Reality check from Swiss Re and UNEP
October 9, 2002 3:02 PM   Subscribe

Reality check from Swiss Re and UNEP "The increasing frequency of severe climatic events...has the potential to stress insurers, reinsurers and banks to the point of impaired viability or even insolvency." "Climate Change and the Financial Services Industry", a UNEP report supported by 295 banks and insurance and investment companies around the world. The report concludes that, worldwide, loses from Climate related disasters are doubling every decade . NOAA generally concurs. Dr. Bob Gagosian, Director of Woods Hole, has even worse news. Should we take the scientific mainstream seriously? Or is it all "Junk Science"according to the industry funded Steve Milloy or the CEI, or even a New Age Pagan Conspiracy? Play on little on.....
posted by troutfishing (15 comments total)
Just when all the flyover state's residents were getting bored....a massive influx from California and the Eastern seaboard due to American safety obsessions.

Still it proves the point that things only get taken seriously when it hits the bottom line...
posted by dash_slot- at 3:08 PM on October 9, 2002

Heres the thing though, we have only been keeping weather data for the past 300 years or so, and the insurance industry can't be more than a couple of hundred years old tops so while it may be true that they have incurred large losses of late it doesn't really prove anything. Weather on earth has been changing since the beginning of time, from the days when molten lava flowed willy nilly to various ice ages things happen and a couple of decades data means nothing in the long term. Weather is far more complex a phenomena than we can currently model but one thing we do know is that the earth has undergone incredible changes in the past and shall continue to do so in the future. All we can do is deal with things as and when they occur. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't give a shit, air quality needs to be kept in check but I think we are fooling ourselves if we think we can predict climate change because every model we've come up with so far has been flawed
posted by zeoslap at 3:37 PM on October 9, 2002

Some report claims that "losses as a result of natural disasters appear to be doubling every decade and have reached $1 trillion in the past 15 years." - first link

Although I do believe that we are indeed destroying our planet, and pretty quickly at that, I think this statistic is misleading. After all, 15 years ago we, as a global community, simply had many fewer dollars invested in everything, including things vulnerable to natural disasters.

That said, I'm glad that the financial community is starting to address this issue. I don't care what anyone tells me to the contrary: money dictates all human behavior.
posted by zekinskia at 3:38 PM on October 9, 2002

I'm with the Nobel Laureates on this one. Of course when this statement was released I found no coverage of it in the US news. Typical.
posted by humbe at 3:39 PM on October 9, 2002

Of course not, humbe. Now go be a good little citizen, and buy another SUV.

In all honesty, I would like to see both tort and insurance reform. First of all, you shouldn't be able to expect insurance settlements when you live on a flood plain that's well below the 100 year mark. Or on a barrier island that gets scrubbed clean every five years due to hurricanes. I'm afraid that the American feeling of entitlement to others money will spread worldwide.
posted by SpecialK at 3:47 PM on October 9, 2002

good points zeoslap, but I think people are using the conclusions of different scientists to further their own causes. The environmentalists jump all over any study that shows global warming/climate changes as an example of the destruction humans are causing. The pro-business right does the same thing by pointing out our lack of a real understanding of weather and how the climate has changed during the earth's history. Both sides can provide scientific evidence by the ton. It is my gut instinct that both things are true - the climate is changing according to it's natural pattern, but human industry is speeding along the process in ways we cannot control and will later regret. The amount of pollution produced by industry is so huge that it seems counter intuitive to believe that pollution isn't a problem. For this reason I tend to side with the environmentalist's perceptions over the industries to which they are opposed. Industry has reason to deny human involvement in climate change: profit. Barring any new age pagan conspiracy, the environmentalists have little to personally gain from creating a cleaner environment (other than insuring the health of their descendents.)
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:49 PM on October 9, 2002

From the beginning of the report UNEP makes assertions like "Climate change is a fact" without any specific figures to back that claim up, and citing "recently issued reports" raises red flags with me. I'd like to at least be able to confirm that is actually what these reports say.

I can believe that the environmental disasters are causing more and more damage every year, because the infrastructure has been growing like mad. I look at all the development even here in Texas in Austin and the Dallas Ft. Worth area, and I see farms worth only the value of the land turn into commercial and residential areas with billions of dollars of development. That's in my relatively stable first world country. The developments in industrializing nations is simply staggering. The connection here seems weak at best.

I'm also concerned when I read anecdotes that seem to indicate dramatic warming of the environment like this:

"If you read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, you will remember that the British were about to set Boston on fire when George Washington was able to bring the cannons of Fort Ticonderoga down from upstate New York in record time. He was able to do it because the ground was frozen solid and they could slide the cannons to the Dorchester hills of Boston in time to persuade the British to retreat from Boston and to change the course of history." (from here)

My father is big into genealogy, and the history of the area where he grew up. He's shown me accounts of what the weather was like in Darke County, Ohio before the land was clear cut for farming. The interesting thing is that when the settlers first arrived it was swampy, and snow didn't stick to the ground. While now there are blizzards and feet of snow every year.

