Climate adaptation - A conversation with Woodwell Climate Research Center

Thomas Mucha, Geopolitical Strategist
Christopher Goolgasian, CFA, CPA, CAIA, Director of Climate Research
Zach Zobel, PhD
2023-05-25T12:00:00-04:00  | S2:E8  | 25:45

The views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk.

Episode notes

Director of Climate Research Chris Goolgasian and Dr. Zach Zobel of Woodwell Climate Research Center join host Thomas Mucha to share their perspectives on the adaptation research and investing landscape. 

Key topics:

2:20 – Climate adaptation

4:15 – Rising heat risk

6:40 – Innovative adaptation technologies

8:45 – Water scarcity and a price on water

12:40 – Climate resilience

14:20 – The intersection of climate and geopolitical risk

18:10 – Collaboration with Woodwell Climate Research Center

20:10 – Reasons for optimism


COLD OPEN (CHRIS GOOLGASIAN):I think you will see a price on water. That price will be regional, because, as Woodwell can tell you, everything about water is location, so we won’t have a global, universal price; we may have regional prices. And once you see a price on water, then companies will be much more aggressive in disclosing how they are becoming more efficient, what tools they’re using, what amount of water they’re using, etc.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So there weren’t many positives about the COVID-19 global pandemic, but one was that labs around the world did share data and resources, and the result was a lifesaving vaccine in record time. Now, climate change is also a shared risk, slower moving, perhaps, than an infectious disease, but no less deadly in the long run. Governments and companies are now focused on reducing carbon emissions, but investments that help us adapt to the physical effects lag far behind. To explore this gap, and the fast-growing market for climate adaptation and resilience, are Chris Goolgasian, Wellington’s Director of Climate Research and Portfolio Manager, and Zach Zobel, Climate Scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center. Chris, Zach, thanks for joining me today on WellSaid.

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Good to be here, Thomas.

ZACH ZOBEL:    Happy to be here.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So we’re gonna look at climate adaptation,  in a deeper sense here, Chris, and so let me start with you. Shared risk, global problem. Every nation around the world faces some growing form of climate peril, whether that’s heat, droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, sea level rise, and all the other variables that we study here, with major socioeconomic and national security consequences. So why do you think spending on adaptation, from both governments and companies, has lagged relative to the energy transition and the focus on decarbonization?

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Sure. It really has lagged, that is no understatement, and I think it’s a behavioral issue. So, society wants to focus on solutions, rightfully so, and we need to decarbonize; that’s a solution. But in focusing there, sometimes that may imply we don’t wanna admit we already have the problem, right? And the problem is the seven physical risks which you laid out: heat, drought, wildfire, hurricanes, flood, water scarcity, sea level rise. They are here, worsening, and unavoidable. So there’s a disconnect on this, and I think that’s in society; it’s in leadership; it’s in financial markets. It’s just human nature: we wanna be optimistic that we can solve the problem in advance, as opposed to saying we already have the problem and we have to adapt to it. In a nutshell, I think that’s the issue, and to put a point on it, when we started with Woodwell in 2018, Phil Duffy was the President. He’s now on leave to the White House in a climate role, but back then I remember asking Phil, “What’s the number one observation you have that you think is just underpriced or underestimated in the world?” And without blinking an eye he said, “Well, Chris, we have to adapt.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, clearly, we’ve spent a lot of money, and there’s a lot of force already on decarbonizing, and we need to do that, but there’s been very little attention paid on all the capital that’s gonna be needed to be spent on adapting to heat and water scarcity and wildfires.” And that was the lightbulb for us, I think, to hear from one of the world’s leading scientists this very behavioral issue come out of his mouth, as well.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So the problem is already here, and, arguably, the biggest issue is heat. Zach, heat records are being broken again this year, and a new El Nińo will likely make things even worse in the short run. So, from your scientific perspective, how do rising temperatures influence other physical risks that Chris has just mentioned?

