Climate change will have some pretty terrifying consequences. Experts have predicted everything from deadly heat waves and devastating floods to falling crop production and even increased political instability and violence. But according to some of the world's biggest companies, these future disasters could also present lucrative business opportunities.
In a remarkable series of documents submitted to a London-based nonprofit called CDP, big-name corporations describe global warming as a chance to sell more weapons systems to the military, more air conditioners to sweltering civilians, and more medications to people afflicted by tropical diseases. CDP, which stands for "Carbon Disclosure Project," asks companies all over the world to disclose information about their greenhouse gas emissions and how the changing climate will impact their operations. Each year, thousands of companies send in responses. Below, we've compiled a list of some of the most striking—and, in some cases, disturbing—scenarios laid out by those businesses.
It's important to keep in mind that these companies aren't rooting for catastrophic warming. In the same documents, they outline huge risks that climate change poses to humanity—and to their profits. Many of them have also taken significant steps to reduce their own carbon footprints. Still, the fact that corporations have spent so much time thinking about the business opportunities that could emerge as the world warms underscores just how colossal an effect climate change is going to have on our lives.
Defense and border surveillance
Republicans have recently mocked President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders for saying climate change poses a national security threat. But Democratic politicians aren't the only ones making this connection. In 2014, the CNA Military Advisory Board, a group of retired US generals and admirals, warned that the impacts of global warming "will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict." Saab, a Swedish defense firm (and former parent company of the struggling automaker), agrees. In its CDP submission, the company cites the CNA report and adds that climate change could "induce changes in natural resources e.g. water, oil etc., which may result in conflicts within already unstable countries" as well as illegal deforestation, fishing, and drug smuggling. Saab sees these dangers as a business opportunity that will result in an "increased market for civil and military security solutions." As an example, the company points to its Erieye Radar System, which "works in a dense hostile electronic warfare environment" and is "capable of identifying friends or foes."
Raytheon, the Massachusetts-based defense contractor, warned in a 2012 CDP document that climate change might "cause humanitarian disasters, contribute to political violence, and undermine weak governments." The company wrote that it expects to see "demand for its military products and services as security concerns may arise as results of droughts, floods, and storm events occur as a result of climate change." Connecticut-based United Technologies Corporation cites arguments that a devastating drought contributed to instability in Syria. The company notes that helicopters made by its Sikorsky business (which has since been sold to Lockheed Martin) were "deployed during population dislocations and humanitarian crises," and that last year it provided support to the US military's efforts to "mitigate population dislocations in Syria." Cobham, a British corporation that manufacturers surveillance systems, stated in a 2013 CDP document that "changes to countries [sic] resources and habitability could increase the need for border surveillance due to population migration."
Security from "social unrest"
Private security firms also see opportunities in climate change. G4S, a London-based corporation that operates around the globe, told CDP that extreme weather is a potential source of business. The company deployed hundreds of security officers to protect its clients following Hurricane Katrina, and it sent officers throughout the Northeast following Superstorm Sandy. G4S also sees financial opportunities in responding to humanitarian disasters such as droughts and famines in the developing world. The company currently provides security for refugee camps in Kenya that are home to hundreds of thousands of people, including many who have fled conflict and drought. G4S says the United Nations "has projected that we [the planet] will have 50 million environmental refugees." (The United Nations appears to have backed off that particular prediction; according to its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [PDF], "there are no robust global estimates of future displacement.")
Securitas, a Stockholm-based firm that owns the fabled Pinkerton agency, also provided security in the aftermath of Katrina. That company says extreme weather linked to climate change will increase demand for its services "when properties…need to be protected from looting, burglary and social unrest."
Monitoring, Responding to, and Rebuilding From Extreme Weather
According to Raytheon, the possible impacts of climate change—including hurricanes, tornadoes, severe storms, and rising seas—could present opportunities to sell the company's "weather satellites services, radar and sensing technologies, disaster response, homeland security, and emergency response communications, as well as alternative energy technologies." Cobham anticipates opportunities to supply cameras to monitor flash floods, "large antennas" for extreme weather conditions, and emergency communications systems for "areas where severe storms have destroyed communications infrastructure." 3M, the Minnesota-based manufacturing company, says it sells a number of products that can be used to protect buildings during extreme weather and to rebuild after a storm.
Shipping Lanes and Travel
One of the most striking climate developments in recent years has been the opening of Arctic shipping lanes that were once obstructed by sea ice year-round. Hanjin, a major South Korean shipping company, acknowledged in a 2014 CDP document that a new polar route would be a "tragic consequence" of climate change. But, the company added, Arctic melting would also have environmental and financial benefits: It would allow the shipping industry to "drastically reduce CO2 emissions and cut transit time by 1/3."
Global warming could have some benefits for companies that specialize in transporting tourists, as well. According to Carnival, "change in mean temperatures could open up new routes and ports" for its cruise ships, while "change in precipitation [might] make some ports more attractive."
