Poll pinpoints public’s climate fears

Poll pinpoints public’s climate fears

High public anxiety about the effects of climate change features prominently in a multinational insurance group’s global survey – with 84% of people polled saying they expect more natural disasters in future

LONDON, 5 September - A worldwide survey commissioned by the multinational insurance group Swiss Re to assess public attitudes towards risk has shown that climate change is ranked high on the list of people’s concerns.

The survey, conducted on behalf of Swiss Re by the Gallup polling organisation, involved 22,000 people aged 15 and above across five continents. People were asked what concerns them most − whether it’s the economy, ageing, climate change, natural disasters, energy issues or questions about food supplies.

While almost all respondents expressed fears about the economic future in their countries, concern about climate change and natural disasters was also widespread, with 84% of respondents anticipating climate change being responsible for more natural disasters in the future.

Feel threatened

Swiss Re says a majority of respondents also said they feel threatened by the risk that climate change poses to their communities. Most said they would be willing to shoulder some of the financial burden of dealing with future risks, but felt that governments should do more to meet the challenges of climate change.

The policy of governments does not fully address the risks faced today and by future generations, respondents said. In particular, more than 90% of those surveyed want to see governments doing more to ensure more efficient energy use.

“These findings show that individuals are willing to take as much responsibility as their leaders,” says David Cole, Chief Risk Officer at Swiss Re, which commissioned the survey to mark the company’s 150th anniversary.

“The findings are a call for better co-operation between government and the private sector. It’s vital to prepare systematically for the future and make societies more resilient. That’s where Swiss Re also plays a key role with its risk expertise.”

Large insurance companies such as Swiss Re are deeply involved in assessing the economic costs associated with changes in climate, insuring against a wide range of climate-related events that include flooding, storm damage, drought, and crop failure.

Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Caribbean region and the east coast of the US in October last year, is estimated to have caused $19bn worth of damage in New York City alone.

The US accounts for a large slice of the world’s insurance market. Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance group, estimates that the cost of Hurricane Sandy, combined with losses incurred by the serious drought in the states of the Midwest in 2012, reached $100bn – a figure representing more than 65% of total worldwide insured losses last year.

Gargantuan sums

With such gargantuan sums involved, it is little wonder that insurance companies – and their shareholders – are acutely aware of the financial risks posed by climate change. Earlier this year,shareholders of insurance companies in parts of the US successfully lobbied for insurers to reveal the extent of their preparedness for events related to climate change.

Later this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due to release the first parts of its latest assessment report. Insurance companies are sure to focus special attention on the IPCC’s likely scenarios for sea level rise – and the estimates of costs involved, particularly to coastal cities.

A recent World Bank study suggested that, by 2050, costs related to flooding brought about by a combination of sea level rise and extremes of heat, windstorms and rain in the world’s coastal cities could rise to $1 trillion per year. Flood damage in just four cities – New Orleans, New York and Miami in the US, and Guangzhou in southern China – would account for nearly half of that sum. – Climate News Network

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Insurers given severe weather warning

Insurers given severe weather warning

The rise in extreme weather events driven by warming of the oceans has led analysts in the global insurance industry to issue a warning that the sector risks being hit by waves of costly claims unless it starts pressurising governments to take action on greenhouse gas emissions

LONDON, June 28 − The global insurance industry’s own analysts warn that it faces potentially serious financial losses unless it plays an active role in urging governments to address climate-change factors such as greenhouse gas emissions.

The Geneva Association, a leading international insurance thinktank that examines trends in the global insurance industry, has published a report this week that identifies “a significant upward trend in the insured losses caused by extreme weather events”.

It warns that changes in climate mean insurance companies have entered a new, highly uncertain era, and must adapt to what it calls a “new normal” in assessing risks and setting pricing policies. Traditional ways of assessing such risks, based solely on analysing historical data, are “increasingly failing”.

The report, Warming of the Oceans and Implications for the (Re)insurance Industry, says the world’s oceans have been warming significantly as the result of rising greenhouse gas emissions − and it is this warming that is the key driver of global extreme events.

Ocean dynamics

“Understanding the changes in ocean dynamics and the complex interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere is the key to understanding current changes in the distribution, frequency and intensity of global extreme events relevant to the insurance industry − such as tropical cyclones, flash floods or extra-tropical storms,” the report says.

The warming of the oceans means an “increased loss potential” for the insurance industry, the report says. It’s uncertain how the risk associated with the warming of the oceans and changes in climate will develop over time, but the report’s authors advocate moving from traditional data-based ways of assessing such risks to what they call predictive risk estimation methods, based on various modelling techniques.

Such forecasting techniques are by no means perfect and can often give rise to  more uncertainties − although this does not mean they are not useful or scientifically sound. “It rather reflects the limits of the scientific understanding and the ability to predict extreme events in a chaotic system,” the report says.