ZACH ZOBEL:    Yeah, sure. So the El Niño/La Niña oscillation is a naturally-occurring phenomenon. It’s been occurring likely for at least a couple hundred years, as far back as we can see records. And what it is is during the El Niño phase, warmer than average ocean temperatures usually originate around the countries of Peru and Ecuador, and they propagate westward across the tropical Pacific, eventually reaching Southeast Asia. So, when there’s an El Niño it typically was a little bit warmer global average, and when there was a La Niña it was typically a little bit colder. Now that the greenhouses gases have warmed the atmosphere about 1.2 degrees Celsius, when there’s an El Niño it’s typically a global temperature record. And when there’s a La Niña, it’s still well above average but it falls just short of an El Niño. Since about 2020 we have been in the La Niña phase, or the typically cooler than average phase. And so now, as we head into a new El Niño, this one’s likely going to be another super El Niño, like the one in 2016, which is really starting to concern scientists, because when you see these super El Niño events, which there have only been five since 1950, the global temperatures typically jump about 0.2 degrees Celsius before they level off in the following years. And so, if we see another similar jump, we might be getting close to the first Paris Accord threshold. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  So these heat impacts will bleed through the entire climate picture and impact other variables?

ZACH ZOBEL:    Oh, absolutely. In fact, since about the end of March of this year when La Niña ended, the global oceans, not just in the tropical Pacific but just the global oceans in general, have been at record high levels, and so they just beat out the super El Niño in 2016, which was the previous record for global ocean temperatures. And so, this’ll have trickle down effects on all global weather. It impacts the monsoon in India. It impacts the Western United States’ winters. South America is the most directly affected, where it causes drought or even flooding rain in different locations. And so, the global weather cycle on top of it possibly being the warmest year on record will have impacts.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Now, Chris, given your role here at Wellington, you sit at the intersection of climate science and markets, so what are some of the more innovative adaptation ideas that you’re seeing come to market, and then how do you think about this tradeoff of adaptations like air conditioning, you know, that are energy intensive? I mean, what’s the right balance here?

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Sure. Yeah, I mean, some of the new technologies are actually gonna be very old school technologies. One of the ways we think about companies providing services and products for resilience and adaptation is to look for companies that are in businesses and services that we say are outdoor, dirty, or wet. This is not technology and social media apps. We have to get back to a lot of industrial, outdoor practices to adapt to droughts and flood and wildfires, etc. And so, if you think about rainwater harvesting, as Zach and his team have educated us, one of the more profound findings is this boom/bust cycle. Many more severe droughts and many more severe floods. It’s hard to hold both of those true in your head, but both of those are true, and sometimes they’re even true in the same locations. Well, historically, what has happened is people say when the flood comes, and the extra water comes, I’m gonna store it up for when the drought happens. That’s rainwater harvesting. There are companies that make this equipment, and they have had a lot of penetration in some emerging markets. I think what you’re gonna see is that it’s coming to a developed market near you, too. On your question on air conditioning and the circularity of energy use and emissions, we have a pretty strong belief that societal leadership is gonna prize health and safety over emissions. And you started this podcast talking about COVID. Look what we prized in COVID: we prized health and safety over the economy, rightfully so. You have to do that. So we shut the economy down; we provided tons of stimulus to try and save people. In the climate world, we have to have HVAC, we have to have air conditioning at these record temperatures to keep people alive. The answer is not to shut HVAC down to save the emissions and then cause a whole bunch of heat-related deaths and heatstroke. The answer is: the pie chart of emissions is very large; save the emissions somewhere else so that you can fund the HVAC emissions.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Now, obviously, you mentioned water scarcity. Both of you put that high up on your list. So I’m gonna start with Zach here: why are we running out of the most vital aspect of natural resources here? 

