There are few industries more exposed to financial risk from climate change than insurance. Every time the ocean creeps into neighborhoods or hurricanes shatter windows or drought kills a planting, it costs insurers money. Unsurprisingly, the industry at large is trying to figure out how to limit its losses from extreme weather events. Individual insurers are a little slower to act.
A report in The New York Times today outlined the dichotomy between risk-assessment and action.
“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 U.S. East Coast in the long term,” said Peter Höppe, who heads Geo Risks Research at the reinsurance giant Munich Re. ... Most insurers, including the reinsurance companies that bear much of the ultimate risk in the industry, have little time for the arguments heard in some right-wing circles that climate change isn’t happening, and are quite comfortable with the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is the main culprit of global warming.
The "Re" in "Munich Re" stands for reinsurance. Munich Re insures insurers, meaning that when an insurance company is forced to pay out exceptionally large payments to policyholders, Munich Re and companies like it can be on the hook. The company has been sounding alarm bells about the economic threat of climate change for some time now. Last October, it released a report finding that North America was seeing more intense weather than other parts of the world, and that 2011's strong storms made it the most second-most-expensive year for insurers in history.
That report came out three weeks before Sandy hit. Another industry group, the Insurance Information Institute, created a presentation in the aftermath of that storm. It noted that, of the twelve most costly hurricanes in US history, ten have occurred in the last decade — even adjusting for inflation.
Nor was the damage last year restricted to Sandy. The III also points out that the drought cost insurers nearly as much: some $16 billion, including federal crop insurance claims.
While insurance organizations clearly recognize the looming financial disruption presented by climate change, it's not clear that individual insurers do. Earlier this year, the think tank Ceres surveyed a number of insurance companies. It found that individual businesses were far less eager to embrace climate change as a motivator. "While the insurance industry has begun to recognize the potential impacts of climate change and to evaluate its likely effects on their business," the report overview reads, "significant challenges remain."
RELATED: Five Best Tuesday Columns
One challenge is getting insurers to prepare properly. Of the 184 companies surveyed, only 23 had comprehensive plans to address climate change. (Included in that 23: Munich Re.) While the threat of effects on revenue was cited by more than half of the companies as a reason to consider developing a climate change policy, well less than half thought climate change posed much of a risk. Forty-seven percent of the insurers "viewed climate change as a potential future loss driver, even though scientific assessments such as the recent IPCC Extreme Events report and draft National Climate Assessment emphasize that climate change is already amplifying extreme events that lead to insured losses."
That may change after a few more Sandys. The Times spoke with Robert Muir-Wood of Risk Management Solutions. Muir-Wood noted that insurers were ready to tackle the issue after Hurricane Katrina, the most costly storm in history. "Insurers were ready to sign up to all sorts of actions against climate change," The Times quotes him as saying. But: "Then the weather calmed down."