Picture: Melbourne sunset. Credit: Arnaud Mesureur (Unsplash)

by Charuni Pathmeswaran
A few weeks ago, I was invited to take part in a young professionals’ event organized by the NESP Earth Systems and Climate and Change (ESCC) Hub and jointly hosted by the Actuaries Institute and Engineers Australia.  This was the first time I had engaged with the industry as a ‘climate scientist’ and I was excited and nervous. The aim of this event was to bring together early career climate scientists and young professionals across various sectors (insurance, actuaries, engineers) using a scenario-planning exercise to analyse some hypothetical future climate-related problems.

The primary objectives for these events, as determined by the ESCC Hub, are to raise awareness about the utility of climate science knowledge – including data, information, and decision-support tools – and to build capacity and develop networks with early career researchers and young professionals. This event was originally scheduled for March but was postponed due to the pandemic and was now organised as a virtual event.

Running for the sixth (and final year), this year’s event focused on assessing financial risks associated with a hypothetical situation based on the projected increase in intensity, frequency, and duration of heatwaves on the economy of Melbourne in 2030-2050. Prior to the event, the science team was briefed by Dr Nick Wood, Director of Climate Policy Research Pty Ltd, who was the facilitator for the event on behalf of the Hub. Our role in this event was to help the teams by sharing our knowledge on how best to use climate data in their risk analyses.

The facilitated interactive event ran across two days, with seven teams of industry practitioners tasked with putting together a workflow and identifying the data sources needed to assess the risks associated with projected heatwaves. Each team was given three hours (1.5 hours on each day) to come up with a workflow to assess the impact of future heatwaves. The science team comprised of four climate scientists and each of us worked with a team (or two) to help interpret climate data. The teams worked around two themes: people and power.  

Impact of extreme heat on human health
Some of the issues discussed under health were the increase in morbidity and mortality due to increased heat stress; the impact on labour productivity resulting in supply disruptions; a rise in crime/anti-social behaviour, riots and disorder due to increased anxiety or job loss; and the effects of urban heat islands. Exceeding hosiptal capacities was another issue, which was an instance where a parallel could be drawn with the Covid19 pandemic.

Impact of extreme heat on power
Under this theme the groups tried to assess the impact of extreme heat on the reliability of the electricity network.  One of the issues that came up during the discussions was the resilience of the electricity supply grid under conditions of high demand for cooling and the failure point of critical infrastructure. There is a higher demand for air conditioning during heatwaves, leading to high demands on power supply that can result in system failures. Heatwaves can also disrupt power generation and distribution. For instance, increased thermal expansion during heatwaves can lead to sagging of powerlines resulting in transmission failure.
Drafting a workplan, as done in these breakout rooms, have the potential to help companies with business continuance plans, town planning, healthcare planning, emergency services, heat policies and workers’ compensation. Another point of discussion was the interdependency between the impact of extreme heat on human health and power. When power generation and transmission fail, the demand for cooling cannot be met, thereby increasing the heat stress on the population. If this is not accounted for in the risk analysis, the population would be locked into a vicious cycle of heat stress.  

Taking part in this event turned out to be a great experience for me. I enjoyed working with the actuaries and engineers and hearing their perspectives on analysing climate risks. I thought the event was successful in that it helped build relationships and understanding between the climate science community and industry, as they will increasingly need to work together. Through these events, the ESCC Hub strives to identify gaps in the current knowledge base.

It was a friendly environment to communicate the utility of climate science to industry and it also gave me some insight into how industry could potentially use climate data to inform their operations. If this event had taken place in person as originally planned, there would have been greater scope for discussion and further networking among the participants. However, we made the most of the allotted time to discuss the issue at hand, with the flexibility of being in the comfort of our homes.
When you are a PhD researcher, you often straddle the border between being a student and a scientist. I tend to identify myself more with the former than the latter and that probably has something to do with my confidence issues. It was refreshing to be called a ‘climate scientist’ and I am happy I had this opportunity to interact with members of the industry and to share whatever knowledge I had with the teams I worked with.
Shout out to Sonia Bluhm from the National Environment Science Program ESCC Hub for inviting me for this programme 😊  You can find Sonia’s report on the day, here.