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.