Increased risk

The report’s authors issue a stark warning about insurance-related problems in parts of the world that are seeing increasing levels of risk matched with growing  demands for insurance, and, at the same time, decreasing levels of self-protection. Such areas might be uninsurable, the report says. “Examples for markets with this potential are UK flood or Florida wind storm insurance.”

The only way to make sure such regions remain insurable is immediately to put in place risk-mitigation measures says the report. The insurance industry should distribute high-quality information about risk associated with climate change, and should encourage adaptation through innovative product design.

The report concludes: “These actions, alongside the support of science in tackling the major challenges in projecting the impacts of ocean warming and climate change more generally, will help the insurance industry avoid market failures and increase societal resilience.” – Climate News Network

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Better air quality linked to fiercer storms

Better air quality linked to fiercer storms

British research into storm cycles has found evidence suggesting reduced atmospheric pollution may have had the unexpected side-effect of increasing the ferocity and frequency of hurricanes

LONDON, 23 June − Scientists from Britain’s Meteorological Office have fingered a new suspect in their attempt to solve the mystery of tropical storms. It is, unexpectedly, air quality.

If North Atlantic hurricanes are more destructive or more frequent, it may be linked to lower levels of atmospheric pollution. Conversely, sulphate aerosols and other particles from factory chimneys, vehicle exhausts, domestic fires, power stations and other human economic advances may have played a role in keeping tropical storms under control, at least a little, during the 20th century.

Climate scientist Nick Dunstone and fellow-researchers at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre in Exeter, Devon, report in the Nature Geoscience journal there is at least circumstantial evidence that aerosols play a more significant role in the storm cycle than anyone had expected.

The reason it has been difficult to separate the effect is a simple one: when humans burn fossil fuels, they release greenhouse gases that slowly but inexorably warm the atmosphere, and therefore the oceans. Atmosphere and ocean are together a climate system: put more energy in, and it must go somewhere. The likely consequences, most people have thought, are extremes of wind and rain.

However, for most of the 20th century, humans released greenhouse gases and also all sorts of other waste at the same time: specifically, sulphate aerosols that, as urban smog, darkened buildings, increased the acidity of the falling rain, rotted limestone structures and condemned hundreds of thousands to bronchial illnesses and, ultimately, to early graves.

It didn’t seem possible to separate the effects – at least, not until Britain, western European nations and North America introduced increasingly strict clean air legislation.

Cloud chemistry

This started to give scientists and climate modellers a chance to tease out the different effects of the two pollutants. Aerosols are important absorbers of sunlight, and they are also important in cloud chemistry – water vapour droplets have to condense on something. But important in what way? Do clouds reflect sunlight and cool the region? Or do they build up prodigious quantities of moving water and turn into the frenzies of a tropical storm? Or, overall, do sulphates cool the atmosphere a little and counteract global warming − and, if so, under what conditions?

In fact, because a greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for eight decades, while soot and sulphate aerosols stay in the atmosphere for two weeks at the most, Dunstone and colleagues were able to use historical data to help identify a pattern in storm behaviour.

Greenhouse gas emissions gathered pace in the 20th century, and the gases remained in the atmosphere. But anthropogenic aerosol releases varied.

There was a lot of smog and soot before the first world war, then a fall in emissions. Factory exhausts faltered during the great depression of the 1930s, then built up again, but fell away during the second world war, before returning everywhere – and then falling away yet again as governments and voters began to respond to filthy cities and choking smoke.

Storm records

Using climate simulations, the scientists were able to match storm records and predictions from 1860 to 2050 with recorded and predicted levels of atmospheric pollution, and identify an effect.

Through much of the 20th century, the Nature Geoscience paper suggests, aerosols actually suppressed the hurricane forces by cooling the ocean waters.  It was not possible to match specific storms with a particular level of aerosol pollution, but in general there seemed to be less frequent tropical storms during periods of greater aerosol discharge.

The finding is consistent with other recent research. Smog and other discharges in the northern hemisphere in the mid-20th century were recently linked to the parching of the Sahel and the drying-up of much of Lake Chad, along with a weakening of the Indian monsoon.

However, nobody thinks the question is settled by the Met Office findings. What actually happens in a weather system, and how often, depends on many factors. Temperatures and atmospheric pollution are certainly factors, but they are not the only ones. Dust, transported over the oceans in vast clouds, must also play a role. And humans are not the only source of aerosols: volcanoes unpredictably inject huge quantities to almost stratospheric levels.

The link is only an association: as usual, the answer is provided by climate models. There is no way to conduct a controlled, double-blind experiment with an ocean’s weather. Aerosols are implicated only by association. The researchers conclude: “Our results suggest that further progress might be accelerated by an international effort to narrow the uncertainties in aerosol impacts on climate.” – Climate News Network




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