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Insuring a Climate-Ready Future

2012 kicked off with an unusually warm January across most of the US: fifteen states had “much above normal” temperatures, in the top 10% of warmest Januaries on record.

For many folks across the nation, the extreme weather of 2011 still haunts us with vivid images of the havoc wreaked on people’s lives. Today, NRDC is releasing an updated version of our Extreme Weather 2011 map, which now includes the whole year’s worth of extreme weather events.

A total of 3,251 monthly records were broken in 2011, including records for temperature, rainfall and snowfall. This includes a few zingers: the temperature in Truth or Consequences, NM on February 28th hit a scorching 99°F, breaking the prior record of 54°F by a whopping 45 degrees.  In Elizabeth City, NC, the mercury also hit 99°F but on June 23rd, which broke the prior 2010 record temperature of 78°F by 21 degrees. And rainfalls in 2011 were also stunning: on May 29th, El Cajon, CA broke its prior monthly record by 9.22 inches, when nearly 10 inches (9.99”) of rain poured down in one day—but the previous record less than an inch (0.77”). The updated Extreme Weather 2011 map also links back to NRDC’s Climate Change Threatens Health website, where you can zoom in on these and other effects where you live.

These events have impacts that are manifesting in our daily lives. For example, because of the costs of the 2011 events, homeowner’s insurance rates are now rising nationally by up to ten percent in 2012, as reported recently by NPR. A webinar offered earlier this year on 2011’s “Natural Catastrophe Year in Review” by re-insurance giant MunichRe demonstrates the severity and scale of extreme weather events that are affecting the reinsurance industry as well.

The insurance industry isn’t known for being alarmist, but rather, for trying to protect their interests and their investments. Worldwide, the insurance sector does $4.3 trillion worth of business every year. And after the experiences of 2011, the global insurance industry is increasingly and seriously concerned about climate change. Companies like MunichRe insure the insurers, so you could say they’re doubly concerned.

MunichRe maintains the world’s most comprehensive database of natural catastrophes. And according to Munich Re, in 2011, these catastrophes across the world -—everything from earthquakes and tsunamis to hurricanes and floods -— cost the global economy the biggest price tag ever recorded: $380 billion. [Note that in their accounting, there’s no ledger column for pain, suffering, lives destroyed, and health-related costs.]

Americans are bearing the brunt of many of the insurance industry’s list of catastrophes, with $75 billion in losses, of which only about $35 billion were insured. Hurricane Irene cost the country an estimated $10 billion, only half of it covered by insurance. Flooding on the Mississippi River cost $2.6 billion, of which only a small portion was insured.

The most telling webinar slide was one documenting the number and cost of natural disasters in the US. While the count of “geophysical events” —- earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions —- has remained relatively constant in the years since 1980, “climatological” events -- extreme temperature, drought, and forest fires - are steadily climbing and are cutting into their profits.

As Dr. Robert P. Hartwig of the Insurance Information Institute said during the webinar, these extreme weather losses are unsustainable. Because MunichRe’s figures don’t begin to account for the high number of catastrophe-related medical costs, they significantly undercount the even greater cost of these disasters.

NRDC’s recent report took a first-of-its-kind dive into some health-related costs from events projected to worsen with climate change. Take a look at how climate change is affecting health in your backyard here – and what can be done to prepare.

Now is the time to take action to avert climate change’s worst effects on our precious places and people. As NRDC’s executive director Peter Lehner has said, we can spur innovation in clean energy sources like solar, create new jobs, and tackle our addiction to fossil fuels now, or we, and the world’s insurers, will pay an ever-increasing price for our failure to act.

Kim Knowlton

Kim Knowlton is Senior Scientist on NRDC’s Global Warming and Health Project. She works with the Health and Environment Program on communicating the health impacts of global warming, and also on advocating for public health strategies to prepare for and prevent these impacts. Her research has looked at heat- and ozone-related mortality and illnesses as well as possible connections between climate, pollen, allergies and asthma. She received a doctorate in public health from Columbia University, where she was a postdoctoral research scientist before joining NRDC, and where she is currently Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences.

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