Finance: Ahead of the pack on climate change

By Adam Gifford

Photo / Getty
Photo / Getty

At a building research centre in Australia, researchers are firing blocks of ice at roofing tiles and cars. They want to find out which are more susceptible to damage by hailstones.

It's part of the insurance industry's efforts to understand the risks it faces from climate change.

"We can't avoid hailstorms, but we can mitigate their effects," says Bryce Davis, the head of commercial services at IAG.

The results of the hailstone study are being shared with the building industry so more suitable building materials are produced.? If any executives in the insurance industry still wish to deny climate change, many more are only too happy to shift some of their risk from extreme weather events on to them.

"In insurance, we make sure we understand risk as best we can with the science available. It has to be based on fact. It does not matter whether or not you believe there is a man-made factor, climate change is happening so we respond," Davis says.

"One of the important roles insurance plays in the economy is it not only gives people the confidence to invest, we send out signals on risk, where they may emerge and become problematic, where people need to avoid them.

"We have to talk about where these risks are so people can make good decisions. If that means not developing certain areas, we need to do that."

Insurers here and overseas are finding not just that there are more extreme weather
events than in the past, but the damage they do is greater. Some of that is because of low-lying coastal land and river plains has been developed, or users upstream have been allowed to change water patterns.

Davis says Scotland manages such issues with "flags" or flood liaison and advisory
groups which include local stakeholders.

"That has ensured there is no further development of flood plains in Scotland. The result is insurance is a lot more affordable in Scotland than in England."

He says in New Zealand, one in four dwellings in 2040 will have to be built over the next 30 years.

"Are we building in the right place?" IAG has developed a partnership with local government planners in New Zealand to determine the most appropriate flood planning levels for the future, which will feed in to consent conditions and flood mitigation programmes such as the height of levee banks.

According to the Industry Council's latest report, seven of the top 10 insurance loss events worldwide last year were floods or severe weather events, totalling an estimated US$36 billion in losses.

The other three were the Christchurch and Japanese earthquakes.

In New Zealand, floods in Nelson, Hawkes Bay, Bay of Plenty and Northland cost the industry $50 million, and tornadoes in Auckland and Taranaki cost it $7.6 million.

That's small beans compared with Canada, where insurers paid out C$1.7 billion last year for extreme weather events, and $1 billion for each of the two previous years.

Much of Canada lies in the Arctic, where evidence of global warming shows up first -
monitoring stations this spring are detecting more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - the first time in more than 800,000 years the earth has seen such levels.

In New Zealand and Australia, climate change is expected to mean more frequent heatwaves, droughts, fires, floods but also more frequent storms and coastal flooding.

"In insurance, we make sure we understand risk as best we can with the science available"

The numbers:
400 parts per million of carbon dioxide detected in the Arctic atmosphere this spring US$107b insured losses from severe weather events globally in 2011
7.6% insurance as a percentage of world GDP
6% United Nations Environment Programme's Finance Initiative estimate of annual increase in losses from weather events

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