Monday, April 02, 2012

Great weather now but a lousy climate coming for the Rochester, NY region


When I wrote this essay it was the first day of spring and eighty-four degrees outside.

This year’s warm winter has finally convinced a lot of people that Climate Change is happening, but they seem OK with it. I heard some folks saying that they love this warm March and many are out running around playing Frisbee—those who would otherwise be huddled inside at this time of the year. Showing some exuberance, but not too much, our local news tells us to plan our gardens, but don’t plant anything just yet. It’s hot, but is it Climate Change? Some say it is:

Heat Wave Sends Temps Soaring into Uncharted Territory | Climate Central The March heat wave went from extreme to downright unprecedented in parts of the Midwest on Tuesday, as Chicago, Detroit and areas all the way north into Canada shattered longstanding records. So many records have been broken — 3,550 record daily highs and 3,109 daily warm low temperature records during the March 12-18 period — that it’s difficult to sort through them all. In Chicago, where the temperature rose to 85°F, an all-time record high for the month and the record sixth March 80-degree day, a National Weather Service (NWS) forecaster described the situation as “unreal.” Through Tuesday, the city had set warm temperature records seven days in a row — with more records likely to fall Wednesday and possibly Thursday.  (March 21, 2012) Climate Change | Climate Central

Actually, this very warm winter probably is a result of Climate Change, but not in a direct cause-and-effect way. It’s related in the sense that last year’s major snowstorms, the drought in Texas, storm Irene in upper New York State, and a long string of recent extreme weather events show a trend towards warming. Because we have put gobs of greenhouse gases (GHG) into our atmosphere in the last century and a half, the dice are loaded towards more extreme events. Check this out from our country’s top climate change scientist Dr. James Hansen.

"Climate dice", describing the chance of unusually warm or cool seasons relative to climatology, have become progressively "loaded" in the past 30 years, coincident with rapid global warming. The distribution of seasonal mean temperature anomalies has shifted toward higher temperatures and the range of anomalies has increased. An important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (σ) warmer than climatology. This hot extreme, which covered much less than 1% of Earth's surface in the period of climatology, now typically covers about 10% of the land area. We conclude that extreme heat waves, such as that in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, were "caused" by global warming, because their likelihood was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.” Perceptions of Climate Change: The New Climate Dice

For those suddenly exhilarated by this Georgia-like weather in March, who think they’ll gladly take the good with the bad as Climate Change kicks in, haven’t been listening. It’s like someone who stumbles across a bag full of money and, when told that it belongs to the mob, thinks they’ll just keep it anyways and deal with the consequences later. So, before we jump for joy, we might want to think this one through.

‘Getting it’, or understanding the full ramifications of Climate Change, is going to be tough because most are too ignorant, bored, or overwhelmed by the steady drone of news connecting Climate Change and extreme weather in the news. But it matters. Without most of the public onboard, we really cannot address something as incredibly vast as the concentration of a GHG’s in our atmosphere. A Pearl Harbor moment on Climate Change is needed, some experts believe, to wake everyone up to the dangers of warming. Then, we’ll get going as we did back in the early 1940’s. Others are not so confident that Climate Change will have as clearly defined a moment as a military attack; hence this catastrophe brought about by our own machinations will never become crystal clear. Rather, it will increment forever and, unless something triggers a response in us from this continuum of warming, we’ll cook like a frog in a pot.

I believe there will be moments of clarity on Climate Change even for the most die-hard anti-environmentalists. Even if you don’t care about the Likely Changes coming to our Rochester, NY region, or you couldn’t give a brass farthing that our oceans are becoming very acidic (because they are gobbling up the majority of the GHG’s), you might care when your insurance rates jump through the roof. Strangely enough, insurance premiums may be the Peal Harbor moment for galvanizing the public on Climate Change action. Money matters to most—even if stranded polar bears on a melting iceberg don’t. Likewise those who don’t care about anything about our environment might start caring if they cannot pay for their insurance.

Let’s start this line of thinking with the big insurance boys, THE GENEVA ASSOCIATION: “International Association for the Study of Insurance Economics: The Geneva Association is the leading international insurance think tank for strategically important insurance and risk management issues.” They ‘get’ the problem of Climate Change, understanding that insurance companies must eventually pay the bills when extreme events come due.

