RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The threat from climate change is so massive, so apocalyptic, it can be hard to wrap your head around. Companies are now trying to change that by pinpointing those risks. Some of them are turning to high-tech tools for answers. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The company Ingredion makes, as you might guess, ingredients - starches and sugars and all kinds of manufactured food.
BRIAN NASH: From soft drinks to beers to frozen meals.
CHARLES: This is Brian Nash, Ingredion's director of sustainability. The company makes these products from special kinds of corn.
NASH: I mean, we use millions and millions of metric tons of corn around the globe.
CHARLES: Lots of things can go wrong in the supply chain - bad weather, broken machinery. But lately, Brian Nash's corporate bosses have been asking him to look at a new kind of risk - what might go wrong in a warmer planet.
NASH: And that could be anything where climate change is impacting the crops that we purchase to water availability driven by climate change.
CHARLES: He says lots of companies are doing the same thing because investors are worried.
NASH: Any publicly traded company, I think, is under increasing pressure from the investment community to articulate what we see as our upcoming climate risk.
CHARLES: Companies are now looking for experts to help them figure it out. And the Danish engineering firm Ramboll, which built its reputation designing bridges and ways to manage traffic, sensed an opportunity. And so did one of the firm's scientists, Sue Kemball-Cook.
SUE KEMBALL-COOK: I raised my hand because that jibed with my past experience, and I just jumped at the chance to get back into doing this.
CHARLES: Years ago, she'd been an academic researcher working on computer models of the global climate. She loved it.
KEMBALL-COOK: The feeling of being able to simulate something that's in the atmosphere and really seeing it unfold in front of you was thrilling.
CHARLES: These simulations, climate models, really can give businesses information about future risks, she says. Here's how they work.
KEMBALL-COOK: So a climate model in many ways is like a weather model.
CHARLES: A weather model is what generates those videos you see on TV weather forecasts - storms moving across the map. It's basically a computer program that takes current weather conditions and calculates how forces like heat or air pressure will drive winds and temperatures over the next few hours or days. Climate models are just bigger. They factor in forces, like rising levels of greenhouse gases which trap more heat or changing currents in the ocean. But still, you're starting with current conditions and just turning the model loose, letting mathematical equations calculate weather decades into the future.
KEMBALL-COOK: You know, you'll see storms form at sea and then come ashore over California.
CHARLES: Now, every time you run one of these models from a slightly different starting point, the weather plays out differently. But if you run them over and over, collecting all these possible versions of the future, you do get a sense of what's the new normal - normal highs and lows, normal rainfall - and how that's different from what we're used to now. Sue Kemball-Cook and her colleagues at Ramboll are trying to boil that down into estimates of particular risks in particular places - like, here you'll see more flooding; here you'll have trouble growing corn.
Katie Lieschke, a consultant at Ramboll, who helped create this tool called HazAtlas says the sales pitch is pretty simple.
KATIE LIESCHKE: It's really easy to make the point that, as our climate changes, we're getting increased damages from events like flooding and wildfire. This tool helps people prepare for that future.
CHARLES: But they still have to convince businesses that this tool can deliver information that's specific and accurate enough to help them make decisions. Ingredion, that company that makes food ingredients, is not yet convinced. The company worked with Ramboll to see what the models might say about Ingredion's supply of corn in the future. It decided the results were still too vague and uncertain, at least for now. But Ingredion's executives also say if these tools for predicting climate risk get better, there will be a huge demand for them.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NIFTY EARTH'S "AURA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.