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.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.