ZACH ZOBEL:    Well, there’s really about three reasons, the first of which is water has always been viewed as an infinite resource, and so the way we use water hasn’t always been very efficient. You combine that with the need to feed a growing global population, and you can start to see right there where you may face some water scarcity issues. Secondly, it comes more from the climate change or atmospheric perspective. Chris just mentioned that as the climate warms more of our precipitation is coming in the form of a boom or bust cycle, as we call it. So even if a given location receives about the same amount of rain on average per year, if they’re getting the majority of their rain in just a few events, surfaces are not able to retain that water in the system, and a lot of it runs off into our rivers and eventually our oceans. Combine that with the fact that temperatures are warming, which is accelerating the evaporation process. So we’re losing more water to the atmosphere and the ocean because of climate change.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Chris, I wanna stick with water scarcity, because it’s so important to the future here. Now, we’re starting to see governments draft policy. We’re starting to see them invest more in water infrastructure, treatment, water management. So, what do you think the likely effect here is on companies?

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Yeah, you had your first UN conference on water a few months back, going back to 1970 since we’ve had one, so the issue is getting the attention it needs today. I’ve really focused on this the last two years with Woodwell, and as I think through the whole equation, I think what you’re gonna see is a price on water. That seems, to meet be highly likely. We have prices on gold, oil, inflation, Bitcoin.

THOMAS MUCHA:  That runs counter to what Zach just said about thinking it’s an unending resource, so that’s a big change.

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   That’s right. Putting a price on it tells the world that it’s not an unending resource, right? So I think you will see a price on water. That price will be regional, because, as Woodwell can tell you, everything about water is location, so we won’t have a global, universal price; we may have regional prices. And once you see a price on water, then companies will be much more aggressive in disclosing how they are becoming more efficient, what tools they’re using, what amount of water they’re using, etc. To date, water disclosure is severely lacking, just like climate disclosure was lacking previously, although it has come a long way. The second point on water is around the importance of both efficiency and recycling, and, you know, I’m a big one for looking at signals and branding and language, and one of the key ones here is this reframing of wastewater into reclaimed water. The fact that governments and regulators are talking about reclaimed water instead of wastewater should tell you something. They’re the exact same thing, but reclaimed sounds a lot nicer --

THOMAS MUCHA:  Sure does.

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   -- than wastewater, right? And it’s telling you how big the problem is that we are rebranding wastewater, because the fact is we’re gonna have to use a lot more wastewater. We’re gonna have to recycle it and use it for a number of things that people probably found pretty icky in the past, but today we have no choice on. So companies with water treatment services, filters, pumps, pipes, efficiency methods, they will all be in the spotlight going forward, given the need for water efficiency and more water savings.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So a lot of activity just in the water space.

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   That’s right, and that doesn’t even count the areas around heat and wildfire, hurricanes, and flooding. These are all areas with similar angles for companies to provide services and products.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Now, Zach, the United Nations defines “climate adaptation” as the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate effects, but climate change is getting worse. We’re seeing more uncertain outcomes. So, from your perspective, how should we be thinking about adapting and building climate resilience in the face of, let’s say, greater unknowns.

ZACH ZOBEL:    Well, we can take a step back before looking into the future and think about where we’re at right now. We’ve already warmed one degree Celsius. We are not prepared for a one-degree Celsius world, let alone 1.5 or two as we head into the future. And that’s evident by all of the events you see almost daily around the world. We’re not even used to the warming that’s already taken place. We’ve not adapted to that. So you can start there and look at how can we adapt to one degree C, but while we do that we should consider the fact that the emissions we’ve already emitted into our atmosphere are going to push us past 1.5 degrees C. I, as a scientist, firmly believe that at some point we will reach two degrees C; it’s just a matter of when, and that choice is up to us. But at minimum we need to start with 1.5, because at this point that’s almost inescapable with the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Chris, as you and I have discussed many times in our daily interactions, even on this podcast, climate change is considered a key national security risk, and from the Pentagon’s perspective it’s making the geopolitical backdrop more dangerous, particularly in the Equatorial and tropical regions where many of today’s key risks sit, and it’s already hitting the military’s capacity to respond to these rising national security issues. So as governments close ranks to protect national security interests from climate disruption, what do you think the chief market implications are? Do you think this will stifle collective problem solving or do you think this might jumpstart innovation?