I'll agree that human beings have definitely changed the climate of the planet, but I'm not actually convinced of global warming and their doomsday predictions. I'll agree that pollution is bad and that there are serious health risks, and honestly that's the thing that I think people should be thinking about. Stopping the pollution of our water supplies and air seems like it should be a much higher priority.

That and if we take care of the small scale problems it will surely have a large effect.
posted by betaray at 4:07 PM on October 9, 2002

Actually Elwoodwiles, there is concensus among the scientific community - based on the evidence we think it is a serious problem. In the climate science community I can count on my hands the number of legitimate climate scientists who think climate change is not a problem. And funny, most of these (ie: Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen) recieve funding from the fossil fuel lobby.
posted by humbe at 4:08 PM on October 9, 2002

I'm very interested in what insurance companies think.

Insurance companies have a vested interest in an objective view - it's the only way they can maximise their profits. And insurance companies have a lifetime exceeding that of individual humans, so they take a long view. Insurance companies need really good advice, and they can afford to pay for it.

If insurance companies are concerned, we should all be concerned.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:42 PM on October 9, 2002

Zeoslap - " doesn't really prove anything. Weather on earth has been changing since the beginning of time". I think you have a strange view of science! This view boils down to the claim that - if it isn't within our immediate sensory realm, or doesn't come from historical measurements (the realm of written records), we are totally ignorant. And so: we cannot know that the earth is round, or that it rotates around the sun. We certainly can know nothing of the worlds beyond our planet....The vast bulk of scientific knowledge -which ennabled us to construct the technological world in which we live- is based on methods to obtain evidence which lies beyond our immediate senses.

How do you know that "Weather on earth has been changing since the beginning of time"? You believe this because this is the prevailing, current belief among relevant scientists! And yet you don't believe them when they say that humans are having an impact on earth's climate? Why not?

It is currently (and very widely) believed among researchers that we can reconstruct past Earth's temperatures through what are known a "proxy records". Proxy records are derived from a number of methods - differential rates of radioactive decay, and so on.

Your belief in the existance of Ice Ages is mostly derived from "proxy data".

Now, I tend to agree with you that "weather is far more complex a phenomena than we can currently model". But you are making the extremely common error of confusing weather with climate. They are two different things. "Weather" decribes day to day, week to week variations in temp. rainfall, and so on. "Climate" (as used as a scientific term) concerns long term averages. It's that word "average" which is significant here.

Small scale, short term phenomenon, whether of quanta, local traffic patterns, or the mixing of newly poured milk in your coffee cup tend to have a high degree of inherent unpredictability, a high degree of "chaos", or (to use a perhaps more accurate term) "nonlinearity" - they are mathematically unpredictable. Very small scale, very short term phenomenon are ruled by "quantum fluctuations", as well the vaguaries of "Chaos Theory". There is often chaos in larger systems viewed over longer time frames. For example, the Earth's orbit around the sun is chaotic, and there is a very, very small (but real) chance that it could, one day, simply fly out of it's orbit into space.

But the Earth's orbit is...mostly...predictable. It has a small "chaos" quotient, Lucky for us.

So with climate too. And so, recent measurements of changes in Earth's overall climate - temp. rainfall, drought and so on - conform fairly well with predictions derived from what are now fairly primitive supercomputer models run over ten years ago (with only a fraction of the computing power now available). This is true because the actual physics of Global Warming is pretty simple as - capture a bit more heat from ther sun (more CO2)....presto! A warmer climate! The phenomenon was predicted over 100 years ago. Interestingly, to get back to "proxy' records, it has been found that average temparature and CO2 levels dovetail rather nicely.

Now, it is also that case that, as the study of the Ice Ages (which you seem to believe in) have progressed and the "proxy" derived historical record of past temperatures has been refined researchers have discovered rapid, MAJOR temperature fluctuations. As big as 10 degrees celsius and as rapid as within one or two years. And these fluctuations coincide neatly with variations in ocean circulation. Furthermore, ocean circulation tends to be, as it happens, fairly nonlinear. Which means, in this case, that it can rapidly snap from one to another of three major circulatory patterns (determined by the lay of the Earth's continents and by ocean topography).

I've watched Oceanographers become increasingly desparate as the evidence mounts that Global Warming is creating the very conditions which caused the last really major temperature fluctuations. They don't know what to do. They aren't publicists, and there is a veritable army of fossil fuel industry funded progandists who crank out disinformation to confuse the general public about the basic science of Global Warming.

But time is becoming rather short. I shouldn't need to have to make these sorts of points. Do you believe the scientific mainstream? Within the last 10 years, Global warming has progressed, from speculation to having the weight of a full blown theory within the scientific community. And the theory of rapid, nonlinear climate change (that is, the ability of humans to trigger one of these events) is advancing hot on the heels of Global Warming.

