If you doubt the scientists, what about the actuaries?

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Sunday, 8 February 2015 18:30 by Ken Wolff

There’s an old adage that if you want to know who will win an election follow the bookmakers’ odds or where the punters are putting their money rather than the polls (particularly when the polls are close). Something similar could be said of climate change. For Mr Abbott and others like him who remain sceptical of the science, they should instead follow the risk assessment of the actuaries as they advise the insurance and reinsurance industry and the investment banks.

The actuaries do not concern themselves directly with the science but with evaluating the risk and the costs that arise from it. As the actuaries put it:

Our role as actuaries is to help optimise decisions. We don’t seek to prove or disprove the estimates made by the experts but we need to understand what they are saying.

Australian actuaries have been at the forefront in taking environmental factors, including climate change, into account, establishing a committee in 1998 to examine environmental and energy issues as they affect their profession. In January 2012 Australian actuaries played a significant role at the ‘Climate Change Summit for Asia’s Insurance Industry’ in Singapore. American actuaries were slower to react (their first climate committee appeared in 2005) but are now developing an Actuaries Climate Change Index and an Actuaries Climate Risk Index, initially for North America, that cover a range of factors, including obvious ones like temperature and precipitation and lesser known factors like soil moisture.

Munich Re, a major reinsurance company, issued details in 2011 [page 11 of link] showing that the number of weather-related catastrophes between 1950 and 2010 was on an upward trend (and weather-related events accounted for about 85 per cent of insurance claims). There was a sequence of bad years between 1986 and 1999, with a peak of 14 catastrophic weather events in 1993. The years 2004, 2005 and 2007 also had an above average number of major weather events. Although it seemed slightly quieter from 2008 to 2010, 2011 became the costliest year on record (but not just from weather events) for the global insurance industry following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Christchurch earthquake and hurricane Irene in the US — total insurance losses for the year of $105 billion out of total economic losses from natural disasters of $380 billion. (To give those figures a context, the Australian government’s total revenue in 2010‒11 was $283 billion.)

A similar upward trend is apparent in plotting natural disasters in Australia.

The cost to the insurers and reinsurers of such events varies, depending where they occur. Some have argued that the increase in insurance pay-outs is attributable mainly to social and demographic changes, such as the growth of coastal cities and rising property values. That can be seen in the Sydney hail storm of 1999 or more recently the hail storm in Brisbane at the end of November: the Sydney event remains one of the most expensive for the insurance industry in Australian history at $1.7 billion, while the current cost of the Brisbane event is slightly over $800 million. (The most expensive event to date was the 2010 Queensland floods at $2.3 billion.) For the actuaries this is not an issue, in the sense that it is a given that must be taken into account, but it does concern them that, in the various climate change scenarios, catastrophic events may occur more often in major urban areas and that cyclones may move further south, bringing them within range of Queensland’s heavily populated and built-up south-east corner.

IAG in Australia is now utilising climate science figures that suggest that a 1°C increase in mean summer temperature will increase the risk of bushfires by 17 to 28 per cent; an increase of 2.2°C will cause a 5 to 10 per cent increase in cyclone wind speeds; that a 25 per cent increase in the volume of rain over short periods will mean that what is currently viewed as a one-in-100 year flood could become a one-in-36 year flood or, at worst, a one-in-17 year event.

The actuaries are also concerned that small changes created by climate change will not cause a proportional increase in damage (and insurance costs) but an exponential increase: for example, a 25 percent increase in a storm’s peak wind gusts from 40‒50 knots to 50‒60 knots does not produce a 25 per cent increase in damage but a 650 per cent increase. (For those who are metrically minded that is an increase from 74‒93km/h to 93‒111km/h.) It means our current housing stock is not well-suited to such an increase in the intensity of storms and that poses major challenges for insurance companies.

Terms like 1-in-100 year and 1-in-200 year will become meaningless as events of that magnitude occur on a more regular basis. In the UK [page 21 of link], it has been estimated that the insurance industry would require additional capital of £1 billion to cover 1-in-200 year flood events if there is a temperature rise of 2°C but £5.5 billion if there is a 6°C rise in temperature (the upper end of IPCC forecasts). To cover costs, it was also estimated that insurance pricing in the UK would need to increase by 16% for a 2°C rise and 47% for a 6°C rise. Those figures illustrate how the actuaries are examining the risk posed by both the high and low range climate change forecasts.

Insurance companies and their actuaries are not concerned merely by the local risks from climate change. The linkages between insurance companies created by reinsurance mechanisms means that they can each be affected by catastrophes anywhere on the globe. For example, the price to insurance companies of reinsurance almost doubled after cyclone Andrew in the US in 1992 (because that one event accounted for about 40 per cent of the then globally available capital for reinsurance) and it was three years before the price began to decline again.

The associated danger is that the cost of insurance becomes too expensive. More and more individuals may not take out insurance to cover their assets. In 2002, $1,500 billion of Australia’s wealth was locked up in homes, commercial buildings, ports and other physical assets. IAG’s Chief Risk Officer has stated:

The insurance industry currently underwrites the risk to the bulk of these assets from weather events but climate change threatens its ability to do so as effectively in the future. Therefore the affect to Australia from climate change is quickly becoming a social, economic and political issue.

The worst case scenario is that insurance companies themselves fail from the increasing insurance ‘losses’ and the rising cost of reinsurance, leaving people and businesses with no market mechanism to protect assets. In economic terms, ‘insurance’ is a means of spreading risk but if premiums become too expensive or insurance companies fail, the government will become the ‘insurer’ of last resort, as the main body able to spread and absorb the risk — but at what cost to taxpayers?

