Being a big business, the insurance industry is a strong backer of free enterprise and its laissez-faire leaders. But a rift could be developing now that some major carriers are staking claims in the climate change cause while many of their congressional backers have remained skeptical of the science.
For insurers, it’s not about the political machinations but rather, it’s about the potential economic losses. If even part of the predictions hold — the ones released by the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change that ascribe temperature change to humans with 95 percent certainty — then the rate of extreme weather events will only increase and the effects would be more severe. That, in turn, would lead to greater damages and more payouts.
“The heavy losses caused by weather-related natural catastrophes in the USA showed that greater loss-prevention efforts are needed,” says Munich Re board member Torsen Jeworrek.
He says that the United States suffered $400 billion in weather-related damages in 2011 and insured losses of $119 billion, which were record amounts. In 2012 — and despite Superstorm Sandy — losses were well above the 10-year averages at $165 billion total, of which insurers paid $50 billion. In 2013, insurance companies paid out, globally, $45 billion in claims, says Zurich-based Swiss Reinsurance Co., adding that the United States accounted for $19 billion of that.
Meantime, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services just issued a report saying that the credit ratings of sovereign countries would be affected by global warming. It pointed to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, heavy flooding in Great Britain and the record cold temperatures this past winter in the United States, all of which caused economic damages and disrupted business practices.
But it adds that the developing nations in Africa and Asia are most at risk, namely because they are low-lying regions that are heavily reliant on farming and agriculture. At the same time, they are not in a financial position to handle catastrophic events.
“Climate change is likely to be one of the global mega-trends impacting sovereign creditworthiness, in most cases negatively,” says S&P, in its report. It’s a view generally supported by Lloyd’s of London, which just said that climate-associated risks must be considered when underwriting policies.
To be sure, not all climate scientists are convinced that aberrant weather patterns are linked to global warming, even though they argue that rising temperatures are associated with burning fossil fuels. One such expert is Richard Muller, from University of California at Berkeley, who says that hurricanes and tornados have actually decreased with time.
“Global warming is real and it is caused by humans,” he says. But, “Climate change is not contributing to more intense tornados and hurricanes.”
Meantime, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development argues that governments must take the lead role to combat climate change. It notes that unlike the 2008 financial crisis, world leaders have not conceived a “climate bailout option.”
With all the clout that the insurance industry has on Capitol Hill, why is it not crusading for action on climate change? In fact, only 23 of the 184 insurance companies that the investor network Ceres surveyed say that they have a comprehensive strategy to deal with climate change. That’s ironic, given that coastal cities around the world are expected to incur $50 billion in annual losses through 2050, adds the OECD — a tab that would fall, in part, on insurers.
Not all carriers are “passive.” This past week, Farmers Insurance Co., a unit of the Zurich Insurance Co., filed suit against the city of Chicago for its alleged failure to prevent flood-related damages that it says are associated with climate change. It maintains that city officials are aware of the potential fallout from climate-related weather and yet they have done nothing to mitigate such events. As a result, it paid out millions in claims a year ago tied to storms in the city.
Other insurers, meanwhile, have broken ties to the Heartland Institute that denies man-made climate change, arguing instead that temperature fluctuations are a cyclical phenomenon. That’s one reason why Allied World Assurance Co., State Farm, Renaissance Re and XL Group are no longer financial supporters of the group.
“Numerous studies assume a rise in summer drought periods in North America in the future and an increasing probability of severe cyclones relatively far north along the US East Coast in the long term. The rise in sea level caused by climate change will further increase the risk of storm surge, adds Peter Höppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research.
When it comes to a fix, the public sector will lead — but only when pushed by its citizenry or powerful financial concerns. Here, a potential battle is brewing between certain energy entities and the insurance industry that would pay many climate-related claims. Just who wins will depend on how severe the weather becomes and the financial toll it leaves behind.