On Climate Change, Big Oil vs…. The Insurance Industry?

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This Oct. 30, 2012 aerial file photo provided by the US Air Force shows flooding on the New Jersey shoreline caused by Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/US Air Force, Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen)

Our campaign finance system being what it is (or isn’t), it takes big money to move the political needle on an issue. So it would help the cause of those concerned about climate change if an industry-wide interest group with deep pockets were to step up to take on the fossil fuel industry.

Perhaps it will be the insurance business. Insurance companies have heaps of liability in covered assets that will likely be harmed by climate changeĀ  — homes in communities vulnerable to floods, for instance, or farms in the increasingly parched Southwest. As these assets become more difficult to protect, insurers are starting to take their cases to the courts.

Farmers Insurance, a major company you probably know from its commercials featuring J.K. Simmons explaining how “what you don’t know can hurt you,” filed nine class action lawsuits last month against nearly 200 communities in the Chicago area. The company argues that the communities failed to prepare for heavy rain and floodwaters, despite dire warnings from researchers and numerous reports from the US government and the UN that climate change is bringing increasingly severe weather. Reuters’ Mica Rosenberg reports that the suits are the first of their kind.

The legal debate may center on whether an uptick in natural disasters is foreseeable or an “act of God.” The cases raise the question of how city governments should manage their budgets before costly emergencies occur.

“We will see more and more cases,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School in New York. “No one is expected to plan for the 500-year storm, but if horrible events are happening with increasing frequency, that may shift the duties.”

Legal experts say the case is something of a long shot for Farmers Insurance. But the hope is that the insurance industry’s battle will eventually extend beyond lawsuits, to lobbying firms and the halls of Congress. David Atkins outlines this scenario for The Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog.

Right now the insurance companiesā€™ strategy will be to lay the blame on governments for not doing enough to adapt to climate change. Attempts to set that precedent will be very challenging to say the least, and will likely fall short. The next step would be direct political action to support emissions reductions and to back away from coverage commitments.

Something is going to give. If the insurance industry gets serious enough to put enough of its money up to challenge the fossil fuel barons, we might even see some Republicans start to see the light on climate change. Probably not, but one can always hope.

A political-money arms race between insurers and the fossil fuel industry isn’t imminent. The idea that climate change is something that insurance companies will have to contend with is taking hold within the industry, but only gradually. A 2013 report by the environmental investment group Ceres found that only 23 out of 184 insurers surveyed had comprehensive climate change strategies, and 13 of those were foreign-owned.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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