon if only we keep doing all that we have been doing. Disruption? Aren’t we already disrupted? Maladaptation is perhaps what it is precisely! Here is plenty of evidence.

Wildfires in North America

As Toddi Steelman highlights on LinkedIn: “What Canada is experiencing is hard to fathom. While we in the US are experiencing the #smoke from those #wildfires, Canada is facing a truly unprecedented #climatecrisis. The crisis is threefold — the scale of #burning currently taking place is in part driven by a #warming world, the #carbon currently being released will create positive feedback for more warming and the number of people affected in both the short and long term."

Because of the repeat nature of these burns and the severity of fires in some places, it is unlikely that the boreal forests that are currently prevalent will regrow. After the 2015 severe fires in Wood Buffalo National Park, a more savannah-like landscape was more likely. Black spruce was less likely to regenerate. This also has consequences for the critters that live in these environments and the communities that depend on these environments.

Here is an article from Maclean’s that talks about Canada in the year 2060. It describes how global warming will push Canada’s climate past recognition. Heat will blanket the country, winters will melt away, wildfires will burn indefinitely and our geography will be irrevocably transformed. The article also provides a thorough look at Canada’s future, with just a glimmer of hope for how we could improve these outcomes. It’s a brutal — but necessary — read about the harsh reality that climate change is bringing.

Long before the town of Lahaina burned in Maui’s devastating wildfires, the area was filled with water. Writes Adele Peters in the Fast Company. Before colonization in the 19th century, “the landscape was lush, and nothing like it looks today,” says Kaniela Ing, a seventh-generation Indigenous Hawaiian who is the national director of the Green New Deal Network. “It was the birthplace of aquaculture, with fish ponds across town, and people orienting life around nature, rather than in conflict with it.”

Fossil fuel companies: worsening forest fires across the western United States

peer-reviewed study from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 19.8 million acres of burned forest land — 37 percent of the total area scorched by forest fires in the western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986 — can be attributed to heat-trapping emissions traced to the world’s 88 largest fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.

Emissions from these companies and their products also contributed to nearly half of the increase in drought and fire-danger conditions across the region since 1901.

The study — and other attribution studies like it — offers policymakers, elected officials, and legal experts a scientific basis for holding fossil fuel companies accountable for the impacts of their products and their decades-long deception efforts.

Health effects of wildfires?

Shares Hannah Brown of AP in Euronews: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), smoke from wildfires is a mixture of hazardous air pollutants — like PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, or lead — which contaminate the air.

The WHO also says toxic smoke affects the climate by releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “Once those particles are deep in the lung, they can cause systemic inflammation, which can affect all other systems of the body," Brown quotes Colleen Reid from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Will the US run out of water?

Within the next 50 years, writes Aimee Gabay in Live Science, many of the freshwater basins in the United States could struggle to meet the population's water demands. Climate change is causing severe droughts and greater aridity extreme dryness that can affect humans and the natural systems they depend on, especially in western states. Greater aridity leads to more climate extremes, drier soil and greater stress on agricultural production and ecosystems. And water supplies could decline by a third by 2071, even as the population mushrooms to 404 million by 2050, compared with 334 million today.

And what happens to the backbones of the digital economy?

An insightful feature by Michael Copley in the NPR shows how reliance on water poses a growing risk to data centers, as computing needs skyrocketed at the same time as climate change exacerbated drought. About 20% of data centers in the United States already rely on watersheds that are under moderate to high stress from drought and other factors.

Often, water is evaporated in data center cooling towers, leaving behind salty wastewater known as blowdown that has to be treated by local utilities.

Yet relatively few companies have been willing to talk about the issue publicly because of the limited attention it gets. Sustainalytics quotes Copley, which assesses risks related to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, recently said it looked at 122 companies that operate data centers and found just 16% had disclosed information about their plans for managing water-related risks.

The challenge comes down to a basic tradeoff companies face in trying to keep data centers cool, Kyle Myers, a vice president at CyrusOne says. They can either consume less water and use more electricity or they can use less energy and consume more water.

"Water is super cheap," Myers says. "And so people make the financial decision that it makes sense to consume water."

Pension funds: off the mark?

“Pension funds are risking the retirement savings of millions of people by relying on economic research that ignores critical scientific evidence about the financial risks embedded within a rapidly changing climate”.

A report by Climate Tracker reveals that many pension funds use investment models that predict global warming of 2 to 4°C will have only a minimal impact on member portfolios, relying on economist’s flawed estimates of damages from climate change. This applies worldwide, not just to North America. There is no way we can ignore warnings from climate scientists that global warming on this scale would be “an existential threat to human civilisation.”

"To ensure that the world moves into a new climate secure energy system, it’s crucial pension schemes send the market the right investment signals. The signal has to be that a swift, orderly transition is in everyone’s financial interests”.

