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Saturday, Jul 07 2012 11:00 PM

Ask reinsurers about climate change

By The Bakersfield Californian

It's hard to pin a single event -- like the heat wave that's gripped the Mid-Atlantic for the past week -- on climate change. But some of the predicted impacts of global warming made by climate scientists over the past decade can no longer be ignored.

Among those predictions: Wildfires in the West and Southwest would become more frequent and serious. New Mexico recently saw its worst wildfire in history. Colorado is in the midst of a record-setting fire season. And in 2011, Texas experienced its worst fire season in history with wildfires burning nearly 4 million acres, destroying 4,000 homes and other structures, and 10 deaths.

Other predictions have also come to pass. Warmer temperatures? The past winter was the fourth-warmest on record in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And this spring was the warmest since temperatures were first tracked in 1895. So far this year, new record high temperatures in the United States exceeded new low temperatures by more than 9-to-1. More intense storms? In 2011, the U.S. experienced a record-setting 14 natural disasters that caused more than $1 billion in damage.

It's no longer just environmentalists sounding the alarm. Earlier this year, representatives of the major reinsurance companies (the guys that insure insurance companies) met with members of the U.S. Senate to discuss the growing costs of climate-related disasters on U.S. taxpayers and businesses, and the need for a national climate policy.

All told, insurance companies experienced $44 billion in losses due to weather disasters in 2011. According to Swiss Re, a global reinsurer, the average weather-related insurance industry loss in the U.S. was about $3 billion a year in the 1980s, compared with approximately $20 billion annually by the end of the past decade.

Like most things, these costs eventually get picked up by taxpayers. As the risk of covering severe weather losses has increased, an increasing share of the burden is being picked up by government, according to Mindy Lubber, the president of Ceres, a coalition of investors and public interest organizations working with companies to address climate change. Writing in The Huffington Post, Lubber noted the National Flood Insurance Program is the second-largest fiscal liability of the U.S. government, with $1.2 trillion of commercial and residential assets on its books. "Government exposure -- taxpayer exposure -- is staggering," she wrote.

It used to be that the potential dangers of global warming were seen as an issue for the leaders of future decades to deal with. But data show the damage is happening in real time. The only thing we're pushing off now is the will to address the economic costs of this damage. How many more records need to be set before the U.S. takes the threat of climate change seriously and acts to do something about it?

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