Michael Butt, Chairman of AXIS Capital Holdings and co-Chair of The Geneva Association’s Climate Risk and Insurance Project said, “The nature and scale of the challenge of natural catastrophes is greater than can be covered by insurance alone. The principle reason for increasing damage and loss figures are more socio-economic changes rather than changes of natural variability. A closer cooperation and collaboration between governments, industry and insurers is needed to manage disaster risks and to reduce the financial impact of extreme events.” The Geneva Association reviews the past year Extreme events and insurance: 2011 annus horribilis

You can read the whole report here: and remember this is not a group of greenies trying to undermine our economic system (one of those loony arguments that anti-environmentalists march out when they’re bereft of facts), but the movers and shakers whose mission is the future of the insurance industry around the world.

However, US insurance companies are not so wise. A report by Ceres written in September of 2011 reveals most US insurer’s unwillingness to address Climate Change:

‘This report documents this powerful industry’s sluggish and uneven response to the ever-increasing ripples from global climate change, which could undermine both its own financial viability and the stability of the larger global economy. With the world still reeling from the devastating impacts of an economic crisis triggered by hidden risks in the banking sector, we can ill afford a new problem triggered by hidden risks in another.’ CLIMATE RISK DISCLOSURE BY INSURERS: Evaluating Insurer Responses to the NAIC Climate Disclosure Survey

Many US insurance companies are in denial about Climate Change and haven’t changed their polices to fortify their assets against the financial threats that come with expensive Climate Change catastrophes like heat waves, floods, droughts, and storm surges. But ultimately, they don’t have the luxury of avoiding it. When damage occurs, and folks have paid their home, health, and vehicle insurances, they will expect money from their insurers.

You might ask, “Why aren’t US insurance companies acting on potential losses from Climate Change when at the international level they are very concerned?” There are many reasons and some are obvious—denial. Denial can be cheap in the short run: If one company admits the Climate Change risk, then they will have to raise their rates and fail to remain competitive with insurance companies who just continue business as usual. Some, who haven’t done their homework, think that the extreme events that come with Climate Change will be gradual, kind of blending into the mosaic of meteorological miasma. But gradual is not what comes to my mind when I use the word ‘extreme.’ Extreme weather events are not only not gradual, they can occur, as they frequently do, one right after the other—easily overwhelming any levees constructed for the rare 100-year storm.

Reports link heat waves, deluges to climate change Scientists are increasingly confident that the uptick in heat waves and heavier rainfall is linked to human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions, posing a heightened risk to the world’s population, according to two reports issued in the past week. On Wednesday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a 594-page study suggesting that when it comes to weather observations since 1950, there has been a “change in some extremes,” which stem in part from global warming. (March 28, 2012) Washington Post

Some insurance companies plan to offset Climate Change claims by taking GHG emitters to court—as mentioned in the Ceres report. That’s a hoot. Those insurance companies must think their lawyers are smarter than the lawyers for the fossil fuel industries. Good luck with that.

If suing the tobacco companies is any indication (read “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” by Naomi Oreskes (May 24, 2011)), I suspect that it will take decades, if ever, to get money from a fossil fuel company to pay for Climate Change damages. You’re as likely to thread a fat Climate Change denier through the eye of a needle.

At long last, after US insurance companies have dragged their feet and tried all kinds of tricks to avoid the inevitable, insurance rates are going to go up. After all, who do you call when stuff happens?

Here’s where I’m going with the insurance thing: The Pearl Harbor moment for a large swath of the public will come when thousands of homeowners get a notice in the mail that their premiums just climbed beyond their ability to pay for them. When it comes to the point that insurance coverage is denied or premiums too costly for large sections of the public, there will be an epiphany even for those who still don’t get the science. Let’s just hope that all this denial ends before it’s too late as a few nice days amidst a century of an absolutely lousy climate is a bad deal.

BTW: Climate Change doesn’t have to be a train wreck for the insurance industry. They can mitigate their loses if they help educate the public on Climate Change and encourage communities to advance programs, like fortified building codes in a hurricane prone area, to reduce the incidents of insurance claims. Then the hike in insurance premiums will go up only a little in the short term-instead of into the stratosphere.

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