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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.