On-Site Magazine

Risk column: effects of climate change on construction


Skills Development

Is climate change the biggest risk of the 21st Century?

Over the years I’ve discussed a lot of risks that can impact a project throughout its lifecycle. Design error, geotechnical events, subcontractor failure, coordination risk, environmental events, strike risk, faulty workmanship, to name a few. I’ve even done a few columns on weather risk, but those didn’t delve into the potential of it growing into what could be the biggest risk any construction project might face in the 21st century. 

On March 31 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis report. Released once every six years, it is an amalgam of more than 73,000 recently published works on climate change. The results are compelling. Here are a few key points raised in the report: 

  • Unambiguous confirmation that the Earth’s climate is getting warmer. 
  • Temperatures throughout the world have risen since the turn of the 20th century. 
  • Oceans have increased in temperature, sea levels have risen and glaciers are melting.  
    • By 2100, 95 per cent of oceans are highly likely to rise (average increase will be between 0.26 and 0.98 metres by 2081 through 2100). 
    • Incidents of “extreme precipitation” will be more common and severe. 
  • The air has the highest concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) now than at any time in the past 800,000 years. 
  • Human impact on climate is irrefutable. 
  • By 2100, the Earth’s surface temperature, ocean temperatures and sea levels will continue to rise. 
  • Perhaps the most concerning, climate change is irreversible even if we stop producing GHGs today. 

As time passes, it seems more and more likely that climate change will impact the lives of everyone on this planet. From a risk perspective, the probability of the risk is increasing (terms like “highly likely” and “very certain” are being used). In the event the risks associated with climate change do manifest, most of us agree the severity of these risks are high. So, we have a major global risk. Leaving the cause of climate change to the side, this sounds like something we should be planning for and adapting to. And given that much of the impact will be felt within the physical assets that we all build and operate, it appears to be an ideal time to start addressing how to adapt to this more certain and highly severe risk event. 

Climate change is the root cause of several risks that could start impacting your projects and assets. Here’s a brief list of some trailing risks you can expect to be dealing with as a result of climate change: 


Productivity drop due to weather – Extreme temperatures and increased precipitation means more days where project workers cannot do their job, and thus a greater chance of project delay due to weather. 

Flooding – Heavier rains and rising sea levels can mean more flooding. 

Environmental events – More flooding leads to greater risk of environmental events as pollutants are more likely to migrate via water. 

Geotechnical events – Flooding happens above and below ground. Water movement below the ground often leads to geotechnical issues, which further leads to structural issues to your project. 

Durability and time to cure building materials – Extreme temperatures in either direction are not good for current building materials, such as concrete or caulking. Further, the time to properly cure some of these materials could take longer, leading to delays. 

Wind damage – Wind speeds could become more severe, increasing chances for damage to project and third party liability. 

These are but a few of the risks that come with climate change. Everyone within the construction industry and the owner community need to start planning in order to ensure their projects and assets are adapted to deal with what could be a more common and impactful suite of risks. All should be familiarizing themselves with the controls available to manage these risks. Owners will be facing some difficult value for money decisions as up-front costs (implementation of these risk controls) will cost more. However, when your project isn’t delayed or your operations are not shut down due to climate impact, you will see the value of paying for that risk control up front. Research, collaboration and innovation are required by all if we’re going to be well positioned to deal with what could be the biggest risk of the 21st century. 

David Bowcott is senior vice-president, national director of large/strategic accounts at AON Reed Stenhouse Inc. Send comments to editor@on-sitemag.com 


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