Cloudy With A Chance Of Chaos  

Posted by Big Gav

Fortune has a global warming warning for the business community.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 opened insurers' eyes to a catastrophic risk that they had been assuming for free. Their reaction provided a foretaste of how the global market might react to abrupt climate change. Following 9/11, insurers stopped writing policies that automatically included coverage of terrorist attacks. A number of major construction projects had to halt because banks would not finance them without terrorism coverage. Ultimately Congress passed and President Bush signed a law shifting responsibility for $100 billion in damage from future terrorist attacks to the U.S. government, and the construction projects got rolling again.

As climate change starts inflicting losses, insurers will again pull back, shifting financial risk to businesses and homeowners, the banks that finance them--and finally to taxpayers. In Florida, huge increases (up to 40%) in insurance rates are already making it harder for people to sell homes, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

More than 1,000 miles from New Orleans, in Cape Cod, Mass., a far-flung echo of Katrina has been the 20% rise in reinsurance costs (reinsurers are financial institutions that backstop insurance companies). The increase prompted Hingham Mutual Group, a property and casualty insurer, to drop coverage for 6,500 commercial properties. Customers left in the lurch have a fallback in FAIR (short for Fair Access to Insurance Requirements), a program mandated by various states and run by insurers. But Massachusetts's FAIR plan recently requested big rate increases, arguing that past weather patterns may no longer be a guide to estimating future climate risks. That rationale was "unprecedented," a team of industry experts noted in a report entitled "Availability and Affordability of Insurance Under Climate Change"; it's a vivid example of how insurance has difficulty adapting to changing climate.

For insurers the hazards of climate change become more concrete each year. Andrew Dlugolecki, a risk analyst at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in Britain, recently estimated that if climate gradually warms, the chances of the industry getting wiped out by weather-related catastrophes will rise from about one in 100 worldwide today to nine in 100 by 2050. A ninefold increase in the risk of collapse places a heavy burden on insurers, but the risks may be far greater than that. Asked in 2003 how climate change that's abrupt and chaotic might affect those odds, Dlugolecki speculated that the risk of catastrophic weather-related losses rises to about nine chances in 100 by as early as 2010. To insure a property or business affected by that degree of risk, a carrier would have to charge annual rates as high as 12% of insured value--most businesses and individuals start self-insuring (industry-speak for dropping their coverage and taking their chances) when premiums reach 3% of value.

Already the pain of weather-related insurance risks is being felt by owners of highly vulnerable properties such as offshore oil platforms, for which some rates have risen 400% in one year. That may be an omen for many businesses. Three years ago John Dutton, dean emeritus of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, estimated that $2.7 trillion of the $10-trillion-a-year U.S. economy is susceptible to weather-related loss of revenue, implying that an enormous number of companies have off-balance-sheet risks related to weather--even without the cataclysms a flickering climate might bring.

Corporate leaders could soon feel the heat too. In 2004, Swiss Reinsurance, a $29 billion financial giant, sent a questionnaire to companies that had purchased its directors-and-officers coverage, inquiring about their corporate strategies for dealing with climate change regulations. D&O insurance, as it is called, insulates executives and board members from the costs of lawsuits resulting from their companies' actions; Swiss Re is a major player in D&O reinsurance.

What Swiss Re is after, says Christopher Walker, who heads its Greenhouse Gas Risk Solutions unit, is reassurance that customers will not make themselves vulnerable to global-warming-related lawsuits. He cites as an example Exxon Mobil: The oil giant, which accounts for roughly 1% of global carbon emissions, has lobbied aggressively against efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. If Swiss Re judges that a company is exposing itself to lawsuits, says Walker, "we might then go to them and say, 'Since you don't think climate change is a problem, and you're betting your stockholders' assets on that, we're sure you won't mind if we exclude climate-related lawsuits and penalties from your D&O insurance.' "

WorldChanging has a post on James Lovelock's prediction of unavoidable climate doom and Bruce's caustic response in his latest Viridian note - which Jamais uses as the springboard for a rare rant - in this case against apocaphilia and apocaphiliacs.
James Lovelock's recent essay in the Independent has prompted abundant discussion across the sustainable blogosphere, including here at WorldChanging, with Alan's recent post on Mega-Engineering. It's a dark and intentionally depressing vision of widespread famine, ecological crashes and conflict -- all driven by human-caused global warming. Lovelock, who claims to be an optimist on most issues, simply cannot see a way for humankind to avoid utter ruin.

