Hurricanes haven’t convinced Americans that climate change is real. Higher insurance preimiums might

The aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Florida. Image: Getty.

One of the great challenges of tackling climate change is making it real for people without a scientific background. That’s because the threat it poses can be so hard to see or feel.

In the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael, for example, one may be compelled to ask, “Was that climate change?” Many politicians and activists have indeed claimed that recent powerful storms are a result of climate change, yet it’s a tough sell.

What those who want to communicate climate risks need to do is rephrase the question around probabilities, not direct cause and effect. And for that, insurance is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” sensitive to the trends of climate change impacts and the costly risks they impose.

In other words, where scientists and educators have had limited success in convincing the public and politicians of the urgency of climate change, insurance companies may step into the breach.

Steroids and climate change

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist who oversaw the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration from 2009 to 2013, offers a clever analogy to convince people of the connection between the destruction wrought by a single hurricane and climate change. It involves steroids and baseball.

Her analogy goes like this. If a baseball player takes steroids, it’s hard to connect one particular home run to his drug use. But if his total number of home runs and batting averages increase dramatically, the connection becomes apparent.

“In similar fashion, what we are seeing on Earth today is weather on steroids,” Lubchenco explains. “We are seeing more, longer lasting heat waves, more intense storms, more droughts and more floods. Those patterns are what we expect with climate change.”

And those weather patterns come with a cost.

Someone has to pay for these damages

In 2017, for example, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and other natural disasters like Mexican earthquakes and California wildfires caused economic losses of $330bn, almost double the inflation-adjusted annual average of $170bn over the prior 10 years.

Estimated costs from Hurricane Florence, which struck the Carolinas in September, range as high as $170bn, which would make Florence the costliest storm ever to hit the U.S.

More broadly, total economic losses from wildfires in the U.S. in 2017 – the third-hottest year on record, behind 2016 and 2015 – were four times higher than the average of the preceding 16 years and losses from other severe storms were 60 per cent higher.

Unfortunately, convincing politicians, business leaders and the public that these costs are the result of increased climate change risk hasn’t been easy. It’s a challenge that has been a major focus of my work for almost 10 years.

In 2013, I helped convene a series of executive forums to introduce a wide range of business executives to the 30 petabytes – 30,000,000,000,000,000 bytes – of weather and climate data in the National Climatic Data Center’s possession.

While the hope was that they would see the value of such vast amounts of data in managing climate risk, we found limited interest, leaving us to wonder if we were too early and whether our target was too broad.

This led me and others to realise that we should be more focused on insurance companies, society’s first line of defense in absorbing these costs, making their industry arguably the one most directly affected by climate change.

For example, the insurance industry paid out a record $135bn from natural catastrophes in 2017, almost three times higher than the annual average of $49bn. That’s not to mention the uninsured losses that were also incurred – uninsured losses from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy were 50 per cent of the total $65bn in losses, a staggering tab picked up by individual citizens and the taxpayer.

Insurers will eventually adjust to this emerging reality. And with it will come changes in our economy, including higher costs that will affect everyone’s pocketbook.

Our ability to drive a car, buy a house, build an office building, run a manufacturing plant and enter into contracts are all supported by insurance. Without it, a great deal of these activities would become more expensive or even stop.

And so, as the insurance sector adjusts to factor the growing risks of climate change in coverage and premiums, it will become a powerful lever for pushing society and the economy to become more resilient to the changes that climate change is expected to bring.

A whole new ballgame

While reinsurance companies – which basically insure the insurers – have been studying increasing climate-related risks for decades, traditional insurance companies haven’t.

There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that they’ve been able to pass on the most catastrophic or uncertain risks to reinsurers and other investors. The second is that insurers are overconfident that they’ll be able to quickly adjust their policies on a year-to-year basis to manage climate risks. Hence a 2012 study found that only 12 per cent of insurance companies had a comprehensive climate change strategy.


This is starting to change. A 2018 study found that 38 per cent of insurance companies now consider climate change to be a core business issue, a figure that will likely continue to grow.

In August of this year, the International Association of Insurance Supervisors, a respected international standard-setting body for the insurance sector, published a report outlining climate risk a strategic threat for the insurance sector. It cautioned against relying on annual adjustments to manage climate risks as physical risks can change suddenly and in “non-linear ways.”

Recognising this threat, many insurers are throwing out decades of outdated weather actuarial data and hiring teams of in-house climatologists, computer scientists and statisticians to redesign their risk models.

Ultimately they are examining if they need to change their coverage and raise their rates. This is where the impact will be felt, compelling citizens, businesses and governments to perk up and pay attention.

And yet it changes

When Galileo Galilei upset dominant beliefs in the 16th century by asserting that the Earth revolved around the sun and was forced to recant, he is purported to have replied “Eppur si muove”: “And yet, it moves.”

Today, although many dispute that the climate is changing, one might offer a similar retort: “And yet it changes.”

As humans persist in our emission of greenhouse gases, the climate continues to change, weather patterns become more unstable, damages due to hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods increase, and insurance payouts grow.

In response, insurances premiums will increase and coverage will decrease. With any luck, that will lead us to build more resiliently, curb our greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately see increased storm severity for what it is: a consequence of climate change.

The Conversation

Andrew J. Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor at the Ross School of Business and School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.