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Well, first, Thomas, I think you’ve been a thought leader in the industry on the intersection of climate and geopolitical risk, so I’d certainly turn the question back to you, because you have great insights on this. I’ll be brief. So, couple things. One, the more obvious area in these regions is that food and water shortages can lead to migration crises, which then lead to political crises, possibly battles, wars, etc., right? And so, what you have to think about in, you know, military perspective -- and you’ve educated us on just how the US military establishment has thought about this globally -- is securing the food and water in these regions to make sure it’s viable and consistent, and doesn’t have these big down periods. That’s an enormous task, but it’s also a big opportunity for companies in those spaces, right? The second area which seems to be less obvious but is really going strong today is on-shoring. As governments try to ensure that they can produce key national security products on their own shores and on their own land, they have to build manufacturing sites to do all of that. They have to think about water use for the semiconductor industry, as an example. The US is onshoring massive semi industry. And so there are engineering and construction companies, there are industrial companies, never mind HVAC, once again, and this is a different form of HVAC, but these massive factories have to be cooled. So the on-shoring comes out of the geopolitical risk, as well, and there are a lot of climate ties into the on-shoring.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, I would say the connections between this great power competition and the climate risks are clear. They’re growing even more clear, and they’re becoming a much higher priority from the policy perspective. The policymakers that I speak with really do view climate change as a national security issuefor the reasons that you just laid out. It’s going to hit the parts of the world that are least able to deal institutionally with the problems, and the Pentagon looks at these areas and says, well, this is where the geopolitical hotspots already live. Right? You think of East, North, West Africa, the Middle East, Iran, the India/China border, the India/Pakistan border, Taiwan, the Taiwan Strait, where semiconductor production is likely to be impacted. So, the sense that I get from policymakers is that they’re really steering into resiliency and adaptation, right? How do you make societies around the world more resilient to rising temperatures, to water scarcity issues, to rising sea levels, more storms, more flooding, all of the things that you and Zach have been mentioning here? Because it’s the best insurance policy for warding off some of these coming national security challenges. And so, I think, looking forward, the policy environment is gonna steer even more aggressively into this area of adaptation and resiliency, because that’s the most effective way, from a national security perspective, to address some of these issues.

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Yeah, insurance policy’s a good analog. So there are some estimates at a local level that if you spend a dollar today, it saves you seven dollars in the future in terms of adaptation spend. But what is that number on a geopolitical level? It’s unknowable. It’s definitely north of seven times one, right? Spend a dollar today to stop a military conflict from happening tomorrow? The multiple on that savings is enormous.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, I do think that the national security piece of this makes the investments here that much more vital.


THOMAS MUCHA:  So, Zach, I know that Chris and his team, me, you know, everyone here at Wellington learns a ton from Woodwell. I’m curious if that phenomenon goes the other way. I mean, what have you and your science colleagues learned from working with Wellington investors, and in what ways does that inform the kind of research that you do?

ZACH ZOBEL:    Oh, absolutely. I think one of the reasons why society has been slow to stop or mitigate climate change is because scientists haven’t always been the best communicators of the issues. If you think of anybody who’s ever read an academic journal can attest to that. It’s quite dense to sit through the whole thing. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  It’s a tough slog.

