Why is the Insurance Industry So Eerily Quiet on Climate Risk?

If there's one industry that ought to be concerned about the threat of global warming, it's the insurance industry. OK, the ski industry, too, but I digress.

Dave Jones, California's insurance commissioner, recently put it this way: "Climate change is an obvious physical threat to us all, but increasingly it also poses a serious financial threat to the insurance industry…" When extreme weather causes damage, insurers pay.

So you'd expect insurance companies to be among the most forceful voices in corporate America calling for the regulation greenhouse gas emissions.

Uh, no. They've been eerily quiet.

And, at the least, you'd expect them to be proudly steering some of their massive investments to clean energy or energy efficiency projects aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Wrong again.

"It's surprising, in a sense, because they have so much to lose from climate change," says Sharlene Leurig, senior manager of the insurance program at Ceres, a nonprofit coalition of investor and environmental groups. But, she notes, insurance is a conservative business. The industry is all about risk, but it doesn't want to take the risk of speaking out on climate change.

This is the second of two blogposts about the insurance industry and climate. Yesterday, I blogged about federal and state-backed programs that are insure risky properties from flood and storm damage, creating potential liabilities for all of us. Today, I'll ask why U.S. insurers -- in stark contrast to the big European reinsurance companies -- have been missing in action during the Washington climate wars.

Consider: The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of big companies and environmental groups calling for a cap on carbon emissions, includes 21 companies -- seven utility companies, industrial giants GE and Siemens, chemical firms Dow and DuPont, Alcoa, Shell, Rio Tinto, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo and not a single insurer since the departure of AIG (for reasons unrelated to climate).

Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or BICEP (which is a project of Ceres), another coalition pushing hard for policies to drive a low-carbon economy, includes Nike, Starbucks, Timberland, eBay, Gap, Avon and the Aspen/Snowmass, among others. No insurers.

Now…this isn't to suggest that insurers have been entirely absent from the climate debate but mostly they've focused on their parochial interests. Some companies, for example, have asked the federal government to provide wind as well as water coverage in the event of hurricane damage. Others proposed want the federal government to offer reinsurance -- that's insurance for insurance companies -- to protect against a major catastrophe, or "mega-cat" in industry argot. Fireman's Fund, a unit of the German financial services firm Allianz, has been writing "green insurance" policies for building owners. (See my blogpost, Fireman's Fund: an insuror that isn't dull.)