Climate change wreaking havoc on the insurance industry
It may get increasingly impossible to recover from the damage inflicted by anthropogenic climate change. Insurers have been researching what climate change effects mean for their business, and there is more or less a consensus that pricing in the impact of extreme weather events that are already becoming common will jack up premiums manifold, even as property, health and life in some areas become uninsurable. The Economist reports that Munich Re, a large reinsurer, estimated the losses from global natural disasters in 2018 at $160 billion—with half of that value uninsured. In 2017, thanks to three big hurricanes battering the American coast and the Caribbean islands, the estimated losses totalled $350 billion, of which less than half was insured. But this is only a fraction of what could be in store—a 2013 study published in Nature found that the average annual flood losses for 136 of the world’s largest coastal cities could rise from $6 billion in 2005 to over $1 trillion by 2050—thanks to extreme weather events and the rise in sea level—unless the cities invested about $50 billion annually in climate change adaptation.
Add to the flooding the threat from landslides, hurricanes, drought and crop failure, and insurers are indeed looking at a very bleak risk future. High-vulnerability areas such as coastal cities and cities abutting forests—bear in mind the California and the Greek forests fires of 2018—could see costs of insuring property soar sharply. In 2016, ClimateWise, a coalition of 29 of the world’s biggest insurers on climate risk assessment , had warned that the “protection gap”—the difference between the costs of natural disasters and the amount insured—had quadrupled since the 1980s. The Bank of England had warned, at the time, that climate change could threaten “economic resilience and financial stability” severely. ClimateWise had concluded that the insurance industry needed to use more of its $30 trillion of investments in funding society’s resilience to climate change effects—not an easy path for insurers given the investment many have made in fossil fuel—and must lend its risk management heft to convince private and public sector movers and shakers on the urgent need to act on climate change.
The challenges before the insurance industry from climate change will hit those seeking cover. The 2015 wildfire in Canada’s FortMcMurray hit insurer Aviva Plc hard as it had, for decades, estimated the risk of wildfire in the region as marginal to non-existent. Now that Aviva has ascertained that the wildfire was an example of how the Earth’s warming is impacting the likelihood of a natural disaster happening, it has increased premiums in Canada. But given the predictions over even the short-term are imprecise and the deliberate attempt to cast doubt on the anthropogenic nature of climate change, covering against extreme weather events/disasters is proving incredibly difficult to design. A country like India, where rain-fed agriculture is the mainstay of millions of families, insurance penetration is poor to begin with, and that faces unprecedented threat from climate change, would need to figure out a sound risk-cover strategy. Else, climate change adaptation could prove a gargantuan challenge.