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The end of the world is nigh—and here’s who stands to profit

First in an occasional series on the business impacts of extreme weather.

Large-scale mayhem has produced some of history’s great fortunes: war, for example, but also the disruptive industrial, digital and—more recently—financial revolutions: A lot of people have become rich, others ruined.

Which brings us to climate change. Over the last couple of weeks, the Central Intelligence Agency, the International Energy Agency and the World Bank have released separate dire warnings for civilization should global temperatures rise as scientists now predict they will. Echoing scenarios laid out previously by the US military, the United Nations and think tanks, the new reports forecast the weakening of nations, the migration of populations and rampant disease. Populous places could flood, and others become unsurvivably hot and dry. War could break out over the right to fertile places.

But such awkwardness aside, the end-of-life-as-we-know-it scenario would seem to be an exceptional opportunity in the classic chaos-boom matrix—and an unbeatable long-range investment. China could implode, gold prices could crater, Apple could become a technology also-ran, but there’s probably no surer bet than a warming planet.

Some businesses have already responded. Around the world, we see carmakers churning out low- and no-emission electric cars in California, China and elsewhere, and other companies pouring billions of dollars into wind and other investments. These are essentially one-way bets—they attempt to shave off the impact of climate change.

We also have some signs of shrewd CEOs in the energy sector hedging more broadly. As the Arctic ice-cap melts, ExxonMobil, Statoil and Total are frantically seeking deals along newly accessible oil and gas fields, particularly in Russia and Greenland.

But we are talking even broader. What happens if massive drought strikes swaths of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the US southwest? What if the seas swallow island nations and compel trillions of dollars in investment to preclude the flooding of cities where much of the world’s population lives? What if Canada and Russia become magnets of global migration, since a warmer world could favor their water- and agriculture-rich reaches? It is the fleet-footed buccaneer who typically capitalizes on such disorder. But couldn’t and shouldn’t the astute, far-seeing corporate strategist position a business to profitably respond to these and other climate-led emergencies?

Where the opportunities lie

“Sustainability,” the buzzword for attempts to reduce carbon emissions, comprises much of the climate-change industry. Climate-change consulting, for example, is already a $1.9 billion a year business, and is expected to grow. But if, as scientists think, at least some of the impact is already irreversible, then reducing emissions is only a small part of the opportunity. The rest of it is in new businesses that understand and can profit from the impacts.

In a report last year, New York-based Mercer said climate change is negative for real-estate investment in low-lying and coastal areas like Bangkok, New Orleans and Shanghai. Land in currently cool and water-rich nations, though, will boom. So smart investors will abandon their long bets on a wholly exposed and unprepared India, and double down on Russia. As a corollary, agriculture will become huge in Canada, and go bust in Africa and Latin America.

On a larger canvas, India, Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil (in that order) are the riskiest G-20 investment bets in a world of extreme weather, suggests an August 2011 report by HSBC. (That’s right; three of the BRICs, powerhouses of growth in the past few years, could be serious losers in the coming decades.). The least vulnerable to the new weather regime would be Canada, the US, Japan, the UK and South Korea, again in that order.

In terms of specific bets, the business of “adaptation” (another climate buzzword) will boom. The biggest windfall seems likely in the second half of the century, but there could be plenty of business before then. Infrastructure would be particularly big. That would include new facilities protected for extreme weather, and retro-fitting existing structures and buildings against storms, rising water and floods, and extreme heat and cold, suggests the Mercer report.

For the scale of business involved, look at Hurricane Sandy, the storm that struck the US east coast last month. Estimates for rebuilding homes and infrastructure are about $50 billion; proposed seawalls to prevent the same destruction in a new storm are estimated at $10 billion-$20 billion more. So at $50 billion-$70 billion a hurricane, one can see how an era of frequent extreme storms could be quite a bonanza for the well-provisioned construction company. As a corollary, forward-looking insurance companies would raise their premiums and earn a windfall in new extreme-weather business.

What about the fossil-fuel industry? If countries unexpectedly unite in strong global action to curtail climate change, the sector would be in trouble, since demand would plunge and trillions of dollars in sunk investment could be stranded. But if things carry on much as they are today, Mercer forecasts that by 2030, prices for oil will have risen by 25%, coal by 60% and natural gas by 35%. That suggests that current investments would generally continue to pay off well.

But such a future may be more complicated—companies may have to be more regionally minded. For instance, current petrochemical facilities built by Chevron and ExxonMobil in Saudi Arabia could be at serious risk if the country becomes as arid as forecast, since rainfall could plummet and the seas rise. The same goes for ExxonMobil’s refinery in Fujian, China. Shale oil and gas drilling planned and currently under way around the world would be highly problematic unless companies figure out how to do it without much water. Yet other regions will boom for drilling of all types, particularly northern areas such as Canada, Russia and of course the Arctic.

The next article in this series will look at what the energy firms are actually doing to prepare for the future—which turns out to be surprisingly little.

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