The commentaries and discussions arising from the Lovelock essay have been wide-ranging, but the one that stands out for me is Bruce Sterling's most recent Viridian Note, wherein he tears apart Lovelock in a caustic and merciless fashion. This is Bruce with poisoned daggers drawn, and unlike some of Lovelock's critics, he doesn't pay lip service to Lovelock's past influence.

As much as the Gaia concept helped to spur the consideration of the planet as a system of systems, I must admit to a great deal of sympathy for Bruce's take. Lovelock was once a highly-regarded environmental scientist, but little of that shows in this essay. Instead, he joins the list of apocaphiles, strenuously denying that humans can do anything else but wallow in their own filth and destroy the planet (or, as he describes it, put Gaia into a "morbid fever" for 100,000 years). He expresses great dismay that we've come to this state, but offers neither solutions nor solace, choosing instead to detail some of the awful ways that billions of us will die.

I really dislike apocaphilia.

Apocaphiles tell us that our fate is pre-determined, and that any attempt to avoid it is doomed to failure. They're not simply defeatist, they're positively offended by any suggestion that we might figure out a way to avoid disaster.


I dislike apocaphilia because I believe that deeds can make a difference.

I also dislike apocaphilia because it presumes to predict the future. The truth is, we simply cannot know if we are, in fact, doomed. We may be -- but there's a damn good chance that we aren't, at least if we make an effort to change global conditions. And that, ultimately, is what makes me so irritated at doomsayers: the denial of our ability to make a difference. Tell people over and over that there's nothing that they can do, and eventually they'll start to believe you, making the negative outcome inevitable. I would much rather try to change things for the better and fail than to lie back and just let the world collapse around me.

Lovelock tells us that billions of us will die, that it's too late to stop the end of the world. I say that such an outcome is a choice, one that we need not make.

On the topic of apocaphiliacs, James Kunstler's latest diary is quite well done, even if it is, unsurprisingly, rather depressing. Has the US north east really deteriorated as much as he says or is this just a very negative view of the region ? Comments from any readers from up that way are welcome.
It would be hard to imagine a sadder landscape than these rural backwaters along the New York / Vermont border. Geographically they are still beautiful. It's a region of tender hills, well-wooded now, and ribboned with trout streams. It's the human furnishings that are desolate and what they say about what we have become as a nation. This was a farming region of course, and the re-growth of the woods is a symptom of farming's decline the past fifty years.

Dairying was the big thing through the first three-quarters of the 20th century. But regional milk production became irrelevant during the decades of cheap oil, when New Yorkers could just as easily get milk and cheese from Wisconsin or California. So now only a few relic farms still operate.

Every building in the landscape related to farming is now decrepit. Siding and shingles have peeled off the barns. The sills are rotting and the ridgeboards sag. The tractor sheds are too far gone to keep tractors in, so the machines sit out in the rain now. The older houses -- many of them dating from the Greek Revival of the 1850s -- are subject to indignities beyond simple neglect. Many are partially cocooned in plastic, because fixing the wooden parts was too expensive, or just too difficult for people whose skills are now limited to operating cars, televisions, and forklifts. The yards are littered with plastic debris: tricycles, hoses, and patio chairs disintegrating under the daily ultraviolet -- and you could see it all because a week of January temperatures into the 50s melted all the snow cover off.

You can track the decades of overgrowth in the pastures: sumac and poplar in the early going, then regular trees. In many places, stone walls from the 19th century run along the roads in woods that were sheep meadows a hundred and fifty years ago. You have to wonder how long all that wood will be there now, with heating bills up 50 percent this year and no relief in sight.

Indeed, I wonder if the remnant of people living here will have any idea what to do with their land, when the forklift jobs in the Target Store regional warehouse thirty-eight miles away are no longer there. I'd like to suppose that even people unaccustomed to challenges can be resilient and resourceful when they simply have to be. But if the televisions stay on, they may just choose to die in front of them.

