climate change

Why America can’t ignore climate change forever

The US election has come and gone, (congratulations Mr Obama) with no mention of climate change. It’s a non-issue, or worse – a vote loser. Neither candidate has addressed it, even after the disaster of Sandy, even though both have said how important it is in the past.

Perhaps now that the election is over, Obama can broach the subject again. He has to, because the US is not immune to climate change. It is actually in quite a lot of trouble. The week before Sandy hit, Munich RE released a briefing called Severe Weather in America. It’s intended for the insurance industry, which is going to a beating from the changing climate. Here’s what the briefing shows.

1) The number of natural catastrophes in America is rising.

Here we have the number of natural disasters hitting the US over time. Hurricanes are the most serious, but there are also droughts and wildfires, winter storms and floods, landslides and so on. The number of geophysical events (ie earthquakes) is lower, but weather related incidents are on an upward trend.

As a warming climate makes extreme weather more likely, this is exactly what we’d expect to find. Long-run climate trends aren’t the only thing impacting extreme weather, which is why the graph doesn’t show an even trend. But generally, the more the planet warms, the higher the chances of these sorts of weather and climate related disasters.

Those changing odds mean that Sandy might not turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime storm. It may have been a once a century storm 30 years ago. Now it might be more like a once in 50 years storm. As I’ve explained before, it’s not about saying this event or that event is caused by climate change. It’s all about the odds.

“In reviewing the last 30 years of activity” says the report, “it is clear that the intensity and frequency of most event types are on an upward trend, ultimately leading to growing economic and insured losses.”

That brings me to the second thing:

2) Disasters are going to be more expensive in North America than elsewhere

This graph shows the trends in the number of weather related insurance losses for different continents. As you can see, North America has a steeper increase than elsewhere. Since the US is more urbanized than many other places, has a growing population and has a more developed insurance industry, the number of ‘loss events’ is likely to run higher. This has consequences for the economy.

So here’s the thing – the government, the media and the general public can carry on ignoring climate change if they wish, but reality is going to come knocking.

One of those areas where reality is going to break through is insurance. A destabilised climate is going to cost insurers a bomb unless they start working on coping strategies. That may include higher premiums for people who live on hurricane paths – “risk adequate premiums are necessary to guarantee sustainable insurability” says the report. House owners in low-lying areas may find it harder to find an insurer who’ll take them. Companies might start getting choosy about what houses are made of and how vulnerable to extreme weather they are.

The insurance industry will start putting pressure on government to take risk management more seriously, and to invest more in flood defences and early warning systems. They will demand tougher building regulations, and their lobbyists will go to work protecting agencies like NOAA or the EPA. Climate change adaptation and mitigation will get onto the political agenda through the back door.

This is going to happen, and the insurance industry isn’t the only sector that knows it. The US military is decarbonising. Plenty of progressive businesses are getting ahead of the curve.

Since it is inevitable, politicians and the media might as well start talking seriously about climate change sooner rather than later, the way New York politicians have done in the last couple of weeks. Because it can’t be ignored forever.


    1. This is true, but Sandy could be a turning point that begins to depoliticise the issue. (That’s the optimistic view!) New Jersey governor Chris Christie is a Republican, but endorsed Obama because of climate change. That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about – politicians willing to acknowledge that this isn’t a democrat or a green issue, it’s a matter of public safety and it isn’t going away.

  1. The trouble with getting American’s to accept climate change is that all too often the people who want action on climate change also want to use it to change society in other ways. Only if this is seen as without an ulterior agenda will the necessary work to slow climate change be taken.

    The green movement is very much a Red/Green one when viewed from the Right (and remember America is more right wing than Europe). We need to focus on the economics of climate change, not as a way to end poverty or bring World peace but to just solve the problem of carbon emissions. A Carbon Tax is the way forward. We shouldn’t favour wind, solar or anything else over gas or nuclear, we should just price in Carbon and let the market solve it.

    We can solve the climate change issue without reducing inequality, we can reduce inequality without addressing climate change. the two issues should not be conflated. Doing so harms the climate change agenda.

    1. You’re right from a domestic point of view. The trouble comes when you look at the global picture and see the damage that Western emissions do to poorer countries. I think that justice perspective is important, but the political realist side of me knows that it’s irrelevant to most voters.

      What’s interesting is that it looks like climate change isn’t going to get on the agenda because of politicians or the media. It is business that is moving first in the US, and the rest of the country will fall in line.

      Something similar is happening in the UK too. While the government stalls to satisfy its backbenchers, the most effective noises about renewable energy and the green sector are coming, somewhat unexpectedly, from groups like the CBI.

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