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Flooded With Proof, Insurance Industry Turns Climate Change Realist

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 15, 2011 5:15:00 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Quick: Name the industry that has the most to lose from climate change.

Reuters would argue it’s the insurance industry, as they did in their February 9th article “Extreme Weather Batters The Insurance Industry.” But the “industry” doesn’t just mean insurance companies. It’s any insurer—even the US government.

3831529284_f7d22b2e1a The government entered the insurance market after a catastrophic weather event in 1965, when  “Billion Dollar Betsy” took 75 lives and a billion dollars worth of property—the most in any natural disaster up to that point. Insurance companies raised their property rates to compensate for future weather risks that had thus far been unimaginable. Consumers howled. Congress responded with the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), offering affordable insurance.

Everyone loved blaming the insurance companies for not providing “affordable” insurance. But what they did was what they’re paid to do: set rates based on risks. They asked people who build or buy or rent in places that are at high risk for damage from floods to pay more, which was the only way insurers could protect the reserves they hold for future catastrophes.

But it was 1965 and US leaders did not realize that weather might be becoming more extreme. They figured insurance companies were being predatory. And so NFIP was established to provide government insurance.

This fund was contingent on risk mitigation measures managed by the local communities. But most of these measures were never implemented.

Because NFIP has charged below-market rates for 58505149_6bfb70a1af40 years, they were left with woefully inadequate reserves from which to pay losses. After Katrina and other hurricanes, NFIP is now faced with a staggering $19 billion deficit.

The craziest thing is that, because below-market flood insurance is available, builders can continue to build on floodplains because they bear no risk. If a flood damages their property, the NFIP will make them whole. Think of the houses and apartments on the water in Florida and along the Mississippi River. Some have been destroyed and rebuilt six times, all courtesy of NFIP and the U.S. taxpayer. Mortgage lenders exacerbate the trend, requiring NFIP insurance on any property in a flood zone.

Worst of all are the environmental costs. As the NYU Institute for Policy Integrity reports in "Flooding the Market", “The financial costs of the NFIP are considerable, but they are likely dwarfed by the ecological damages that the program encourages. Floodplains are located near waterways and in coastal zones. These areas tend to be both ecologically significant and sensitive, and they contribute substantial ecosystem services.”

Now, some insurers, especially those that are European-based, not only accept climate change but also incorporate it into their risk assessment and pricing. And this is not new: in the 1980s, when Americans who believed in saving the environment were sometimes called “kooks” and “tree-huggers,” the staid business of US property insurers started charging companies for potential environmental hazards in anticipation of EPA fines and consumer lawsuits, effectively putting a price on environmental degradation.

So how do we get developers to stop building on floodplains? And what happens now with flood insurance? Insurers have formed a group called SmarterSafer, which includes environmental groups, taxpayer advocates, emergency management organizations, insurance companies and others. SmarterSafer is demanding that Congress, as it struggles to fix NFIP, undertake reforms like creating better maps of floodplains, using risk-based pricing of insurance premiums in all cases, tightening building regulations for these floodplains and enforcing the laws. They also want subsidies for disadvantaged homeowners to be made explicit and separated from the cost of insurance, focusing funding on helping the poor rather than vacation home developers. A congressional hearing is scheduled for March 9 to decide on a five-year reauthorization for NFIP that would split subsidies from insurance.

What is depressing, but not surprising, is that many of the insurers behind SmarterSafer — Allianz, SwissRe, Zurich — are European re-insurers, which were barred from participating in NFIP by virtue of being re-insurers. And of course, these companies are at the top of CSRHUB’s insurance industry rating — see the insurance industry list here. The SaferSmarter coalition has a few US companies—Chubb, Liberty Mutual and USAA—but they aren’t rated as highly. Maybe they’ve just got some catching up to do.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

Photos Inset: Creative Commons courtesy of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and News Muse, respectively.

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in climate change, CSR, EPA, flood insurance, Flooding the Market, Zurich, New Orleans, SwissRe, Uncategorized, USAA, insurance industry, Liberty Mutual, NFIP, NYU Institute for Policy Integrity, Reuters, National Flood Insurance Program, SmarterSafer, US Government, Allianz, Billion Dollar Betsy, Carol Pierson Holding, Chubb, corporate responsibility, CSRHub, disaster insurance, Hurricane Katrina

When Orcas Are Shareholders

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 24, 2011 9:11:23 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

Merging Environmentalism & Business Process


By Carol Pierson Holding


This month, the Orca Whale was added to the constituencies fighting for the West Coast’s beloved but increasingly degraded Chinook Salmon population. This after 60 people spent 4 years developing a plan to protect the Chinook in Puget Sound. The compelling goal, “to lead the region toward a legacy of healthy, harvestable salmon and improved water quality for future generations,” brought together citizens and scientists; community, business, and environmental groups; and local elected officials and public agency staff. And, just two months ago, their science-based plan was ratified by 24 local governments.                               

Now the plan must be re-formulated.

It turns out that the Orca, an endangered species itself, requires enormous quantities of Chinook salmon to survive. Far more than previously estimated when the agreements were conceived. NOAA  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has asked Washington state and Indian tribes that fish in the area to submit a two-year plan for insuring that the endangered whales have enough salmon to sustain themselves.

The backlash has already started. "You can't bring back Orcas just on the backs of fishermen," Joel Kawahara, who fishes commercially in Washington and Alaska, told UPI. "What about improving habitat? What about the effects of the dams on the Columbia River?" The constituents who worked so long and so hard might have to come together again to deal with NOAA’s new requirements.

What strikes me about this issue is that, by injecting a new environmental parameter, the Orcas are adding the pressure needed for a true breakthrough— a new paradigm modeled on environmental processes rather than capitalist structure. Think of the progress we’ve made in less than 25 years to balance the needs of man and nature. First, US business, with the help and prodding of the insurance industry, figured out how to integrate environmental risk into business projections. This was the first successful monetization of the cost of bad behavior toward the environment, but it relied completely on the capitalist model, on boiling everything to down to its economic value.

Then business learned to negotiate with opposing groups, even radical activists like Greenpeace, and still make a profit. To the monetary value of good environmental practices was added the value of relationships, which both diffuse activists and protect or even grow brand loyalty with those customers who are environmentalists themselves.

Now the Orca in Puget Sound add another twist: environmental preservation requires not just a broad cross-sector effort but also an on-going effort. Because the physical world is so interdependent and always changing, an environmental agreement or “fix” is never permanent. Instead business must create structures for a permanent relationship with nature, just as it has with human impediments; structures that insure constant interaction.

So how does the concerned citizen/consumer/investor judge which companies are most prepared to manage the on-going environmental challenge? The attributes measured by CSRHUB are the best way to look at a company’s current behavior. But for those looking to predict the future, it may be most useful to look for evidence of organizational structures for on-going collective action on the environment.

Look for companies that have teams in place for permanent environmental interaction, councils on which senior executives participate led by skilled negotiators. Once common, these councils are disappearing as the economic malaise continues. Use your consumer and investor power to force companies to fund these councils. They establish the importance of relationships — with humans and nature — to succeeding in business. And we save the whales too.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Alaska, CSR, fisheries, fishing, NOAA, preservation, Puget Sound, Uncategorized, UPI, Washington, insurance industry, Orca Whale, Orcinus Orca, sustainability, Joel Kawahara, business, Carol Pierson Holding, Chinook Salmon, corporate responsibility, CSRHub, environment, environmental, Greenpeace, Killer Whale

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