By Tom Polton Skytop Contributing Author April 7, 2020

In 2019 Tom formed NV Sustainability LLC, a consulting organization to advise companies, financial institutions, business coalitions, and non-profit organizations to better manage environmental risks, seize opportunities, create leading sustainability programs to address emerging environmental issues and societal expectations.
Previously, Tom has more than 30 years of experience leading environmental, health and safety (EHS) programs for Pfizer.  In 2010 he was appointed to lead Pfizer’s Environmental Sustainability program. Together with his responsibilities for Product Stewardship, Tom led efforts to reduce Pfizer’s environmental impacts throughout the product life cycle – from research, to procurement, to manufacturing, to product disposal. In a prior role, Tom directed Pfizer’s global health and safety programs associated with process safety, fleet safety, fire life safety, occupational medicine and occupational hygiene. Tom joined Pfizer after finishing his master’s degree from the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Tom has a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Brandeis University.   He has served on the Harvard School of Public Health Leadership Council since 2006.  Tom also served as President of the Board of Directors of the Pharmaceutical Product Stewardship Working Group, a 200-member coalition to address the responsible collection and disposal of unwanted medicine.


Are you struggling to keep your head above water?

Many sustainability professionals may view this question as a resiliency inquiry related to sea-level rise associated with climate change. That is understandable and later in this column I will offer practical advice for managing the physical risks. I raise this question because we sustainability professionals can feel overwhelmed with the vast volume of information released nearly every day on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) topics. This column will be a resource to help you sift through the vast resources to find you outstanding tools to advance your sustainability efforts.

Let me first introduce myself and explain why I feel particularly qualified to guide you on sustainability matters.

For more than 35 years I led a variety of environmental health and safety programs for Pfizer, a large multinational pharmaceutical company. During the past 10 years at Pfizer, I oversaw the product stewardship and environmental sustainability programs focused on “greener” products, responsible manufacturing, addressing societal concerns, and engaging employees and external stakeholders. Critical to championing an industry-leading program is staying current with latest developments and designing programs to address these concerns. In this column, I will regularly provide useful analysis and practical guidance for sustainability leaders making it easier for you to keep up with and manage the emerging ESG trends impacting your business.  Future postings will help you find recent resources that you may have missed. Other times I will challenge you with cutting-edge thinking on efforts still in development. Periodically I will invite program leaders to share their insights on their successful endeavors.

Now let’s get back to ways to literally keep your operations above water by recommending for you resources and tools for managing the physical risks associated with climate change. In 2017, the US Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report stated that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” This phenomenon increases the likelihood that over the upcoming decades, if not in the next few years, severe weather might cripple your business or disrupt your supply chain. Damages from these disasters currently result in billions in property damages and thousands of lives lost every year.  NOAA reports that between 1980 and 2020 there were 125 Severe Storm, 17 Wildfire, 45 Tropical Cyclone, 33 Flooding, 27 Drought, 17 Winter Storms, and nine Freeze billion-dollar disaster events affected the United States alone.

Your organization will need to understand and mitigate the risks from flooding, extreme heat, wildfires and water scarcity

Disclosing your vulnerability and management of physical risks are core requirements from the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), a program that will repeatedly be referred to in this column. The TCFD Hub provides summaries of the requirements and many notable resources. For addressing physical hazards, I recommend starting with “Understanding Physical Climate Risks and Opportunities” from the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change. The reference walks you through understanding the physical risk assessment process. Although intended as a comprehensive entrance point for investors who want to make a start on assessing, managing and reporting on physical climate risks in their portfolios, the guide is also useful to sustainability leaders to assess their company’s vulnerabilities to natural disasters.  

Once you understand the physical risk assessment process, you will want to take advantage of a few publicly available resources to analyze your specific situation. ThinkHazard! is a web-based tool developed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the World Bank which enables non-specialists to consider the impacts of disasters on new development projects, their existing operations, and their supply chain.  ThinkHazard!  quickly and robustly assesses the level of river flood, earthquake, drought, cyclone, coastal flood, tsunami, volcano, and landslide hazard within their project area to assist with project planning, design, and mitigation.

Equipped with region-specific information on the likelihood of natural disasters, the next step is to apply a structured approach to determine feasible resiliency mitigation measures. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), a sister organization of the World Bank, has in development a tool, Business Resilience Index to identify, mitigate, and disclose risks from natural disasters.  By responding to a few questions on the building design and construction, the user can assess the feasibility of measures to improve the physical integrity and operational continuity. After completing the resiliency assessment for all relevant disasters, the tool assigns a letter-grade score on the residual risk.    

I do hope these tools keep you “afloat” and manage the physical risks associated with your business.  Share with me your feedback on these resources and tools, as well as letting me know of other sustainability topics you’d like to see in upcoming columns. In future columns, I will address a broad swath of sustainability topics of interest to investors, program leaders and sustainability advocates.   Keep an eye on upcoming columns on water, plastics, racial justice, reporting and investor rating schemes.