What the Insurance Industry Already Knows About Climate Change

When they woke up in the morning, my mom used to ask my dad what the weather was going to be like that day. "Stick your fool head out the window," he would reply. I say the same thing to the Republican presidential candidates. If you want to know if climate change is for real, stick your fool heads out the window. You might notice -- what the rest of us already have -- that the weather has been changing. A lot.

Take New York City, where I live. Nobody remembers a winter this warm. Daffodils are already coming up in a community garden on my block -- over a month early. In January, a cherry tree was in full bloom, fooled perhaps by the "spring rains" we've been having all winter. In the fall, a freak October storm took down thousands of still leafing trees in Central Park with the weight of wet snow. And a year earlier, the five boroughs were raked by several tornadoes, an almost unprecedented event.

New York is hardly alone. Last year over a thousand tornadoes ripped across the Midwest killing 500 people, the Mississippi river flooded inundating millions of acres, Texas had its driest summer in memory, an estimated 15,000 people died in a Russian heat wave, there was a major drought in China and famine in Somalia. 2010 was the hottest year on earth since record keeping began, with 2011 not far behind. Last year saw 14 separate billion dollar weather disasters, almost double any other year to date. And there was far more extreme weather -- over half the country experienced either flood or drought.

So what's going on? No single storm or spell of unseasonable weather can be laid categorically at the feet of climate change. But the growing consensus amongst scientists is that the rise we've been seeing in catastrophic weather events worldwide is no coincidence, but the inevitable result of a warming trend which produces more water vapor in the atmosphere and an increase in severe wind events like hurricanes, monster thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Yet as the scientific evidence mounts with every passing year, the deniers become more vocal in their rejection of climate change. Even Mitt Romney, the ostensible moderate amongst the Republican presidential hopefuls, asserts that, "We don't know what's causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us." Never mind that in his 2010 book, No Apology, Romney wrote, "I believe that climate change is occurring ... I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor."

Others like Santorum, Gingrich and Paul flat out assert that climate change is a liberal hoax. But, while these ideologues evince little faith in what science is saying, they do listen to the big corporations. So they would do well to heed the warnings of the insurance industry, a group with no political axes to grind, and billions of dollars riding on their ability to accurately prognosticate future risks.

On March 1, senators Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse met with insurance industry officials on Capital Hill to discuss their concerns about climate change and the escalating costs of damage from extreme weather. The global insurance industry is huge, three-times bigger than the oil industry. And right now these companies are running scared. Some are threatening to cancel coverage for homeowners within 200 miles of the coast, where hurricanes are on the increase, and in drying areas of the West, where wildfires have wreaked havoc in recent years.

Marsh & McLennan (MMC) one of the world's largest insurance brokers called climate change "one of the most significant emerging risks facing the world today," while the insurance giant AIG has established an Office of Environment and Climate Change to review and assess the risks to insurers in the years ahead.

2011 was a bad year for the insurance companies due to the steep rise in catastrophe-related losses. And the industry's own scientists are predicting that things are primed to get a lot worse in the years ahead.

The Republicans say that we can't afford to pay for cutting the carbon emissions which climatologists assert are largely responsible for rising global temperatures and the spike in violent weather. What we truly cannot afford, according to our nation's leading insurers, is to continue to deny a problem whose price tag is slated to go through the roof if we don't act quickly.