Last year's devastating floods in the UK and other European countries brought home the need for action on climate change. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed the likely increase in frequency of such events. Politically, the climate has also changed, with the collapse of climate change negotiations at The Hague and the withdrawal of US support for the Kyoto Protocol. Businesses, organisations, governments and society in general now need to consider how to prepare for an unknown climate future.

It has been against the background of these events that the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has been launched to develop responses to climate change. Recognising that the climate change challenge goes beyond any individual academic area, the Tyndall Centre encourages climate scientists, social scientists, engineers, economists and specialists in the built environment to collaborate in studying the causes and consequences of climate change – and help governments, business leaders and policymakers to develop sustainable responses.

To minimise economic costs and personal suffering, our society needs to adapt to a changing climate. The call for adaptation does not imply that we should accept global warming and just learn to live with it – greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced for our own good, as well as for the sake of other countries and future generations more exposed to climatic risks. But adaptation is vital because some degree of climate change is unavoidable. A new Tyndall Centre research project, being carried out at the University of Sussex's Science and Technology Research Unit (SPRU), aims to understand, measure and enhance the capacity of businesses to adapt to global warming.

Uncertain environment
The main challenge facing business in making sense of climate change lies in the complexity and uncertainty of its impact. Climate change implies not just higher temperatures, but it will also affect broader weather patterns. In Britain, scientists expect warmer and drier summers, wetter winters, rising sea levels and more frequent storms, heavy rain and flooding. Climate change impact research is developing sophisticated tools for assessing the effects of these changes on eco-systems and the economy. However, most people agree that it is impossible to predict impacts with precision, mainly because we do not understand all the natural processes involved. But for many businesses, it is the detail that determines to what extent their activities will be affected. For example, planning of water reservoirs and waste water systems is based on information about average rainfall, regional rainfall patterns, average and extreme temperatures, as well as the likelihood of heavy seasonal rainfall and hot summers.

Climate science is getting better at providing these details, but it would be wrong to wait until it can give us all the answers. Large uncertainties will remain in our understanding of how climate changes will affect individual organisations. Instead, more attention needs to be given to understanding the mechanisms of vulnerability and adaptability in social systems, including businesses.

The question of how organisations and individuals respond to climate change has often been neglected or over-simplified. Studies frequently assume either that human systems adapt automatically or that they do not adapt at all. This is partly because research has focused on the most vulnerable sectors, which are special cases. For example, the protection of coasts is based on large-scale structures and very long-term investments. The planning of coastal defences can take into account rises in sea level and increased storminess relatively easily. In agriculture, by contrast, flexible adaptation to weather conditions is a routine and, to a large extent, autonomous process.

The development of business strategies for coping with climate change needs to be based on a better understanding of the ‘adaptive capacity' of business. Adaptive capacity can be understood as the ability of organisations to make changes that will help them avoid risks associated with climate change, recover from losses stemming from climate impacts (through taking out insurance, for instance), and exploit new economic opportunities through the process of adaptation. The capacity of companies to adapt will vary, depending on their internal resources (information and knowledge, technological capabilities, capital reserves, the availability of insurance cover), as well as external conditions (regulation and the competitive conditions in the industry). All businesses have some capacity to adapt, but this capacity is not uniform. And the strategies chosen by companies will vary too, some choosing to muddle through and others seeking to exploit competitive advantages that may arise by adapting. In general, managers will be taking decisions in conditions of high uncertainty.

Practical tools
How can the adaptive capacity of companies be improved under these circumstances? If the impacts of climate change are uncertain and the responses of firms diverse, there cannot be a ‘one size fits all' approach. Instead, strategies to cope with climate change need to be based on a careful assessment of the vulnerability of individual regions, sectors and companies. At the same time, we have to avoid reinventing the wheel. With a focus on nine UK water services and house building companies, the new research project will develop practical tools that enable companies to answer questions such as: How vulnerable is our business to climate change? Do we have the capability to respond flexibly to climate change impacts? What are the technological, market or other options to make larger adjustments to our business? Are there trade-offs between different strategies? Can we exploit potential new opportunities that arise from adaptation? Answering these questions will contribute to making the necessary process of adapting to climate change less disruptive.

Storm activity
Another of the Tyndall Centre's 20 initial research projects is shedding light on the likely occurrence of future high winds due to climate change, and the subsequent impacts on the insurance and forestry industries.

Windstorms impact on the whole European economy, particularly forestry and insurance. Storms in Europe in October 1987 destroyed the equivalent of two years of timber production in the UK, while the storms at the end of 1999 destroyed 10% of French forests. In western Europe, the January 1990 storm caused insured losses of around £4bn, as well as 95 deaths, and was quickly followed by another storm causing a further £2.7bn in losses and 64 deaths.

Insurance and forestry industries may need to prepare for worse to come. The period since about 1970 has seen a steep increase in insured losses due to storm damage, although this increase cannot necessarily be blamed on global warming. Although results are inconclusive, most climate models predict an increase in storm activity in future and a consensus is emerging that storms will intensify over Europe in response to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

Dr Jean Palutikof, a scientist based at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, is working with a team of researchers from the university's School of Environmental Sciences to investigate future changes in cyclone behaviour over the North Atlantic and Europe. They will then work with experts from the insurance and forestry industries to examine the impacts of changes in storminess, in order to help these industries prepare for climate change.

The Tyndall Centre is named after the 19th century UK scientist John Tyndall who was the first to prove the Earth's natural greenhouse effect and suggested that slight changes in atmospheric composition could bring about climate variations. In addition, he was committed to improving the quality of science education and knowledge, often speaking and writing about difficult concepts to make them understandable and entertaining to different audiences.

The Tyndall Centre's headquarters are at the University of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences, with regional offices at the University of Southampton and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. The full Tyndall Consortium includes the University of Cambridge, NERC's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the University of Sussex's Science and Technology Research Unit (SPRU), the University of Leeds' Institute for Transport Studies, Cranfield University's Complex Systems Management Centre and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory's Energy Research Unit.

The Tyndall Centre is jointly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), with additional support from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The Centre is committed to matching the core funds by seeking additional sponsorship from stakeholders in business, non-governmental organisations and government, and through other research councils and EU Commission initiatives.

The Tyndall Centre's research is organised into specific programmes that collectively contribute to all aspects of the climate change issue and are individually managed by renowned scientists. Each programme contains a number of research projects, each of which comprises a lead investigator and multi-centre research team. Twenty research projects have been launched this year, and more than 40 scientists are employed on Tyndall research at any one time. The research results will contribute to the development of strategies on adaptation and mitigation at the core of the Government's UK Climate Change programme, and will also contribute to international efforts towards global climate change management.