There is already some talk of greater government involvement. Following the 2010 Queensland floods the then Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten announced the Australian National Disaster Insurance Review. The Review’s final report included recommendations for:

    • the creation of a government agency* to manage national coordination of flood risk management and to operate a system of premium discounts and a flood risk reinsurance facility
    • all home insurance policies to include flood cover
    • a system of premium discounts in order that most purchasers of policies in areas subject to flood risk are eligible for discounts against the full cost of flood insurance
    • a government guarantee for claim payments
(* A similar body had been created by the Howard government after the ‘twin towers’ terrorist attack to provide a government guarantee as regards terrorism insurance.)

The government response to most of the recommendations was, however, that it would ‘consider’ them as part of a broader consideration of disaster insurance changes, following a consultation process in 2012. Apart from action on the definition of what constitutes a ‘flood’, I am not aware of other government steps on this issue. One aspect that appears to have held up government action is that many insurance companies continue to operate on neo-liberal market principles and oppose government involvement:

In July 2011 Lloyd’s made it clear to the Review that government intervention in private insurance markets should be kept to a minimum and warned that the creation of insurance programmes or pools limits the effectiveness of the insurance industry, can be hugely costly for governments and hampers the application of sound actuarial and risk-based principles.

It is almost inevitable that in future years (despite Lloyd’s current approach), there will be more discussion of the government’s role in insurance. If the actuaries’ figures are borne out, the cost of insurance could become prohibitive either for the individual or for the insurance companies, or both. Alternately, governments have to be active now in taking measures to adapt to and mitigate climate change that will help contain future costs.

Actuaries are already speaking of the need for adaptation and mitigation. A simple example is ensuring that buildings in cyclone-prone areas are built to cyclone standards. Here in Australia, the actuaries are using the evidence that recent cyclone damage has been greatest to dwellings that were not built to such standards or, in some cases, where such standards were not enforced during construction. Taking action now may help avoid the high range climate change scenarios and the associated higher costs: not only insurance costs, but the construction costs of more stringent cyclone standards to cope with higher cyclonic wind speeds. The draconian alternative is abandoning some of the towns and cities that are subject to cyclones.

IAG has suggested that insurance companies can drive public awareness programs that identify vulnerable areas, can lobby governments to change or enforce building codes, and, in relation to emissions, can offer lower vehicle insurance premiums for those driving fewer kilometres. Insurance companies are also funding research to more clearly identify the risks they face. IAG is funding research into the development of hail storms over Sydney: warmer waters appear one contributing factor, so the risk is, if oceans warm as predicted, that those events will become more frequent.

Despite the need for adaptation and mitigation, last December we saw Queensland minister Jeff Seeney order the Moreton Bay Regional Council to remove from its regional plan reference to a climate change-derived sea level rise of 0.8 metres by 2100. The Local Government Association of Queensland feared that Seeney may enforce that for all coastal councils in Queensland and was seeking legal advice. The concern is that councils may be legally liable, like tobacco and asbestos companies, if it is shown that they knew of the risk but failed to act.

Seeney claimed he intervened ‘to ensure the residents’ rights to build and develop their properties were maintained and not restricted by their local council’. That relates to issues I discussed last year on TPS regarding the Right’s view of individual freedom and individual self-interest. And it manages to ignore completely the growing concern of the insurance industry and its actuaries.

The actuaries are also discussing the risk related to the market value of companies holding carbon (fossil fuel) assets. The argument goes like this:

    • to limit global temperature rise to 2°C we have a ‘carbon budget’ of 886 gigatonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2050
    • in the first ten years of the century we have used 321 gigatonnes of that budget, leaving 565 gigatonnes
    • but known global reserves of carbon fuels would produce 2,795 gigatonnes of CO2
    • top listed companies represent around 25 per cent of those reserves
    • so what happens to the companies’ value if only 20 per cent of carbon fuel reserves can be used?
In economic terminology, these would become ‘stranded assets’ — assets that can no longer be used. That has implications for companies and the share markets. Insurance companies are particularly concerned because they rely on investments to help build their funds, so they need to reduce such risk in their investment portfolios. Actuaries who provide advice in those areas are starting to factor such considerations into their advice.

Insurance companies are recognising that a risk from climate change already exists and, whether convinced by the science or not, are asking their actuaries to assess that risk. They are acting on the precautionary principle — expressed this way by a Swedish insurance company:

Climate change has been a hot topic for a long time now. Global warming is probably contributing to many of the changes in our weather. Whatever the reason, the conclusion is that we have to respond to the situation more effectively. [emphasis added]

It’s a shame that we can’t say the same of our government, although it is likely that the government will be the one left to pick up the tab if the insurance companies can no longer meet the cost of weather events arising from climate change. Someone should ask Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey what sort of debt and deficit disaster that will create for future generations.

What do you think?

About Ken Wolff

This week Ken takes a different look at climate change and suggests that Tony Abbott, and other climate science sceptics like him, should instead consider the risk assessment of the actuaries. The government may be taking no notice of climate change but the insurance industry certainly is.

Next week we start a series of articles on financial matters, starting with another piece by Ken, 'Abbott continues to tell porkies', which examines the detail of the so-called budget deficit disaster and asks why Abbott and Hockey did not also consider other tax changes, particularly regarding 'tax expenditures'. It will be followed by 2353 examining the issue of tax reform and why it is so difficult.