- Mark Campanale, Carbon Tracker

The problem is not with pension funds alone but with all financial institutions. This is what the FT has to say: financial institutions often did not understand the models they were using to predict the economic cost of climate change and were underestimating the risks of temperature rises, research led by a professional body of actuaries shows. Many of the results emerging from the models were “implausible,” with a serious “disconnect” between climate scientists, economists, the people building the models and the financial institutions using them, a report by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries and the University of Exeter finds.

Profit before people

Nina Lakhani exposes in the Guardian how private equity (PE) firms are increasingly profiting from cleaning up climate disasters in the US while failing to better protect workers and often also investing in the fossil fuels that are causing the climate emergency, new research has found.

The demand for skilled disaster restoration or resilience workers, who are mostly immigrants and refugees from Latin America and Asia, is soaring as greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels heat the planet, provoking more destructive storms, floods, and wildfires.

As the industry has become more profitable, at least 72 companies that specialize in disaster cleanups and restoration have been acquired by private equity firms since 2020, according to the research, by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project (PSEP) and Resilience Force, a labor rights organization with thousands of members.

Wage theft, lack of protective clothing, and other unsafe conditions are rampant across the industry at the expense of workers, communities and climate, according to the report, Private Equity Profits from Disasters, shared exclusively with the Guardian.


This story from the Guardian is dated, but the situation has only worsened since then. An estimated 46 million Americans said they would be unable to afford quality healthcare if they needed it today, a new West Health-Gallup survey has found. The survey also found wide racial and economic disparities in who believes they can afford healthcare.

Nearly twice as many Black Americans as white Americans said they would not be able to pay for healthcare, at 29% versus 16% respectively. More than one in three low-income Americans, or 35%, said they were unable to pay for needed healthcare in the last 12 months during the Covid-19 pandemic.

One in eight Americans (12%) said they reduced food spending to pay for healthcare. Among people who earn less than $24,000 each year, one-quarter cut back on food to afford healthcare. Also among low-income households, 21% had to reduce spending on utilities to afford care.

Protection gap 

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was recently quoted by Fortune saying the weather-related havoc playing out across the US is exposing a “protection gap” for Americans seeking insurance against property losses.

Yellen, who also chairs the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), said that a spate of extreme weather events is causing insurers to raise rates on homeowners. Some firms have withdrawn entirely from offering coverage in areas deemed to be high risk, she added. 

“American households are already seeing the impacts even if their own homes have not been damaged,” Yellen said recently at an FSOC meeting in Washington. “As a result, more households are turning to residual markets for coverage or are foregoing insurance entirely.”

In 2020, Yellen added, just 60% of the $165 billion in total economic losses from climate-related disasters were covered by insurance. She said it’s necessary for FSOC to examine how these shifts may affect the wider financial system.


September 1 marked what has been hailed as a historic move. A resolution calling on the State of California to endorse a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty passed the final vote in the State Assembly, making California the largest global economy to support the proposal. Facing big opposition from oil & gas lobbyists and 40 industry groups, who joined forces in an attempt to block it, the proposal was backed by a majority of 43 votes.

Earlier this summer, the UN sent Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil and gas company, and its financiers — the likes of HSBC, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs — a warning for their role in driving climate-related human rights violations. This is the first time the UN experts have taken action against an oil major’s or indeed its financiers’ responsibilities for human rights and climate change under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The warning is hugely significant for at least two reasons, explains Climate lawyer Zaneta Sedilekova:

  1. It points towards setting a new legal standard for fossil fuel companies’ human rights responsibilities related to the climate crisis; and
  2. It states crystal-clear that banks bear their own legal responsibility for contributing — through their financial activities — towards climate-related human rights violations.

Having said that, with the recent posturing at the G20 summit, the US seems to be wooing Saudi Arabia. To keep the oil prices under check!

Future generations?

The Commonwealth Climate and Law Initiative (CCLI) infuses a lot of optimism: in a groundbreaking milestone for environmental rights, the recent constitutional climate trial in Montana has set a powerful precedent in the battle against climate change. Young residents of Montana secured a historic victory, accusing the state of violating their right to a healthy environment through pro-fossil fuel policies. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, marking the first constitutional climate trial victory in US history.

In conclusion

Are these pushbacks a silver lining or a flash in the pan? Back in the early 1980s — here is an eye-opener from Planet Anomaly — the average interval between these major disasters (within each year) was 75 days. Even more starkly, 1987 had no climate disasters that topped $1 billion in damages, while 1988 only had one. Fast forward to 2022, and that average window has drastically reduced to a mere 20 days between billion-dollar disasters in the United States. According to The White House, the US alone will face over $2 trillion in costs annually by the end of the century due to climate change disasters.

While we celebrate a new tennis queen — Coco Gauff — at the US Open and speculate over Djokovic versus Medvedev, many sporting events continue to be sponsored by fossil fuel champions. Some sportswashing, JP Morgan! Let’s hope it will be just rip currents and choppy seas that Hurricane Lee sends across to the east coast of the USA. Hopium, however, is not a sustainable prescription for our times.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he devotes his time to researching, writing, and speaking on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of his work.

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