The towns along way -- Salem, Granville, Fair Haven -- may be even sadder than the farms. All civic vitality seems to have been drained out of them by a persistent wasting disease. Little of any value has been built in decades, and certainly nothing with any beauty. Here and there gas stations bloated into snack marts vie for supremacy of the highway intersections, but the little downtowns with their vacant storefronts echo with loss and grief.

Everything fixed has been fixed badly. The houses are encased in plastic siding, grimy with years of tailpipe emissions. Here and there a screw falls out of a sofit and a dangling plastic panel flutters in the wind. The town streets are empty. The windows are broken in the small factories along the trout streams. Only the county highways that turn into the Main Streets show any signs of life, and that, of course, is the life of the highway itself, the endless cavalcade of motoring. Cars and trucks are the sole investments made here.

I traverse this landscape goggling at the sights in wonder and nausea. This part of America has become something worse than a former Soviet backwater, something sadder. In these places, we have managed to overcome even the hard-won fruits of enterprise achieved by the independent people who preceded those alive now. Everything they wrested from the land has been thrown away, or allowed to rot in place -- so that more attention can be paid to televised entertainments.

RealClimate takes a look at the record Amazon drought and investigates if it was caused by warm seas.
On December 11, 2005, The New York Times ran a story on record drought conditions in the Amazonas region of Brasil, linking it to global warming, and specifically the warm ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic that have also been linked to the ferocity of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. This prompted a response from Chris Mooney, calling for a comment from RealClimate about whether such an assertion is valid, as we earlier made it very clear that it is impossible to say whether one single extreme event in a very noisy environment - such as Hurricane Katrina - is related to climate change. So we decided to take a look at this phenomena, and address why there might be a connection and what it takes to make an attribution.

WorldChanging has a post on the recent story that plants produce methane, which prompted a small storm of wingnut nonsense about trees being responsible for global warming - as this effect is very small in the scheme of things, and has been going on forever, htey point out we shouldn't blame the plants.
A few days ago, a report in Nature from the Max Planck Institute suggested that plants may be responsible for quite a bit more methane than previously believed (methane is, as we know, 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but isn't nearly as abundant in the atmosphere). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this report exploded across the newsosphere, usually with headlines suggesting that plants were responsible for global warming, that planting trees to mitigate atmospheric CO2 just made things worse, and otherwise striking an odd balance of "we're doomed" and "it's not our fault!"


The press release includes a brief paragraph explaining in more detail how the estimates were calculated; the amount of methane (CH4) emitted by plants is a tiny fraction of the amount of CO2 captured in the same time frame -- no more than 2g of CH4 for every kilogram of CO2. The greater greenhouse characteristics of methane make the effect of that small amount of methane disproportionately large, but (as quoted above) the overall reduction in carbon uptake is 1-4%.

In short, don't worry. Planting trees for carbon sequestration is still a good idea -- you should just plan to plant 1-4% more of them now.

TreeHugger has a report on the producers of Syriana making it "Climate Neutral".
Syriana, the geopolitical oil flick from Participant Productions starring George Clooney, (for which he just won a Golden Globe -- congrats, George!) has announced that the film has gone "climate neutral." Accomplished by offsetting 100% of carbon dioxide emissions generated by its production, an estimated 2,040 tons have been offset through investments made in renewable energy.

TH pal NativeEnergy helped the film's producers calculate all carbon dioxide emissions from all of Syriana's production activities, including filming, air travel, rental car and truck emissions, hotel energy use, diesel generators used on location, office and warehouse energy use, and emissions from shipping, and then purchased renewable energy credits from renewable energy projects to achieve neutrality.

And to close, a clip from Wired - South Korea seems to be well on the way to introducing Robocop onto their streets. I wonder when he will arrive everywhere else...
The South Korean government has robot fever, and they're about to unleash a whole army -- literally -- of the mechanized creatures on their public. According to The Korea Times, the country will see the rollout of police and military robots within the next five years, thanks to a newly approved $33.9 million spending appropriation. Patrol bots will guard the streets at night, and even chase criminals, while horse-shaped combat bots will augment the country's fighting force. In both cases, the bots will communicate via Korea's vast mobile network.


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