Thomas is Senior Risk Scientist at Risk Frontiers where he leads the development of physical climate risk modelling services and Risk Frontiers' coastal, flood and tropical cyclone catastrophe loss models. He has worked for over 12 years in the fields of climate science, catastrophe risk and insurance, resilience, and coastal and flood modelling. Thomas is a Chartered Engineer and an Adjunct Fellow at Macquarie University. He holds a PhD in the field of Coastal Geoscience.
In this episode, we find out more about peoples and businesses risks due to climate change..
Mark Carney: Breaking the tragedy on the Horizon - Climate Change and Financial Stability
CSIRO - climate change models and research
How to be good Social
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Hello, and welcome to the How To Be good podcast. Today we are joined by Thomas Mortlock, a risk scientist. How are you doing? Oh, yeah. Good, good. So, before anything else, could you tell us what a risk scientist does? And a little bit of background on risk frontiers, please?
Yeah, sure. So, risk scientist is very much a broad term, I guess you can work in risk in many different aspects. But specifically, the risk area that I work in is looking at the risk of natural hazard events. And even more specifically, the risk of weather and climate events, on government operations on private sector organisations, and indeed also on emergency management as well. And in terms of restaurant is the company that I work for. We are in fact, the longest running natural hazards Research Centre in Australia, founded inside Macquarie University in Sydney, in 1994, at that time, actually sponsored by the reinsurance organisations, the reinsurance industry in Australia, because there was a realisation at that point that there wasn't all that much understanding about how natural hazard events, impact financials of organisations. And so we were set up with that remap, stayed inside the university to 2017. And I've since spun out now an independent employee organisation, based in Sydney. And really, I think what we aim to do, at least is provide objective high-quality information on client research and, and modelling with particular regard to how climate change and how extreme weather and climate risk impacts the financials, the bottom line of private sector organisations.
Fantastic. So how did you end up becoming a risk scientist? How many This is one of those subjects? That seems a little I guess a little vague in terms of it's just point, you know, somebody goes to university, I'm going to be a doctor, or I'm going to be an architectural risk scientist is not one I hear too often. But so how did you end up?
Yeah, this is good question. I mean, I hadn't heard of research scientists, I have to say to them about five years ago. And as I said, you know, it's a very broad term, you can be a scientist in many different disciplines. My background, I, my undergrad was in oceanography. My, I then did a master's in coastal engineering. And I worked as a coastal engineer in the UK for four years before doing my PhD, over here in Australia, and came over to Australia in 2012, in environmental sciences, and really, up until that point, especially through the PhD, it was very much academically focused, you know, very much into research around coastal climate risk. Until I heard a restaurant his restaurant is heard of me and really opened up a world for me that I didn't know existed, where industry was very, had a large interest in, in the research and natural hazard research that people were doing with inside the universities. And really, the reason for that is, if people haven't heard of reinsurance before, is that they're probably the largest companies in the world you never heard of. So big organisations to insure insurance companies, because insurance companies can often cover themselves against the risk of a theft of a car, let's say. But for natural hazard risk everyone claims at once. And often these insurance companies not big enough to cover themselves against net cat on natural catastrophe, risk and loss. So these larger reinsurance companies buy that portion of risk from insurance companies. And they obviously need to understand how much that risk is worth to them, how exposed they are to it. And that's where our research and our modelling comes in for the Australian market. So I guess you can see that we've been modelling climate risk for insurance and reinsurance for a number of years now, is now really just kind of changed focus and change name with climate change, becoming a, I guess, a thing in the private sector. But the actual modelling structure and the understanding of how extreme weather impacts buildings and human resources, as well, as is something that's been going on for quite some time.
Yeah, yeah. So if you were to try and summing up, sum it up, what is climate risk? What are the things that you're looking at?