ZACH ZOBEL:    I have a Ph.D. in the topic and I sometimes struggle to finish the papers because they’re so dense. The thing that we’ve taken the most from this partnership over the last five years is we’ve learned what stakeholders need to know and want to know, and we’ve become much better at communicating and tailoring our science to what they need to know, because the difference between what a scientist might view in an academic publication as important is not always the same thing that decision makers or asset managers view as important. So I think developing a common vocabulary has been our biggest source of improvement.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, I think one of the things that investment management or investment research does well is breaking down silos to try to see the connections between these various factors that we all look at, and so I think the climate piece of this for me has been so eye-opening, because it’s central to every silo that we try to think through. And having this partnership, you know, grounding this in actual science has been revelatory, from my perspective. So, Chris, as you and I talk about all the time, climate resilience, climate adaptation is a systemic challenge. It’s gonna impact all aspects of society, from policy to economics, to what companies do, to what individuals do, to what militaries do around the world. So, with that as the backdrop, what do you think the biggest structural and technological transformations are? What’s coming down the road that’ll make us more hopeful?

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Yeah, the first time I gave a presentation on climate the salesperson said, “That was great. Could you be more optimistic at the end?” So, we’re trying. It’s a tough topic, as Zach can tell you. So reasons for optimism, you know, we get to see a lot of private companies, entrepreneurs. There are a lot of smart people workin’ on all of these problems; that’s a fact. Hopefully they get enough capital. The world has seen a lot of capital go into our phones. We gotta see the same type of capital go into mitigation and adaptation solutions so that those entrepreneurs get funded, so that they see that there’s an economic upside and a societal upside. But the people that we meet are super passionate on the social upside. So the entrepreneurs have me optimistic. On transformation, you know, I’ll give you a couple of examples of plans and ideas. So let’s talk about building retrofit. So we, me included, get caught up on optics, right? And the easy optics are plastic straws to paper straws, and we need more EVs. Yeah, those are great, right? We also need to decarbonize and reduce the footprint of all the buildings in the world, and the IEA estimates that we need to do basically one percent of those buildings a year. This is a massive behind-the-scenes operation that isn’t visible as plastic straws and EVs, and we can do that. There are engineering and HVAC and industrial companies that know how to do this. It’s already happening, but it has to happen at a very aggressive pace. It’s probably gonna require stimulus and incentives from governments. Secondly, we’re gonna need preemptive spending that hasn’t happened yet. So we talk about forests and wildfire. There’s a big movement to protect the forest for decarbonization, make sure that we reduce deforestation, but there’s another risk to the forests, which is just wildfire itself. And so there are ways to actually help prevent wildfire from happening, with treatment and other services. That’s gonna require a big spend. Hasn’t really happened yet. And then the third one came out a few months back. It’s worth a read. The Army Corps of Engineers and others put together a plan for New York to basically build flood barriers in New York Harbor, estimated costs US$50 billion. Estimated time is ten-plus years to produce. Start date would be 2030. All that would have to pass, you know, whole bunch of political stuff to get through there. But someone out there is thinking about the fact that sea level rise and floods and the damage to infrastructure would be so severe down the road that it’s worth spending US$50 billion upfront to help prevent that. This is the kind of thought process we need to have, getting back to that tradeoff of dollars spent today and savings tomorrow. So there’s lots of those examples; we just have to have the commitment to do them.

THOMAS MUCHA:  I think the other aspect of this is that as capital allocators we don’t lack agency, right? We have the ability to help direct capital into areas that will help make these problems more manageable. And it’s not just a Wellington thing: every company that works in this space, every capital allocator has the ability to help make this problem more solvable. And so that helps me get out of bed every morning, and I do think that that’s another reason for optimism here. And we should be thinking about this not really with a sense of doom, but really more with a sense of opportunity. So, once again, thanks Chris Goolgasian, Zach Zobel. Obviously, there’s no shortage of topics to discuss when it comes to climate change, so I’m gonna put you both on warning that you should be prepared to come back on WellSaid again soon.

CHRIS GOOLGASIAN:   Anytime. Thanks, Thomas.

ZACH ZOBEL:    Thanks for having me, Thomas.


Views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For  professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk. Podcast produced May 2023.

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