One aside: not a scientific observation, but try looking up flood mythlogies from around the world. The flood narrative is the most common element of early mythologies. Do these narratives refer something real which we should be paying attention to? Hint - try Googling "Younger Dryas", the scientific term for the period of the last huge, rapid climate shifts. Check out this link: "Although Holocene climate events are relatively minor" [compared to the Younger Dryas, for example] "on a glacial/interglacial perspective, the small Holocene
changes in the polar vortex and atmospheric storminess
documented by O'Brien et al. (1995) would probably cause
widespread disruption to human society if they were to
occur in the future" (Keigwin and Boyle 2000:1343).
Bob Gogosian, The Director of the world's preeminent oceanographic research institute, is talking about a BIG change. How lucky do you feel? Think about this:

The extreme and erratic weather events which charactorized the decade of the 1990's are consistent with scientific computer models of Global Warming and can be, accordingly to these models, expected to grow increasingly severe in the decades ahead. And under the weight of the current world population, all major biological systems - on which our lives ultimately depend - are declining.

In the 21st century, according to the biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University, half of all species now living will disappear from the Earth - as a result of Global Climate Change and direct human pressure. It is also likely that the 21st century will see the collision of growing human numbers with a global decline in ecosystems.

To make the situation worse, it is now known that even without human interference there are great instabilities inherent in our climate system and that human caused stresses on the climate system can trigger powerfull, amplifying feedback loops which lead to sudden climate shifts

As the global human population creeps toward the ten billion mark, the global proliferation of technologies of mass destruction continues. And as the number of nations able to threaten widespread, or global, destruction through the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons grows, localized climate changes caused by humans directly -- deforestation, desertification, the depletion of water resources, and larger scale climate changes driven by Global Warming -- droughts, heat waves, floods, and increasingly powerfull storms, will cause a decline in global food production. -- In short, a world teeming with human beings who are starving and heavily armed.

This explosive scenario points towards the growth in negative feedback processes whereby wars - over dwindling resources, and the further localised environmental degradation resulting from those wars, accelerates global climate change. And so on................
posted by troutfishing at 5:59 PM on October 9, 2002

This explosive scenario points towards the growth in negative feedback processes whereby wars - over dwindling resources, and the further localized environmental degradation resulting from those wars, accelerates global climate change. And so on...

I think you mean positive feedback: an uncontrolled system.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:27 PM on October 9, 2002

I am not a big science type but I do feel strongly about getting poisoned and/or getting boiled!

betaray, the q's you raise make way more sense than that article by Steven Milloy. He's got the tone of a holocaust denier or something.

I remember taking earth & enrivo science 101 and being surprised at how wildly the thermometer has behaved over the history of the planet. I came away believing that our three hundred years of weather data is basically useless for proving the man-made warming scenario.

I do however believe that the scientific community can boast, in this modern age, highly advanced understanding of these things: 1) gasses, 2) burning and exploding stuff 3) air. They probably also have a good handle on 4) the composition of the atmosphere and 5) direct sunlight. So if a whole assload of science bozos agree on some theories about the temperature going up then I'm really worried. Because ten degrees means coastal cities sinking, doesn't it?

Has modern man come to truly understand MELTING ICE??
posted by damehex at 7:07 PM on October 9, 2002


I think the environmentalists would have a better case if they pointed out the BENEFITS of climate change. Some people are worse off, sure. Some are better off. Arid areas (for instance, the Southern Saheb currently) are getting wetter. That's a good thing. And there are countless examples like this, ignored by doomprophets.

Global warming? Probably. Human-caused? Probably. All bad? Not necessarily. End of life? Not at all.
posted by Kevs at 8:58 PM on October 9, 2002

Disaster management folks are pretty well acquainted with these increasing costs, which are a real concern. However, the UN Environmental Program is rhetorically manipulating the problem to push its particular agenda, curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas-induced climate change (debate all you like) is not the sole or even primary cause of increased natural disaster costs. It’s development: paving, deforestation, destroying wetlands, and building in historically inhospitable areas. These changes (perhaps fed by our expanding population?) decrease our ability to cope with the earth’s vagaries and have more immediate impact than greenhouse gases. But it’s worse: in a recent policy summary, the Association of State Floodplain Managers noted: “Even if we perfectly implement [existing federal, state, and local building] standards, damages will increase.” And that’s just in the US, which has been developing its disaster management for decades. (I'm suprised the UNEP's report ignores the deforestation and wetlands angles.)
posted by win_k at 6:28 AM on October 10, 2002

Some people are worse off, sure. Some are better off.

And it's all good as long as you're not one who's worse off. But in fact, everyone will be affected by those who are worst off.

"But look at all the advantages of global climatic change," seems to be the next line of defense among those who--for whatever reason--are opposed to the traditional enviromental coalitions. Ten years ago, convervatives and pro-business allies dismissed the possibility of significant climatic change. Now, when the evidence of global warming is looking more incontrovertible everyday, they're telling us, basically, "It's not a bug. It's a feature."

I think we'll be hearing a lot of this in the years to come.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:58 AM on October 10, 2002

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