Yeah, so climate risk, is a is a response or as an effect of climate change, essentially. So when we talk about climate risk, we're referring to the risks And also the opportunities that exist to an organisation as a result of climate change. And as a very fast-moving space, it's not the same as it looked three or five years ago. And there are three principal components of of climate risk. There's the physical risk, there's transitional risk, and there's legal risk. So physical risk is what we focus on, and is the impact of changes to extreme weather, and chronic climate stresses due to climate change, and how that impacts on asset integrity. So how that impacts your asset on the ground, you're building your piece of infrastructure, and sometimes also how that physical risk can be transferred to that asset through an organization's supply chain. There's then something called transition risk, which we don't directly deal with. But it's certainly a big piece of the client risk base, which is more at an organisational level, how exposed is my organisation to sectors in the economy that may become winners or losers, as we transition to a net zero economy. And that that's very much a global a global peace. And then finally, is legal. Again, an area that I'm not an expert in, but is very interesting, and certainly is a big driver, I think for organisations to understand that climate risk, the extent to which boards and CEOs are becoming legally obliged to disclose the risks that the organisation face from climate change. And there have been some interesting legal precedents set in different parts of the world over a number of years that are really making high level. High Level board members, CEOs, and the top end of organisations really, really sit up and listen, and understand that climate risk or climate change is a material risk to their business. And it is actionable now, and I think that's really why it's a very exciting, exciting space to work in at the moment.
Could you describe how you go about assessing climate risk, especially on the physical space that you work in?
Yeah, sure. So in terms of the physical climate risk, I guess, there are many ways to do it. But you start off with the climate models or global climate models. So the IPCC, which you may or may not have heard of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the kind of the global body that is a scientific authority on climate modelling and climate change. And, and they, they bring out assessment reports, and there's one coming out this year. And the backbone of those assessment reports are a suite of climate models, coupled model intercomparison project, which basically makes up about 100 different climate models. So we try and mine that data, we try and look at that, that client model data, and we intersect it with business level data. So information on where a business will operate, where their assets are in the ground. And we do some, I guess, neat science in between to try and understand what is their current exposure to climate change, to climate risks, or alter to extreme weather and chronic climate stresses? And how that might change in the future with climate change?
Is there an appetite for organisations to highlight their climate risks?
Yeah, offset certainly. And that is that is growing at a rate of knots. And, you know, as I mentioned before, we've been doing this in the insurance sector for, you know, a number of decades now under the auspices of net cat risk or natural catastrophe risk. But the financial services sector in Australia and globally really has ramped up since about 2015. In 2015, there was a there was a famous speech by Mark Carney who was the then Governor of the Bank of England, who coined the phrase tragedy of the horizon, which I really liked, because I think it really sums up this whole area very nicely that climate change and the risks posed to organisations because of climate change is always on the horizon. And from a financial perspective, that's the that's the tragedy on the horizon. Since that speech, things have moved pretty quickly. There's a framework called the Task Force on climate related financial disclosures, which has really catalysed the whole disclosure of financial risk in the private sector. And there are four pillars of that governance, strategy, risk management, and met tricks and targets. So since that was released, there, there has been real, real big uptake in the number of organisations that are disclosing their financial risks. At PRA, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and some others also have come out and said actually a number of years ago now that client risk is material to organisations and is actionable. And while this framework and this disclosure movement is still non statutory, it's still not regulated, there is the expectation and very strong signals that this is going to become regulated quite quickly. And also maybe even legalised. I mean, in New Zealand, last year, first country in the world come out and say that they will make it legal requirement for organisations that domiciled in New Zealand to disclose their client risk as of 2023. And also, even last week, the Bank of England has come out and said that the UK may also do the same thing by 2022. So yeah, a very, very interesting and fast-moving space at the moment.
So besides the insurance companies, what other companies are, require clinical climate risk profiles?
Yeah, so I mean, pretty much any organisation that has physical assets on the ground, any any organisation that has built infrastructure that owns infrastructure, that invest in infrastructure, will be exposed in some, some way to physical climate risk, and even those organisations that don't actually have any physical assets on the ground will be impacted or affected in some way by transitional risks by the the transition of macroscale economists to, to net zero by by mid by mid century. So certainly with regard to TCF D in the area that we work in, I think it has been the financial services sector that has really spearheaded this at the moment. And, you know, insurance is very nimble, they can they can often readjust their premiums on short timescales, but have a very, very good understanding of what extreme weather and climate means to their business operations. But I mean, beyond that, really any sector, you can think of communications energy, many different levels of government, healthcare, it real estate, certainly transportation utilities, it's very much wide, wide ranging,
Yeah I guess a lot of them can have a knock-on effect from whatever, perhaps physical bricks and mortar site, if that was to, let's say, a power station near a coast or coast gets damaged. And then the knock on effect for all of those that work with it is part of their climate risk profile, I assume.
