Monday, June 25, 2012

Early to Rise

I don’t like talking about the weather. I have plenty of meteorologist friends that can ably do that on my behalf. In fact, our book about climate change isn’t as much about the climate as it is about its impacts and what can and should be done to prepare and respond. (If you’re looking for a great discussion on the weather aspect of climate change, Heidi Cullen’s book is a very accessible, and thought-provoking, text on where we could be headed.)

But the weather is the easiest frame of reference when it comes to climate change—it’s right there in front of us, relatable, and people have a pretty good feel for what it means—and certainly what lessons can be learned from our current environment. And when I see something in June that’s being monitored as a possible tropical depression, I think about what kind of mindset a functional manager needs to adopt in order to do their job.

“And they shall call her ‘Debby.’ Image taken the morning of June 22, 2012, by Accuweather
See, hurricane season in the Atlantic technically runs from June 1 through November 30, so anything is possible during that timeframe when it comes to tropical storms. But anyone who has ever booked a Caribbean cruise knows that your cheapest rates are in August, primarily because that’s when severe storms and hurricanes are most likely to rain on your (tropical) parade. Traditionally, hurricane season isn’t in full swing until the late summer.

But NOAA has already looked at things from a historical perspective, and what they found was that Hurricane Season 2012 jumped the gun, noting that

The Atlantic season has already gotten off to a quick start...with tropical storms Alberto and Beryl forming during the month of May.  This is the first time since 1908 that two tropical cyclones developed before 1 June. 

Consider the other severe weather events 2012 has already delivered to the United States. March was the setting for a rash of powerful storm systems, something that research meteorologist Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory noted was a result of optimal tornado conditions arriving earlier than in previous years.

March 2, 2012, tornado in Henryville, In., part of a system that killed 7 people.
The question becomes this: how can functional managers develop strategic plans when some things (like severe weather) arrive earlier, while others stay later (like longer frost-free periods and longer periods of pest proliferation)? Your calendar is completely out of whack. The impacts to your operations are multiplying and morphing right before your eyes. And that becomes a question of risk assessment and preparedness.

In the book, we pose the question of risk on each of the seven functional chapters. One thing we found over the course of this discussion is that organizations must assess associated risk that come with discrete events, along with vulnerabilities to their assets and processes. These factors will vary from place to place, but risk assessment process remains the same: understanding the event and its impact, looking at potential damage to what you do, and then determine its overall likelihood. This isn’t a novel way of looking at things, but rather a good method to apply to the climate change issue, and the unique set of problems it could bring with it.

Is this a cultural shift? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s the same jarring consideration as how a flu pandemic might force people to forgo shaking hands. But if we’re to really adapt to a changing climate, that means shifting the way we think—or at least broadening the things we’re considering in order to help safeguard our way of life.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Climate Change on the Mind

In 1985, David Lee Roth began extracting himself from Van Halen’s shadow by releasing his EP Crazy from the Heat, with cover art of Roth waste deep in the waters off of the Seychelles Islands.

Twenty-seven years later, one has to wonder if Mr. Roth, even then, had climate change on the mind.

Seychelles, of course, is at significant risk to the impacts of a changing climate. Rising temperatures present a number of issues that must be adapted to, certainly from a public health perspective. Less obvious among them, though, is mental health.

The June 20 official start of summer arrived with furnace-like temperatures all along the east coast. This, after several weeks of awful wildfires in the western United States, which have forced evacuations from California to Colorado. And as firefighters valiantly work to stop thousands of acres of wildfires, and cities activate their health systems designed for severe heat events, there’s been no break from a stressful sequence of events—which certainly falls under the area of mental health—and the need to consider how public would deal with these events in extended and rapid succession.

The High Park fire west of Fort Collins, Colo. is being called one of the worst fires in Colorado history. Photo courtesy of

You can call it the mental aftermath.  A 2011 study by Australian researchers found that several years of continued catastrophic weather events on that continent have resulted in Cold War levels of anxiety and insecurity in children.

This extreme anxiety and stress are logical responses to extreme weather events—this on top of well-documented stressors like lack of access to food and water. A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation outlines how the uncertainty caused by unpredictable weather causes people to become depressed, even suicidal. The report, developed from conclusions of a high-level panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, and public-health and climate experts stated two hundred million Americans will be subject to stress because of climate change. 