Drilling for more oil
Energy companies have long viewed melting Arctic ice as an opportunity to extract once-inaccessible oil and gas. That hasn't worked out well so far. In September, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it was ending its costly Arctic exploration project. But Chevron is still optimistic. "Should the current trend in global warming be sustained, both access to and the economics of Chevron's offshore oil and gas production in the arctic could potentially improve," states the California-based oil company in its CPD disclosure. "The greatest effects will be associated with an extension to the summer operating period which will tend initially to favor access to and the cost of exploration operations in many arctic basins."
Protection From Deadly Heat Waves
In a report last year, a panel co-chaired by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warned of risks posed by hotter temperatures:
By the middle of this century, the average American will likely see 27 to 50 days over 95°F each year—two to more than three times the average annual number of 95°F days we've seen over the past 30 years. By the end of this century, this number will likely reach 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year on average.
That's an opportunity for United Technologies, which—in addition to its defense products—makes air conditioning, refrigeration, and energy efficiency systems. "Annually, extreme heat events kill more Americans than any other environmentally related events, and an increase in extreme heart [sic] events as a result of climate change is forecast for many parts of the world," the company states. "UTC believes changes in temperature extremes will result in a need for more energy efficient building and other infrastructure, especially chillers and cooling units…We anticipate this demand to be global, with strong increases in tropical and some temperate zones." According to UTC, "air conditioner sales have increased more than 20% per decade in the developing world 1990 - 2010 in response to increasing temperatures and increasing wealth." UTC believes these trends could lead to $5 billion in new demand over the next two decades. Halliburton sees related opportunities. The oilfield services company states that it could see increased revenue from the additional energy resources needed for "increase[d] cooling and/or heating."
Combating Crop Failure and Hunger
Experts have warned that rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns could reduce crop yields in vulnerable parts of the world, making it difficult to feed a growing population. Biotech companies are racing to develop products that will address this problem. Monsanto, for example, says its products could help farmers "meet increased food needs as available natural resources become more limited." Bayer notes that its crop sciences division is using "chemical and modern plant breeding approaches" to address the agricultural damage expected to be caused by "an increased occurrence of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, heat, cold and storms."
On the consumer side, the Campbell Soup Company identifies "increasing humanitarian demands" related to climate as a significant opportunity—one that will allow the company to "leverage its key assets to provide relief for such demands." In addition to directly donating money and food to humanitarian causes, Campbell highlights a current program in which one of its brands donates one smoothie to a needy child for every four smoothies that it sells. According to the company, these types of promotions "can result in millions of dollars for the company."
Fighting Climate-Related Diseases
Climate change poses a number of serious public health risks, and the pharmaceutical industry has certainly noticed. Walmart, for instance, believes that it could experience growing demand for prescription medications due to "increases in pollen exposure or climate-change induced medical conditions." (The retail giant is careful to note that it primarily views climate change, which a spokesperson calls an "urgent and pressing challenge," as a risk.)
Several drug companies believe that rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and worsening extreme weather could increase the spread of tropical diseases that are transmitted by mosquitoes, such as malaria and dengue fever. In its CDP document, Bayer cites one estimate that climate change could result in 40 million to 60 million additional people being exposed [PDF] to these diseases. The company anticipates increased demand for its mosquito nets and other mosquito-control products, especially if malaria spreads to the developed world. GlaxoSmithKline also anticipates that climate change could affect demand for its anti-malarial products and notes that if the company's "sales rose by 1% around £300m [about $446 million] would be added to our turnover." A GSK spokesperson added, however, that the company is developing a malaria vaccine that it would offer to African children at a "not-for-profit price," and that under some scenarios, climate change could actually reduce demand for the company's products.
Novartis, which makes several malaria and dengue drugs, points out that it has provided millions of doses to African health officials at a not-for-profit price. But, the company notes, "businesses selling these drugs will become more profitable if the diseases spread to more developed and richer countries." A number of experts doubt that will happen, at least in the case of malaria. They argue that factors such as economic development and public health infrastructure are far more significant than climate in controlling malaria. Asked for clarification, a Novartis spokesperson stated that higher temperatures and increased extreme weather from climate change could "lead to large floods, social crises and challenges, which may allow vector diseases to spread further." Still, he added, Novartis agrees that malaria is unlikely to spread in the developed world.
Drug companies point to other health threats, as well. GSK warns that changing precipitation patterns and increased extreme weather events could "affect the spread of water-borne diseases" and respiratory and diarrheal illnesses, creating a need for "greater disease prevention and more patient treatments." These problems could be especially serious in the poorest countries, according the GSK spokesperson. In its CDP submission, Merck says it is researching the negative impacts that higher temperatures could have on vaccines.
Rising temperatures don't just drive demand for air-conditioning units and better vaccines. According Nestlé, they can also boost sales of "refreshing products such as ice creams and bottled water." Nestlé notes that in 2014, Earth experienced its hottest summer on record (until 2015, anyway) and that a number of the company's local brands performed well that year. So how much of an impact does heat have? "Increased demand for bottled water and ice creams as a result of temperature increase can result in additional sales of CHF 100 million per year," says Nestlé. In case you aren't familiar with the exchange rate for Swiss francs, that's about $100 million.