7 industries at greatest risk from climate change

Nicholas Duva, special to CNBC.com

How steep will the costs be?

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Rising temperatures and sea levels, along with increased incidence of extreme weather events, pose a threat to the global economy. Global infrastructure spending, public food supply, health and surging demand for energy are among the demographic themes that could come with steep climate-change costs.

Even if we successfully combat global warming and temperatures rise up 2°C from preindustrial levels, the damage to the world economy may be moderate, but certain regions and industries will be much more affected than others, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For climate-change skeptics, specifically, the risk of being proved wrong in the decades to come could be costly, with the bill for better-late-than-never mitigation efforts much higher than preemptive efforts to keep temperatures from rising.

Certain industries can't wait for the issue to be decided. Risk management of today requires making assumptions about what is sure to be an uncertain future. The following seven industries are those considered among the most at risk in the climate-change era.

By Nicholas Duva, special to CNBC.com
Posted 22 October 2014

Insurance

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Hurricane Sandy in 2012 resulted in more than $70 billion in economic losses, most of which was flood-related. About $26 billion of that was insured.

The nature of flood insurance is that because floods only impact certain low-lying areas, owners of homes above sea level don't buy it; because there are fewer purchasers, flood insurance is significantly more expensive. It is not included in most insurance plans.

Rising sea levels and the potential for increased incidences of catastrophic flooding will likely drive up both premiums and payouts, putting a strain on the insurance industry. The National Flood Insurance Program, for example, collects about $3.6 billion in premiums every year. Yet it insures more than $1.25 trillion in total assets.

Moreover, many insurance companies are starting to withdraw altogether from providing insurance to certain catastrophic markets, reveals a report released today by Ceres. The report states that last year just under a third of the $116 billion in worldwide losses from weather-related disasters were covered by insurance, according to data from the reinsurer Swiss Re. After Katrina struck, in 2005, insurance picked up 45 percent of the bill.

With more than 6.5 million homes in the U.S. at risk of storm damage and a total reconstruction value of nearly 1.5 trillion, according to Corelogic, a global property info and analytics provider, the insurance industry's retreat is an alarming threat to local populations and public institutions.

Agriculture

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As the temperatures rise, many high-producing agricultural regions will feel a squeeze. That matters an awful lot for the 30 percent of the world's population that works in agriculture.

Though warmer temperatures can help crops grow more quickly, for many crops–like grains–the faster the growth, the less time seeds have to mature, reducing worldwide yields. A 2014 United Nations report suggested that food prices could rise up to 84 percent by 2050 as yields fall.

And while higher prices are often good for producers, under climate change, production in certain areas may be decimated: The Central Valley of California, for instance, already experienced a $1.7 billion loss on this year's drought.

Energy

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For some industries, the risks posed by global warming are mostly about governments' effort to slow it. Regulations on fossil fuels are likely to increase, threatening the lucrative oil, gas and coal industries.

Environmental Protection Agency regulations in the U.S. have already contributed to a decline in coal use by U.S. power plants. Divestment campaigns by large institutional investors, including university endowments, are beginning to make an impact—most notably, Stanford University's decision to get out of coal.

Another dangerous, though now speculative, risk is the concept of "stranded assets." Large-scale projects (like offshore oil rigs) and major fossil fuel deposits may have to be abandoned, lead to huge losses, even bankruptcies.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned earlier this year that "stranded assets" are not only a major risk to energy companies, but their investors, including sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and university endowments. OECD governments make about $200 billion annually from oil and gas—Russia gets about $150 billion a year, or 28 percent of total government revenues, while OPEC countries revenues total $600 billion to $700 billion a year.


Beverage industry

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Increased water shortages are among the biggest threats to the worldwide soft drink and bottled-water market, valued at $247 billion by an IBIS World report.

Coca-Cola's 2013 10-K form stated that "changing weather patterns, along with the increased frequency or duration of extreme weather conditions, could impact the availability or increase the cost of key raw materials that the company uses to produce its products."

Coca-Cola's supply of sugarcane, sugar beets and other ingredients looks to be threatened as temperatures rise and extreme weather events occur more often. This past June, government authorities in India forced the closing of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the country's north after the company was accused of extracting too much groundwater.

Commercial fishing

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Ironically enough, as sea levels rise, the fishing industry will be one of the most adversely affected.

Salmon and trout, for instance, thrive in cold, free-flowing water. Habitat loss for both could be as high as 17 percent by 2030 and 34 percent by 2060 if emissions of heat-trapping pollutants are not reduced. That would be a harsh loss for these fisheries, which are worth somewhere between $1.5 and $14 billion a year, according to an analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Ocean acidification also poses a problem for the fishing industry. Shellfish, like clams and oysters, find it much more difficult to grow in a more acidic environment.


Skiing

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Oddly enough, climate change may actually be good for skiing meccas like Vermont right now. Because more precipitation is falling with the rising temperatures, there will be more snow during the colder months.

In the long run, however, if winters grow shorter and warmer and the precipitation turns to rain, regions that depend on cold-weather tourism will lose a substantial amount of money. By 2100, two-thirds of European ski resorts may be forced to close, according to an estimate made by Daniel Scott, the Canada research chair in global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo.

In the United States, the $12.2 billion ski and snowmobile industry has already experienced a $1 billion loss brought on by changing weather patterns.

Wineries

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The production of wine grapes may not be entirely destroyed by climate change, but the geographic landscape of winners and losers in the wine business may change dramatically.

Wine grapes require a particular environment in which to grow and are very sensitive to even the most subtle shifts in climate. As temperatures rise, there may be a two-thirds drop in production in traditional wine areas, such as Burgundy and Tuscany. The $10 billion French wine export industry is particularly vulnerable.

At the same time, certain regions, including southern England and greater Seattle, could find themselves home to an emergent wine industry.

Wall Street

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The impacts of climate change on the financial industry are yet to be determined, but Wall Street may find itself literally under water in coming years.

Much of Lower Manhattan is made up of landfill in areas that, when New York was still called New Amsterdam, were part of the Hudson and East rivers. This land was generally flooded in the aftermath of 2012's Hurricane Sandy.

Though Wall Street—one of the oldest streets in the city—was built mostly on old, elevated land, the geography of Lower Manhattan may change drastically in coming years.

For the financial services industry, prolonged shutdowns could lead to large losses. The industry lost $7 billion in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when the New York Stock Exchange was forced to close for two days.

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