Think about Hurricane Katrina and the doubling of mental health issues that occurred post-Hurricane Katrina.  A 2005 study of 283 children displaced by Hurricane Katrina revealed that they were nearly five times more likely than a pre-Katrina national comparison sample to have "serious emotional disturbance." This mental health category is similar to PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—and accounts for children's distress and social, behavioral and functional impairment.

Hurricane Katrina’s wake left four states with disaster areas, including all of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Public managers have an opportunity to view each of these events as case studies as they move forward in developing a response strategy. There is critical information to be gleaned with regards to how their communities respond to those problems unique to their area.

Stakeholders in the public and private sectors will need to ensure adequate community health services with enough capacity to handle a wide array of mental health challenges, including displacement, death, depression and anxiety.

One community’s heat wave is another community’s wildfire, but the common element is that people will be confronted with stressful situations—and that’s a pretty good baseline to start with.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Making Supply Chain Music for a Better Climate

I have played guitar—albeit not very well—since my teenage years. Until I started studying supply chains and sustainability, I didn’t think much about the environmental implications of making a guitar. As it turns out, guitars and other musical instruments are often made from old growth woods, like mahogany, spruce, and ebony, prized for their acoustic qualities, and harvesting this wood can sometimes do more harm than good. Some guitar makers are finding ways to use the traditional old growth woods by selecting sustainable sources.

A flaxwood guitar, made by breaking down non-endangered European spruce and binding it with a special polymer.

Old growth wood deforestation is a central concern in discussions of climate change (for more on forestry issues, check out our chapter on land use in Climate Change: What You Can Do Now). In 2009, talks at the Copenhagen Summit centered on that very issue, with participants struggling to balance economics, biodiversity, primary forest loss.

“Some environmental groups are pressing for conservation of old-growth forests—the most carbon-dense, and biologically-rich state of forests—to be the centerpiece of [reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation], while industry and other actors are pushing for "sustainable forest management" or logging using reduced-impact techniques to be the primary focus of [reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation].”

I have long believed that many of the issues that we now see with sustainability and risk in the supply chain are due to business spending the past two decades outsourcing processes and globalizing operations. The result is more complex supply chains with less visibility into sources of material. As Gibson Guitar Corporation found out, that lack of transparency can lead to trouble if you don’t get the wood you think you are buying or suppliers mislabel the raw materials. Although Gibson was never charged with any wrongdoing, federal agents disrupted manufacturing operations on the suspicion that Gibson had received illegally harvested and exported wood.

Getting more visibility over the supply chain—understanding who is doing what and how it can be verified—is a first step to making the supply chain more sustainable. That is why a recent story about Taylor Guitars buying an ebony mill in Cameroon stood out to me as a good sustainability and risk management practice. By purchasing the mill, Taylor hopes to gain more control over the sourcing and processing of ebony to ensure the wood is sources sustainably.
Taylor Guitar’s Cameroon-based ebony mill
Given the recent trend of outsourcing, Taylor’s vertical integration may seem like a questionable decision. But purchasing a critical material supplier can pay off in the long run. First, Taylor is ensuring a source of supply for a critical and constrained raw material, which will reduce uncertainty in the future. Second, with a customer base that is fairly sustainability savvy, there is a great risk if unsustainably or illegally harvested wood found its way into a guitar. By taking control of the supply chain, Taylor protects themselves from this risk.

The interesting aspect of this story is the role of customer education in sustainability. Despite its name, ebony is not always a pure black color, but there is a perception that ebony must have that dark color. Taylor realizes that educating customers about sustainable wood choices will lead to more sustainable harvesting, less constraints in the supply of ebony, and no loss in guitar quality. As company founder Bob Taylor notes, “We need to use the ebony that the forest gives us.”

I may not be the next Guitar Hero, but the supply chain needed to make a quality guitar offers lessons for all of us. Gaining visibility and control over your supply chain can help take sustainability actions and reduce risk. Educating customers about the sustainability and performance of the materials in the product can support implementation of sustainability practices without losing the market. Who knew you could learn so much from a guitar?