Climate change as a business decision.
Finding a suitable location to open a business used to be pretty straightforward. The decision was based on solid business basics: workforce, energy cost, utilities, transportation and the supply chain, not the whims of Mother Nature.
As the weather continues to defy historical norms around the globe, it is also becoming a significant factor in selecting a location that will be in a Goldilocks Zone for decades to come: not too hot, not too cold and not too calamitous.
Recent studies have confirmed what Washington residents knew all along. The state continues to land at the top of places to operate a business for the rest of the 21st century; climate change be damned.
We’re not totally immune to the changes coming our way, of course. No one will be. But there’s nothing in any models that show that the elements will become so severe that workers won’t be able to show up at work. Or that businesses will have to halt operations because of extraordinary weather events that are, in fact, becoming ordinary.
Man, it’s hot.
Take the heat index, for example. People are moving to southern states where it’s warm. But if you look at the sunny weather that folks love so much, it has a dark side, especially for businesses.
According to the National Weather Service, heat kills more people in the U.S. annually than any other weather-related event. That includes tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.
Arizona is growing like gangbusters right now as some folks seek fun in the sun, but it’s only getting hotter there. Fry an egg on the sidewalk hot. By 2050, it’s estimated that the metropolitan Phoenix area will endure temperatures of 95+ for at least half the year. That’s going to affect the workforce, so much so that a recent study predicts each employee will work 78 hours less annually, either because it’s too hot to work or because the power or water supplies have been adversely affected by demand.
That doesn’t sound like a big deal until you start doing the math. If your company has 200 employees, that’s 15,600 lost hours of productivity – every year. It will simply be too hot to work, especially if the job requires outside activity.
For the most part, temperatures in Washington are pretty comfortable and will stay that way. In Western Washington (the side west of the Cascade Mountain Range), summer days rarely rise above 79°, and winter days are seldom below 45° during the day. Snow is rare, but winter temperatures can easily dip into the 20s and 30s at night when cold air makes its way down from Canada. Annual rainfall in the greater Seattle area is about 37 inches (94 cm). That may sound like a lot, but 44 other major cities have Seattle beat by a mile.
Little rain falls in the shadow of the Cascades to the east, and cities like Wenatchee, Ellensburg and the Tri-Cities enjoy up to 300 days of sunshine a year. Summers are much hotter, and winters are much colder compared to the state’s western half. The average summer highs are in the upper 80s to mid-90s, and in winter, average daytime temperatures can range from the upper 30s to just above 0°.
Water we doing here?
Flooding used to be of little concern for many American communities. Increasingly, cities are being inundated with water, whether it comes from atmospheric rivers, record snowfall or an encroaching ocean. Miami is experiencing more flooding than ever, partly because the city isn’t far above sea level (roughly six feet). By 2060, some models predict 60% of Miami-Dade County will be underwater.
Blame it on what you will, but there’s a lot of evidence that the water will only keep rising. If one looks at Florida a century from now on the computer models it’s just a nub, not a finger. To borrow a Disney song title, most of it will be “under the sea.”
This will be the case for many coastal cities across the U.S. as the oceans continue to reclaim the land. Whether the rising waters are caused by humans or nature is of little consequence. The water is coming and there’s no easy way to stop it. Add in a hurricane or other monster storm and it will wreak havoc on communities, citizens and infrastructure, in part because many colonial settlements that turned into major cities were built on the lowlands around harbors and inlets.
Washington has its share of floods, but most are seasonal as the snow melts in the mountains or storms inundate local waterways. As such, flooding is localized, not widespread. If your business is a few blocks up from the water in any city large or small, there’s a good chance you’ll never have to fill sandbags on a rainy day.
Speaking of water. Washington’s 5,000 miles of rivers and streams and plenty of snowpack in the mountains mean the state doesn’t experience as many droughts as other states. Think of all those states fighting over dwindling supplies of fresh water. Water in Washington doesn’t just quench thirst; it keeps the lights on. Approximately 70% of Washington’s power comes from hydroelectric dams. While the supply isn’t infinite, we currently supply surplus energy to 11 other western states.
Tornadoes, hurricanes and quakes, oh my!
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, earthquakes. The last big ones (as of this writing) were in 1965 and 2001. Before that, 1949. Modern buildings and homes are built to today’s earthquake standards, so they will still be standing after a quake, even the “Big One” the media loves to focus on. In Eastern Washington, residents rarely feel the ground shake. Of course, we aren’t alone on this. The rest of the country is rapidly catching up when it comes to earthquakes and many states that have never had a single one are finding the ground shaking and quaking. Sadly, their building codes never factored in earthquakes, so even a small shaker can cause tremendous damage to businesses.
