Twenty years ago, I interviewed Frank Nutter, then and now president of the Reinsurance Assn. of America, on the threat climate change posed to the $2-trillion-plus global property and casualty insurance industry.
"It is clear," he said back then, "that global warming could bankrupt the industry."
But in the two decades since, the industry mostly limited itself to talk, sponsoring innumerable reports on the threat. Now a major insurance company has moved to protect itself, and it may be the most important milestone yet in the struggle to contend with global warming.
FOR THE RECORD:
Climate change: A June 17 Op-Ed article accurately reported on nine class-action lawsuits filed by insurance company Illinois Farmers against cities and counties for failing to take steps to prevent losses related to climate change. Farmers has withdrawn the lawsuits, saying it believes that its "policyholders' interests will be protected in the future" and that it hopes to continue "constructive" conversations with the cities and counties. The Op-Ed said Farmers is owned by Zurich Group. It is not; Zurich Group owns Farmers Management Co., which provides administrative oversight to Farmers. —
Illinois Farmers has filed nine class-action suits against municipal entities in and around Chicago for losses the company sustained when the sanitation system backed up, spewing geysers of sewage into hundreds of homes, after extreme storms in April 2013.
The suit explicitly says that officials in various governments were aware that climate change would bring more extreme weather and yet failed to take steps (such as draining parts of the system) that would have prevented the losses. Regardless of the outcome — courts give governments wide latitude in immunity from lawsuits — it puts an end to the charade that global warming is some scientifically uncertain threat far off in the future.
It was predictable that a major industry player's first hardball action would be to protect itself from losses. Insurers bet their existence on being accurately able to detect, model and price changes in risk. The Farmers' suit tells the world that regardless of what politicians and pundits say about climate change, an insurer is going to try to avoid paying for losses that could have been foreseen and prevented.
Most property insurers base their pricing on historical data, which makes the industry retrospective and thus inherently conservative. This is one reason it has taken so long for insurers to react aggressively in the face of climate change — its losses only filter in slowly over many years. Even then, attributing blame is complicated by other factors, such as a vast increase in the building of ever-more expensive homes in coastal areas.
Moreover, a number of major insurers feel that the potential losses of climate change can be addressed through existing procedures for analyzing and pricing risk. For example, one thing they can do is simply leave the market in places that are highly vulnerable to foreseeable negative effects.
This was the case in Florida as insurers voted with their feet after the $26 billion in insured losses incurred by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and after Florida regulators wouldn't let them raise prices to adjust for the increased risks created by a rapidly growing population in harm's way. In 2002, the state was forced to set up its own insurance pool to protect against losses from windstorms.
The Citizens Property Insurance Co., which charges below-market rates thanks to the voter-conscious state legislature that set it up, quickly became the biggest property and casualty insurer in the state. Noting its precarious financing, a report on the state insurance market prepared by Florida State University in 2013 asserted that "Florida could be one major storm away from the state having to take all wind risk."
Should such an event occur, Florida would cover these losses by issuing bonds, which would be paid off by a surcharge on all insurance policies. That means any insured Floridian, even those with just an auto insurance policy, would take a hit.
Thus, Florida is shifting the burden of future catastrophic losses arising from wind damage from the affluent who have built along to coast to all Floridians.
While Floridians wait for the next big storm, sea levels — the most obvious worldwide signal of global warming — continue their inexorable rise. Rising waters have already created Venice-like conditions in the Miami area.
All the nation's taxpayers have assumed this risk as insurers routinely exclude flood and storm surge damage from policies. This forces homeowners to seek coverage with the National Flood Insurance Program, a tax-dollar backed program also forced by political pressure to under-price its coverage.
Between the state program and federal flood insurance, the American middle class has been given the burden of insuring and subsidizing the affluent. Let's call it climate change socialism for the rich.
After news of the Farmers' lawsuit broke, I spoke again with Nutter. He said he too was surprised at how long it has taken for the risk of climate change to percolate through the insurance community. He also pointed out that Farmers is owned by the Zurich Group, which is noteworthy because European insurers, with global reach and exposure, tend to be more attentive to the risks of climate change than domestic insurers.
Is it possible that U.S. insurers are also affected by climate-change deniers? A number of recent studies by the Insurance Information Institute have singled out Florida as having the most exposure to the combined impacts of climate change, but its governor, Rick Scott, and Sen. Marco Rubio are on record dismissing the threat.
And yet everyone can see that sea levels are rising. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine told the New York Times last month, "We are past the point of debating climate change."
Now, as insurers begin to shift the costs of that reality through rate increases, exclusions, lawsuits and market retreat, consumers can ask such politicians, "Why, if climate change is a hoax, are we paying for it?"
Eugene Linden is the author of "The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations," which won the 2007 Grantham Prize Special Award of Merit.