Exactly. Right. Yeah. So you can't take any of this isolated or in situ, because we very much live in a connected world. And I mean, what you refer to there is essentially supply chain risk. So either inheriting even if your power station, let's say, doesn't have any immediate climate risk to it, it may inherit some climate risks through its supply chain, or it might pass on climate risk to other organisations, individuals who don't have climate risks to themselves in situ. So it's a very complex piece to model and to get a handle on that supply chain risk is certainly a big aspect to it, though, for sure.
Yeah, yeah, I suppose it could spiral out of our control in terms of the amount of data you could end up having to put together to analyse that.
That's right. And I really think that one of the challenges that we're facing at the moment is that the questions that are being asked of the client model data that the climate models are not, or they haven't been traditionally built to answer those questions. So there's still a bit of a gap there between the granularity with which organisations would like to use climate data for and the the ability and the limits of climate models to answer those questions. And I'll give you one example. And that's around extreme weather and climate. climate models, global climate models often operate on spatial scales of about 50 to 100 kilometres, you certainly can get more granular and more highly resolved climate models than that. But at those spatial scales, they don't resolve well, extreme weather events. And if we're trying to pick out points rather than a grid, we're really going to that, that that data with a with a level of granularity that it's not really there for years. So I'd say probably that's one of the challenges at the moment. A lot of people are getting on board with this. It's still early days. It's still very much in its infancy. The client model data is getting better. Very, very quickly with increases in computer power. But there is still that that discord there I think between the two between the two disciplines. Yeah,
yeah. So focusing on coastal zones, because obviously most of it here in Australia, most of our major cities are on coastal zones. What are some of the major issues surrounding climate risk in these areas?
Yeah, I mean, I mean, coastal is certainly an area of interest to me. And I think, within the Australian perspective, it really highlights the fact that when we talk about risk, climate risk, there are three elements to climate risk. And up until this point, we've been focusing on changes in the hazard, which is changes in extreme weather or chronic climate stressors, but it's also the exposure component and the vulnerability component to it. So essentially, where people choose to live and how people choose to live. And, you know, there's famous examples of erosion hotspots on on the east coast of Australia, one of those being Catarina Narrabeen, on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, and a couple up a couple more dotted up the coast and, and really certainly is a well-known fact that half of the problem there is really a legacy of inappropriate development in the active beach same infrastructure being built on a dune on a sand dune, essentially artificially holding what is really a dynamic coastal line. And we're faced with the problem of how we deal with that, because each time a cost benefit analysis has to be done as to whether what is the most sustainable approach? Do we put a sea wall in doing ours the beach? Do we do something else? And I'd have to say that over time, these problems are probably just going to become more acute and more expensive to deal with.
Yeah, yeah. So is that sort of the large changes that you see in the future that with the events changing, and climate perhaps getting more severe, that these areas are going to be even more at risk?
Yeah, certainly, I don't think it's going to help the situation, that's for sure. I mean, even if, let's say we have no change in storm patterns. So on the east coast of Australia, East Coast Lows are certainly a big erosion event, little bit further up, tropical cyclones are as well. even assuming that there is no change in those extreme weather events with climate change. Sea level rise alone is going to increase the impact of any storm event on the coast. Because you have a high sea level, the waves can reach higher up, and there's more potential for those waves to impact and erode the dunes where people are living. So the hazard components of this is certainly not going to get any better. The exposure component appears to be fairly fixed. So there's, there's some something in that equation that that needs to change, unfortunately, and, you know, as real estate, especially in coastal areas continues to increase in price, that cost benefit. You know, exercise that gets done every time a new coastal management scheme or defence needs to get put in, will have to get will have to get reassessed. So you have very, very complex issues. These are people's livelihoods that we're talking about. But yeah, it's certainly not going to get any easier. I don't think into the future. Yeah,
Yeah. So could you provide a little bit of background on the recent flooding? Obviously, there's been huge floods on the East Coast, and what the potential role of climate change is in this and for future flood events.
