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Business booms at climate risk start-up as threat from extreme weather grows

Jupiter Intelligence says new business has grown more than tenfold over pre-pandemic levels

Debris from damaged homes floats in floodwater after Hurricane Delta in Creole, La., on Oct. 10. (Callaghan O'Hare for The Washington Post)

For most companies, the end of the pandemic has meant slowly getting back to normal. For Jupiter Intelligence, a climate risk start-up with headquarters in Silicon Valley, the recovery has led to a massive surge in business.

Jupiter helps companies gauge the threat that climate change poses to their bottom line, and it has seen a rush of new clients as business leaders look to the looming threat of extreme weather. Chief executive Rich Sorkin said Jupiter booked more than 10 times as many contracts in the first quarter of 2021 as it did in the first quarter of 2020.

“I think that the pandemic, for us, was a bit of a double-edged sword,” he said. “On the one hand, we had this near-death experience. On the other hand, once people got past the pandemic, they were like, ‘Oh, what else is there like this that we're not worrying about that we should be worrying about?’ And climate change is at the top of that list.”

Jupiter gauges exposure to climate change by combining projections of future temperature, rainfall, wildfires and other threats with data on a company’s assets and their surroundings to determine, for instance, the risk of a wildfire at the site of a proposed power line, or the threat of flooding at a chemical plant. Using cloud-based supercomputing, Jupiter models the likelihood of a disaster and the resulting cost, both today and in years to come.

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Sorkin said companies were beginning to take a greater interest in climate risk in the lead-up to the coronavirus pandemic, as influential businesses such as BlackRock and McKinsey issued sobering reports detailing the threat that floods, droughts, severe storms and extreme heat posed to financial markets. Jupiter contributed to a report from McKinsey that warned that climate change could cause markets to collapse if investors were to realize, for instance, that they had been overvaluing flood-prone coastal property.

“The banking and insurance and asset management sectors started really viewing this as a priority in late 2020,” Sorkin said. “The market has basically hit an inflection point that started about September.”

Like Sorkin, representatives from S&P Global Sustainable1, McKinsey Global Institute, MSCI, Moody’s ESG Solutions and the World Economic Forum all said that, over the past year, they have seen a new focus on climate change among business leaders.

“There is dramatically increased interest from corporates and investors in physical climate risk,” said Oliver Marchand, global head of environmental, social, and corporate governance research & models at MSCI, in an email. “People are beginning to understand that climate risk is not something in the distant future, it's something that is happening today.”

When Sorkin founded Jupiter in 2016, companies had a very different view of climate change, he said. They viewed the physical risks — floods, fires, drought — as distant threats. To the extent that firms worried about climate change, they were focused on transition risks — what it would mean if governments put a tax on carbon, or if consumers soured on polluting companies.

Sorkin said Jupiter’s first customers were in the public sector. New York City, still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, turned to Jupiter for help planning for a future with more storms and floods. Not long after Hurricane Harvey flooded petrochemical plants in coastal Texas, Jupiter began to see interest from oil companies and power utilities as well.

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Colton Ching, senior vice president of planning and technology at Hawaiian Electric, said climate change has been a mounting concern for the power utility, given the high risk of floods on the islands.

“It's something that we get reminded of every single day when we see the coastline change, the beaches change, the rainfall change,” he said. “We’ve seen the pace of change start to accelerate over the last several years.”

Ching said Hawaiian Electric doesn’t have the capacity to fortify every part of its grid against wind and flooding, so it used Jupiter’s highly granular model to identify which of its dozens of electrical substations were most at risk. The company is installing flood sensors at those sites. The sensors will alert Hawaiian Electric to flooding so it can send personnel to set up sandbags or shut down at-risk substations.

Today, Jupiter’s clients include giants such as BP, ConEdison and Liberty Mutual, as well as a growing number of banks and investors. Sorkin isn’t surprised to see interest from banks, given that regulators are increasingly looking to safeguard financial markets against climate change.

In July, the Bank of England gave banks and insurance companies 18 months to implement plans for coping with climate risks. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Reserve began privately probing the biggest U.S. banks on how they are guarding against climate change, Reuters reported.

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“It's been coming for a while. It would have been here earlier if not for the state of the presidency for the last four years,” Sorkin said. “The momentum for this has been growing.”

Last week, President Biden signed an executive order directing White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy and economic adviser Brian Deese to develop a “climate-risk strategy to identify and disclose climate-related financial risk to government programs, assets, and liabilities.”

Congress is taking a similar view. Sorkin recently testified at a Congressional hearing on creating a “federal climate service” to aggregate data on climate change and make it available to the public. Such a service would potentially be a customer for Jupiter, Sorkin said.

While Democrats and Republicans at the hearing were divided on the role that the private sector should play in such an endeavor, lawmakers broadly agreed on the need to assess threats from extreme weather and climate change, E&E News reported.

For his part, Sorkin sees a future where, as a matter of course, governments and businesses turn to third-party contractors such as Jupiter to assess climate risk. His growing customer base may be a sign of things to come.

“It’s just like cybersecurity 10 years ago, when no one knew what cybersecurity was,” Sorkin said. “Now, there isn’t an entity on the planet that doesn’t have a cybersecurity or security solution that, in large part, depends on some third-party cybersecurity company. And this is going to be just like that.”