Most locals will tell you that they don’t think about earthquakes. Tornadoes aren’t top of mind, either. That’s because they are few and far between and do little to no damage. Washington averages 2.5 per year, most EF1 or lower. You’ll never hear an air raid siren go off in the middle of the work day or have to send everyone scurrying for shelter as a Finger of God threatens your place of business.
The same is true of hurricanes. Washington can experience some pretty blustery storms in the fall and winter, but our idea of high winds is 60 mph. A few trees fall, the power may go out, but that’s about it. Unlike communities along the path of hurricanes, there’s no need to board up windows, make alternate work plans for a week or more, empty stores of bottled water and snacks, or complain about the heat because the air conditioner went out. Most homes in Washington don’t even have air conditioners.
In the interest of full disclosure, the state has five volcanoes in the Cascade range. All but one is inactive. The semi-active one is Mount St. Helens, which blew its stack in 1980. Outside of the fact that the top of the mountain is gone, most of the landscape around it has totally recovered, including the flora, fauna and wildlife. The magma that flows out of our volcanoes is pretty viscous, so you won’t see any of those amazing lava rivers like you do in Hawaii.
That’s not to say that Washington has never experienced adversity. Half of Washington is forested, so wildfires are inevitable, particularly in the summer and fall. Most are started by lightning or careless campers and are in remote areas of the state, away from major population centers. The biggest problem is the smoke. Even though the fires can be far away, the wind may cause the air to get smoky for days at a time.
We didn’t pay them to say this.
Given the many factors that influence a company’s decision-making process, especially in light of a changing climate, Washington State stacks up well as a place to put down roots.
In ranking the best and worst places to live in a country experiencing increased climate changes, PolicyGenius.com puts Washington (specifically, the Puget Sound region) as the #2 best place, just behind San Francisco. The rankings were based on six factors: Heat and Humidity, Flooding and Sea Level Rise, Climate-related Disasters, Air Quality, Social Vulnerability and Community Resilience. You can see the full methodology here.
According to data models, the number of days with extreme or high heat in Washington will only increase by four days a year with two additional days when it’s hot and humid. Flooding is the biggest issue, according to the findings. Even then, the percentage of properties located in a 100-year flood zone in 2050 will only increase by 0.5%. Sea level rise will affect 0.35% of properties, well below the 1.35% average for the other cities studied.
Wildfire risk remains low, though “smoke season” in the West will affect air quality more than it does today. Right now, the greater Seattle area enjoys 83% of its days classified as “good” regarding air quality versus a national average of 63%.
A solid economic choice
No part of the U.S. is going to emerge unscathed. A 2017 study of more than 100 climate scenarios showed that everyone will be affected at some level. How much and how hard depends on geography. As always, it’s location, location, location when it comes to businesses and their ability to whether the weather and its many implications.
An article in Fast Company has a handy map that shows how states may experience economic damage near the end of the century. Heat and flooding will impact a large swath of the continental U.S. But these problems will pale compared to the hardship and financial losses wrought by extreme weather events, droughts and the impact of sea level rise. These issues will seriously affect infrastructure, requiring cities in nature’s path to reinvent themselves. The cost of mitigation or, worse, relocation, will have unpredictable consequences for businesses located in these parts of the country.
Summing things up
No one can accurately predict what the future holds. But hardly a day goes by without a breaking news story that involves unusual weather, tidal or geologic events. Change is happening all around, from killer snowstorms in places where it hasn’t snowed in decades to once-full reservoirs drying up. Even the Great Salt Lake is in grave danger.
We aren’t trying to gloat. But the data is hard to overlook or ignore, especially when you’re investing millions, even billions, in a business endeavor. All the monetary and tax incentives a state can throw at you aren’t going to fix the climate, geography or weather as it continues to impact your operations.
Viewing things from a business perspective, it’s hard to think that location isn’t going to be a primary driver, regardless of the cost of doing business there. It’s hard to build a viable business when your workers are calling out sick because of the heat index, and delivery trucks can’t make their drop at the warehouse because the roads are flooded. The cost of doing business – long a sensible decision-making tool – will have to factor in new data to identify the best place to set up shop in a world increasingly being affected by climate.
The climate isn’t going to change for the better, even if we were able to suspend its trajectory through herculean efforts. If it were to stop tomorrow, what has already happened has set into motion a series of events that will have a lasting impact.
We’re just fortunate here in the Upper Left U.S.A. that these changes won’t affect us as much, nor threaten our economy or preference as a place to live, work and play for years to come.
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