Yes. So yeah, I'm sure everyone knows that over the past couple of weeks, we've experienced a lot of flooding out in across Southeast Australian and the eastern seaboard area. And it really is, has been a an extreme flood event for many people. And there's two real aspects that I think feed into why this has become such an extreme flood event. The first one being that we've just come on off the back of a wetter than normal summer. That has been a result in part from something called La Nina . So we have these oscillations of the Pacific called El Nino Southern Oscillation. El Nino events often cause drier than normal and more stable conditions across Southeast Australia, whereas linear events are associated with the high probability of floods and tropical cyclones on this side of the coast. Certainly not to say that floods and tropical cyclones can't exist outside London. They certainly can and sometimes will get alone in your period that we don't get any major flooding or cyclones. Just the observation record shows us that on balance, the dice is rolled in favour of floods during periods of La Nina So, we came off the back of a wetter than normal summer, which meant that a lot of the catchments were already near saturation point. Meaning that a lot of the rain was runoff flying into rivers, and river levels rose quite quickly. The other aspect to it was that it was a really stationary event. It didn't move on, it was it was being held in place by a high-pressure system in the southern Tasman Sea, which didn't allow it to move. And so it was drawing a lot of moisture from the Tasman Sea and raining out over the eastern seaboard. And it was an event that lasted for five days. So for those two reasons, it became quite extreme and you know, you can, you can certainly see the link there between climate oscillations climate variability. With regard to climate change, it is a much more difficult task to ascertain the contribution that climate change has made to the progress of these events occurring. And over the coming weeks, months and years, I'm sure these studies will be done on their they're called climate attribution studies. And they are often done after extreme weather events. So we don't really know what the role of climate change is to this singular event. But what we do know is that most projections point towards a drying out of the mean Australian climate, but an increase in the intensity of extreme rain events. So this really means that we could in the future, with climate change with global warming face the prospect of increase flash flood events into the future.
So we heard on the news, one in 100 year floods, could you give us some clarification on what this really means?
Yes, so 100 year flood, essentially refers to a flood event that is expected to occur on average once every 100 years. But and there's been a lot of media interest in this terminology over the past couple of weeks, because it's, it can be quite misleading. And the reason for that is that we should really be expressing this I think, in terms of percentages. So 100 year flood basically means that on average, you can expect that kind of flood event to occur, you have a 1% chance of occurring every year. That doesn't mean to say that you won't get two or three or 400 year events in 100 year period. That's certainly possible, just from a statistical perspective. And it also doesn't mean that you have 100% chance of experiencing 100 year event in 100 year period. Yeah, I mean, it's it, you actually have a 63% chance from statistical probability. So I guess, superimposed on top of that is this aspect of climate variability and oscillations. And as I mentioned before, La Nina really rolls the dice in favour of floods. And so you're more likely to get a cluster of floods, or you're more likely to get flooding during periods of La Nina. And so we've been calling for a number of years now for there to be a change in the terminology from referring to these events as 100 year events, because people feel that if they've just experienced the 100 year event, then they're okay. again for another 100 years, which is certainly not the case. Two more expressing these in terms of what's the probability of my property being flooded over the lifetime of my mortgage. And when we start talking about it in terms of percentage like that, I think it adds immediacy to the to the discourse around people are really understanding their flood risk.
So in the areas that where the floods are, what is the probability in floods, if it's okay for you to disclose If not, not?
