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Activists: Insurance industry’s flight from Heartland a symptom of growing climate change acceptance

By Stephen C. Webster
Tuesday, May 8, 2012 15:53 EDT
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A tree before and after climate change. Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.
 
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The recent flight of insurance companies from leading climate change denial group The Heartland Institute isn’t just due to the group’s offensive Chicago billboard comparing scientists to “Unibomber” Ted Kaczynski. Experts told Raw Story this week that the overt rejection of Heartland’s billboard is more of an exclamation point on the rapidly growing trend of insurance companies owning up to the brutal reality of the world’s worsening weather.

“The insurance industry has in some ways been the quickest to acknowledge and talk about the impacts of global warming, because it directly affects their business,” Daniel Souweine, campaign director for Forecast the Facts, told Raw Story. “They’re the ones who are going to pay for increased damage from extreme weather, flooding, sea level rise, etc. It’s already hitting their bottom line, and potentially hitting their bottom line even harder in the future.”

With a Facebook post on Monday, State Farm became the latest insurance company to withdrawal its funding from Heartland Institute, blaming their move on the group’s decision to launch their billboard. But far from just one more company deciding to withhold its support, State Farm’s decision personifies the increasing acceptance of global climate change and a concerted insurance industry push to adapt their business practices.

State Farm provided Heartland with more than $340,000 over the last few years, according to a fundraising document (PDF) leaked from Heartland earlier this year — a figure that a State Farm spokesperson refused to confirm or deny to Raw Story. They’re just the latest insurer to drop Heartland, however: all the insurance companies fleeing Heartland in recent days gave a combined total of more than $1 million since 2009 to the group’s federal insurance reform efforts, which are actually separate from its climate denial shop.

For companies with outdated business models, climate change poses a major threat to the bottom line because disasters have become greater in number and magnitude, and they’re less predictable. The International Association for the Study of Insurance Economics said in 2009 (PDF) that around the world, hundreds of insurance companies have significantly stepped up efforts to mitigate climate change costs by modernizing their tracking methods and improving incident responses.

“The insurance community has become increasingly accepting of the science and macroeconomic modelling,” the Association’s study noted. “Some still prefer to dismiss the science or take remaining uncertainties as a reason to wait on the sidelines, while others take it as precisely the reason for insurers not to be complacent. Most agree that reducing vulnerability to weather extremes should be a higher priority, but some dispute the need for insurers to engage in addressing the core drivers of climate change or the need to discern the relative roles of human influence and natural factors.”

Those attitudes remain, but to a decreasing extent. Following back-to-back years of record-breaking disaster costs, a growing number of insurers in the U.S. are finally beginning to adapt. After all, if they don’t change now, they risk losing it all.

Sustainable business group Ceres noted in September 2011 that only 11 out of 88 U.S. insurance companies surveyed were implementing climate change policies, but added that 60 percent of the firms were assessing financial risks posed by climate change.

And it’s only natural for these companies to react in such a manner. A Ceres report earlier this year noted that insurers were paying roughly $3 billion a year on average for natural disasters in the 1980s, whereas that annual average hit $20 billion in 2010. Total disaster losses to property and casualty insurers in 2011 were more than double that, at $44 billion, the group added.

“2011 was the most recent year of poor results, but it’s anything but an anomaly,” Cynthia McHale, director of Ceres’ insurance program, told Raw Story. “The industry has the data to look back over 20 or 30 years and see this is part of a long term trend in terms of significantly increased losses due to extreme weather. Putting one and one together, clearly climate change is driving this, and it’s driving their bottom line results.”

Though State Farm did not give Raw Story any specifics, their adjusters and executives know these costs just as well as other insurance industry heavyweights. While the company did formally endorse the Business Roundtable’s statement on climate change in 2007, its withdrawal from Heartland trumps all their previous public overtures toward evolving an appropriate response to climate change.

“State Farm was one of the last [insurance companies to leave Heartland],” Souweine added. “Generally the insurance industry is better on this, they could be a lot stronger. They joined [the Business Roundtable climate statement] in 2007, but they don’t even have their own general statement on climate change. It’s great that they’re pulling out of Heartland, but I don’t think the lesson from that is that they are doing everything they can or being as truthful and clear on climate change as they could be.”

“To me, [leaving Heartland] is really a decision to walk away from the climate deniers and their extreme tactics, which have become so outrageous that it’s offending not only reason but in many ways it turns off policy holders,” McHale concluded. “I think the insurance sector has certainly seen the impact of extreme weather on their financial results, and no longer want to be associated with organizations such as The Heartland Institute, which don’t make sense from a business perspective.”

Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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