Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Why Have Insurers Been Silent on Climate Change?

I began asking this question among economists, opinion shapers and policy people. Then I read the article in the Guardian, about how Lloyds is finally beginning to charge for climate change risk. Then, just this week, Farmers Insurance began filing lawsuits, not against the fossil fuel companies triggering climate change, but against the communities who failed to plan for the harm climate change will wreak on properties insured by Farmers. Why did it take so long for the insurance industry to wake up?

Maybe they were distracted. Maybe they had (in Dick Cheney's famous phrase) "other priorities." Are insurers still in the business of protecting against risks? Is that just a sideline, a way of raising investment capital?

I would suggest that insurance companies stopped being insurance companies at least a decade ago. They evolved into financial companies whose main duty is getting maximum returns on Wall Street…and these days that means sizable investments in the very profitable peak-oil fossil fuels business. Damn the risks. Profits tend to speak louder than risks at shareholder meetings.

Last month* I put these questions to a small group of people whose job it is to think forwardly. One reply from (a national columnist’s intern) suggested I need to learn more about how business works. The rest was silence. It is important to consider which division of massive financial companies dominates the thinking.

There was another time, in 2006 and 2007, when huge profits dulled the financial sector’s awareness of significant dangers. We ended up paying for their stupidity. Which means they are probably still stupid.

* "When you think of the vast liabilities of violent weather and rising ocean levels, insurers should be mounting a narrative to overturn the fossil fuel industry's campaign.

One reason occurs to me why they’re not. Perhaps insurance companies are overinvested in fossil fuel stocks. The returns on these stocks are huge because of the subsidies and because of peak oil, but they cannot possibly outweigh the potential for disaster.

Can the issue be raised that insurers are investing in industries that are causing these disasters? The causal link would be difficult legally, but less so as a narrative, letting the public change its mind.

Maybe it’s time for people to start writing to insurance companies. Ask an actuary if climate change will pose risks to their insured and to their companies. These issues have enormous economic consequences. The losses may be even larger than profits can cover."

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