Downed power lines in Sandy

Utility lines often fall prey to hurricanes and other violent storms, as in this street scene in Arlington County, Virginia, after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012.

By Kayla Meyertons
Texas Climate News

More and more in recent weeks, the climate issue has resembled a potato – a political hot potato, bouncing from the palms of increasingly outspoken Democrats, climate scientists and environmentalists to the lap of President Donald Trump, who has said that climate change may be happening but that it’s not important enough to require real changes now.

Trump began a process in 2017 to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. In May his administration blocked a repeat of the customary declaration on climate change at the 2019 Arctic Council meeting in Finland. And last month Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency replaced the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s signature measure for reducing power plants’ climate-disrupting pollution, with less stringent rules.

Major corporations now face a serious dilemma: stand by federal rejections of climate change and climate action or take steps to adapt to a world where scientists say environmental changes may cost companies billions of dollars in repairs. Some have chosen the latter course, including the world’s largest cell-phone company.

In March, Dallas-based AT&T announced its partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, a research institute at the University of Chicago, to develop the Climate Change Analysis Tool. This tool, hooked up through a supercomputer, will use regional climate modeling data to anticipate the potential impacts of climate change on AT&T network infrastructure and businesses 30 years down the road.

Telephone poles, cell towers, copper lines, central offices and businesses with AT&T fiber are all highly at risk during severe natural disasters. The tool visualizes such disasters in tandem with climate-related events such as projected sea-level rise.

But it’s reasonable to ask why a telecommunications company would be taking the prospects of climate change seriously now? Shannon Carroll, AT&T’s director of global environmental sustainability, said two things motivated the move: good old-fashioned risk management and astronomical natural disaster repair costs.

“Our customers, employees [and] communities that we serve depend on us not just today but the next day and into the future,” Carroll said. “From that perspective alone, that’s enough motivation to start looking at climate change.”

He said a climate-change modeling tool has been in the works at AT&T for the past few years, but tropical storms, like Hurricanes Ike and Harvey, which brought devastation to Texas in 2008 and in 2017, pushed the project to the company’s forefront. Severe weather events in 2017, which set a U.S. record as the costliest year for major natural disasters, cost AT&T over $600 million in repair and recovery costs.

Carroll said the damage costs “served as a great proof point for why we were doing the work as we were doing it.”

AT&T is the world’s largest telecommunications company with over 500,000 business buildings in the United States fueled by AT&T fiber lines. A modeling tool that can anticipate the potential impacts of climate change is necessary to move existing infrastructure or plan for future installation in the event of serious disasters. It’s a way, Carroll noted, “to start planning for the future today.”

AT&T’s move could have larger implications in the broader climate discussion. Charles Jackson is a research scientist in The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. He noted that AT&T’s “bold” step in announcing this partnership not only helps the public appreciate the risks posed by climate change but also helps shed light on an issue that remains a “political football.”

“This is the direction many of us would like to go,” Jackson said. “It’s much better knowing or at least being able to walk down that path of learning rather than avoiding the topic altogether, which is kind of what politics seems to say, [to] hide your head in the sand … when there’s enough in the public domain about what will happen.”

On the flip side, climate scientists could also benefit by understanding how climate affects businesses like telecommunications, in effect bridging the information gap. So for a company like AT&T, with significant physical assets at risk because of climate hazards, it is prudent to develop and use such climate models now so as not to expend more company resources in the future.

AT&T’s tool is set for pilot use in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, but the company hopes to expand to other states, including Texas. AT&T may be the first and only company in the telecommunications industry pursuing climate modeling of this sort, but Carroll said all of the underlying data produced by Argonne National Laboratory will be made publicly available to be used by universities, municipalities and other communities at high climate risk.

Scientists from all over the world now project climate change will worsen natural disasters including heatwaves and extreme rainfall events. For companies like AT&T with huge investments in critical infrastructure vulnerable to such impacts, the U.S. government’s latest National Climate Assessment, prepared by 13 federal agencies and about 150 non-government scientists, contained a stark warning about those projections when it was issued last November:

“Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”

It should be noted that AT&T’s project with the Argonne National Laboratory represents the “regional adaptation efforts” cited by the National Climate Assessment authors, and doesn’t involve “mitigation” – the other category of climate action they said is needed – in the pollution-reduction sense that they used it.

In climate policy discussions, “adaptation” generally refers to anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking steps to prevent or reduce this damage in the future, whether it’s sea-level rise, worse flooding or hotter summers. “Mitigation” can refer to damage reduction but more typically involves reductions in the greenhouse-gas pollution from fossil-fuel use that is causing climate disruption. Prior to undertaking its adaptation project with Argonne National Laboratory, for instance, AT&T announced a separate corporate commitment “to measuring our [greenhouse-gas] emissions and taking steps to reduce them.”

More and more businesses like AT&T may be forced to take climate-change adaptation steps down the line because that’s what nearly every piece of climate science indicates will be needed. For better or worse, scientists say a drastically changing future lies ahead.


Kayla Meyertons is a contributing editor for Texas Climate News. She is an independent journalist based in Austin, covering topics related to climate, science, wildlife and the changing environment.

Image credit: Arlington County, Virginia via Flickr