Yeah, so you probably can't define a single probability for these areas because they are very large. And each region will have a different probability. I mean, we've looked into the rainfall intensities of these events or this event over the past week, and certainly the amount of rainfall we saw was was quite incredible. I can say that. The highest rain gauge observation was named bucket hits on the mid North Coast. And that over a period of seven days received almost a metre of rain, which is really quite extraordinary. And from the limited observations that we've got, that looks to be an event that going back to this problematic terminology that may be experienced once every 2000 years. So it's a really quite incredible rainfall volume. That was an outlier. A lot of the other areas probably experienced rainfall. That was between the 50 year 200 year or or having a two, one to 2% chance of exceedance in any given year.
And are you seeing in your time and looking at these an increase in these weather events and the damage they're causing?
Yeah, so that's that certainly often a question that we get asked. One way to look at the cost of natural hazard events or extreme weather events, is in Australia, at least is to use something called the insurance counsellor, Australia's disaster loss list. And this is a list of the insured losses of natural disasters in Australia, going back to the mid 1960s. And we did a normalisation piece for the ICA, which basically means we instead of looking at the raw data, we normalise the costs of natural disasters back to the mid 1960s, relative to 2017 socio economic levels. And when you look at when you look at the raw data, and this is the same in practically every country or global data set, you'll see that the cost of natural disasters through time, rises almost exponentially, it really is very large. And I think probably at first glance, you could perhaps take that as interference that there's some kind of change in the hazard, or it could be a climate change signal. However, once you normalise, for changes in inflation, changes in population and a range of other things. There's actually no trend through time. And this, this really requires a little bit of thought as to why that might be the case. What it really is telling us is not necessarily that there is no climate change signal there. But that risk, in terms of dollar value is driven not only by changes in the hazard because of climate change that say, but also, as I mentioned before, where we choose to live and how we choose to live. And you know, with more people living, let's say in coastal zones with more people exposed to natural hazard events. And with the cost of living and inflation in general rising, of course, the cost of natural disasters are going to increase through time. And there have been some studies showing that the climate change signal can be elucidated from loss records, it just takes quite a long time to become statistically significant. So certainly, when we're talking about climate change, we shouldn't just be focusing, I don't think I'm changing the hazard, because that human aspect to things is is very important. aspect of risk as well.
yeah. In so in your opinion, what would you say? Is the cause? Or is this something that still to be undetermined? Or many, many factors?
That the cause in the change in
cost three times that you're referring to? Yeah, so but basically, the cause of a change request through time, but also the cause of the extreme event? So it's kind of like a two part questions or
Yeah. So Well, the first part, we don't see a change through time when we when we account for socio economic factors. But the second question in terms of changes to extreme weather events with climate change. One thing I would say and is very strong ground in in the climate science community now is that we can say with high confidence that the increase in the mean global temperature over the past 100 150 years, is a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. And this, you know, often gets debated outside I think, climate science as to which political standpoint you're aligned to, but it's really a resolved question, I'd say within this climate science community and, and the reason for that is that climate models are very good at replicating historical changes in mean global temperature. If we run the models over the historical period, and we input every boundary forcer that we know of including greenhouse gases, and we compare the model results to observations they align very well we can model the historical increase in in temperature. If we then rerun those model Taking out greenhouse gas forcing the global mean temperature, essentially flatlines. So we can infer with a high level of confidence that the difference between those two curves, essentially, the, the increase in temperature is a result of greenhouse gases. Now, that's where the models are on strong ground, where, as I mentioned before, they still have some difficulties in his extreme weather events. from a theoretical perspective, if you imagine a bell curve, which is a normal distribution, if you shift the mean of any curve, you shift the position of the tails as well. And the tails represent those extreme weather events. So what we know is happening is the curve is is is flattening out. So we're getting more variability in the tails. And the towers themselves are are of increasing. So we're getting more the probability of experiencing extreme weather events at any one location is increasing, because of the increase in mean temperature.
Yeah, yeah. And it's good to hear from a scientist, that that is resolved throughout the science community. I mean, obviously doing what we do we get a lot of kickback from people just saying, you know, we don't know what talking about, it's been like this, we've gone through this, again, we've it's the same pattern that's ever been there before. But it's nice to hear that the science community has resolved this, and therefore, we must all act on it.
Yeah. And I would say that, you know, you can never have 100% certainty in anything. But with regard to scientific experiments, you would certainly attach a high level of confidence to to that assertion. And, you know, that's, that's not new. That's not just me saying it. That's, it's been an assertion that has been made by several IPCC reports now. So we're kind of moving on to the next level, I think in, in the science community.
Yeah, yeah. So with these climate events unfolding over the past few years and floods right now, and understanding that you have a young family, what keeps you up at night?
Yeah, so well, this, there's many, many things that keep me up at night that are not related to climate risk, but
I guess young children generally do.
It's more of a practical, practical reason, but stick sticking on topic, I'd probably just say that just cognizant of the fact that, you know, we've all got a role to play in this. And, and, and really just ensuring a sustainable future for the next generation, that they have the same opportunities that we do, very, you know, cognizant of the fact that climate change and climate risk can manifest itself in, in many different forms. And it's not just that we might experience some more hot days into the future, it very, very much does trickle down all the way through to every aspect of the economy and society, you know, through from housing affordability to, to, you know, insurance premiums, and for affordability as well. So I think, you know, it's a it's an opportunity that we have to act on now. And it's certainly an exciting space. So I'm, you know, hopeful that the will these global mitigation efforts will certainly come off. There's also a lot of hope, in terms of the technological advances that we're seeing at the moment. And also the progress of the science. As, as I mentioned to you, you're now we are in a position where we can say with high confidence, certain things within climate science, and, and that is very comforting, I think and allows us to move on.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I hear quite a lot, that it's our greatest threat, but also our greatest opportunity at the moment with how things are changing. What sort of thing would you say if you're summing up into one or two things would be what makes you optimistic for the future?
Yes, I probably say first off that fast pace of client risk disclosures. We certainly can have our own opinions as to what governments in different countries are doing and how slowly or fastly that they're responding to climate change. But this is really being driven from financial services perspective, and this is a now problem. It's been realised we've gone beyond that this is a future problem. This is actionable. It's material. It will impact organization's bottom line, and that's why it's really being taken seriously now. Very fast moving space. I think also that you know, the generation that's growing up now, Gen Zed, and millennials have certainly grown up with climate change at being at the forefront of, of their minds and really understanding the ramifications of that. And as I, as I previously mentioned, I think really a reason to be optimistic is the quality with which we do have at our fingertips climate data, to answer some of these questions, and also some of the really exciting advances that are happening across a range of different sectors in terms of technologies that could help us in in our mitigation efforts against climate warming.
How can people reach you if they want further information on climate risk, and they need that as part of their company's requirements?
Yeah, sure. I mean, you can you can go to our website restaurant is calm. You can email me at Thomas email@example.com. And whether it's a specific inquiry or something General, certainly happy to, to try and answer questions where I can.
That's brilliant. And our final question, if there is one thing we can all change that will have a massive impact on the health of our planet, what would that be? How can we be good?
Yeah, I've been thinking about this question. And then yeah, there's many things you can do. And there's probably many things that you've heard before that you can do. And before I say this, I certainly would, would put in the caveat that you should never take investment advice from a climate scientist. But on reflection, I would say that probably the biggest lever that any one individual has, is where they invest their money, especially with respect to superannuation. There are a lot of really good, sustainable funds out there that are outperforming benchmarks that are performing very well, comparable to other growth funds. And as I mentioned before, with regard to ESG, which is environmental, sustainable, and governance, aspects to investing, responsible investment is becoming a big deal. And it's through investor pressure. So I'd probably say that, you know, the biggest pot of money that you're sitting on are your retirement savings. And there, I wouldn't say there's low risk in changing things. But there's certainly an opportunity there for those that want to go down a responsible investment route to look at certain ETFs or, you know, or different funds that that really do account for all those different aspects of climate risks that we've covered today.
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very, very much for joining us. It's been an absolute pleasure. And I think we're going to take some time and try and figure out and understand all the other bits of the climate risk side of things, but it's fascinating role that you do. And thank you very much.
Thanks very much for having me. It's been a it's been a good opportunity. Thank you.
You're welcome. Take care.
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