Pluralistic: Insurance companies are making climate risk worse (28 Nov 2023)

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A flooded suburban street with water up to the roofline of the houses in the background. In the foreground floats a giant mug emblazoned 'Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.'

Insurance companies are making climate risk worse (permalink)

Conservatives may deride the "reality-based community" as a drag on progress and commercial expansion, but even the most noxious pump-and-dump capitalism is supposed to remain tethered to reality by two unbreakable fetters: auditing and insurance:

No matter how much you value profit over ethics or human thriving, you still need honest books – even if you never show those books to the taxman or the marks. Even an outright scammer needs to know what's coming in and what's going out so they don't get caught in a liquidity trap (that is, "broke"), or overleveraged ("broke," again) or exposed to market changes (you guessed it: "broke").

Unfortunately for capitalism, auditing is on its deathbed. The market is sewn up by the wildly corrupt and conflicted Big Four accounting firms that are the very definition of too big to fail/too big to jail. They keep cooking books on behalf of management to the detriment of investors. These double-entry fabrications conceal rot in giant, structurally important firms until they implode spectacularly and suddenly, leaving workers, suppliers, customers and investors in a state of utter higgeldy-piggeldy:

In helping corporations defraud institutional investors, auditors are facilitating mass scale millionaire-on-billionaire violence, and while that may seem like the kind of fight where you're happy to see either party lose, there are inevitably a lot of noncombatants in the blast radius. Since the Enron collapse, the entire accounting sector has turned to quicksand, which is a big deal, given that it's what industrial capitalism's foundations are anchored to. There's a reason my last novel was a thriller about forensic accounting and Big Tech:

But accounting isn't the only bedrock that's been reduced to slurry here in capitalism's end-times. The insurance sector is meant to be an unshakably rational enterprise, imposing discipline on the rest of the economy. Sure, your company can do something stupid and reckless, but the insurance bill will be stonking, sufficient to consume the expected additional profits.

But the crash of 2008 made it clear that the largest insurance companies in the world were capable of the same wishful thinking, motivated reasoning, and short-termism that they were supposed to prevent in every other business. Without AIG – one of the largest insurers in the world – there would have been no Great Financial Crisis. The company knowingly underwrote hundreds of billions of dollars in junk bonds dressed up as AAA debt, and required a $180b bailout.

Still, many of us have nursed an ember of hope that the insurance sector would spur Big Finance and its pocket governments into taking the climate emergency seriously. When rising seas and wildfires and zoonotic plagues and famines and rolling refugee crises make cities, businesses, and homes uninsurable risks, then insurers will stop writing policies and the doom will become undeniable. Money talks, bullshit walks.

But while insurers have begun to withdraw from the most climate-endangered places (or crank up premiums), the net effect is to decrease climate resilience and increase risk, creating a "climate risk doom loop" that Advait Arun lays out brilliantly for Phenomenal World:

Part of the problem is political: as people move into high-risk areas (flood-prone coastal cities, fire-threatened urban-wildlife interfaces), politicians are pulling out all the stops to keep insurers from disinvesting in these high-risk zones. They're loosening insurance regs, subsidizing policies, and imposing "disaster risk fees" on everyone in the region.

But the insurance companies themselves are simply not responding aggressively enough to the rising risk. Climate risk is correlated, after all: when everyone in a region is at flood risk, then everyone will be making a claim on the insurance company when the waters come. The insurance trick of spreading risk only works if the risks to everyone in that spread aren't correlated.

Perversely, insurance companies are heavily invested in fossil fuel companies, these being reliable money-spinners where an insurer can park and grow your premiums, on the assumption that most of the people in the risk pool won't file claims at the same time. But those same fossil-fuel assets produce the very correlated risk that could bring down the whole system.

The system is in trouble. US claims from "natural disasters" are topping $100b/year – up from $4.6b in 2000. Home insurance premiums are up (21%!), but it's not enough, especially in drowning Florida and Texas (which is also both roasting and freezing):

Insurers who put premiums up to cover this new risk run into a paradox: the higher premiums get, the more risk-tolerant customers get. When flood insurance is cheap, lots of homeowners will stump up for it and create a big, uncorrelated risk-pool. When premiums skyrocket, the only people who buy flood policies are homeowners who are dead certain their house is gonna get flooded out and soon. Now you have a risk pool consisting solely of highly correlated, high risk homes. The technical term for this in the insurance trade is: "bad."

But it gets worse: people who decide not to buy policies as prices go up may be doing their own "motivated reasoning" and "mispricing their risk." That is, they may decide, "If I can't afford to move, and I can't afford to sell my house because it's in a flood-zone, and I can't afford insurance, I guess that means I'm going to live here and be uninsured and hope for the best."

This is also bad. The amount of uninsured losses from US climate disaster "dwarfs" insured losses:

Here's the doom-loop in a nutshell:

As carbon emissions continue to accumulate, more people are put at risk of climate disaster, while the damages from those disasters intensifies. Vulnerability will drive disinvestment, which in turn exacerbates vulnerability.

Also: the browner and poorer you are, the worse you have it: you are impacted "first and worst":

As Arun writes, "Tinkering with insurance markets will not solve their real issues—we must patch the gaping holes in the financial system itself." We have to end the loop that sees the poorest places least insured, and the loss of insurance leading to abandonment by people with money and agency, which zeroes out the budget for climate remediation and resiliency where it is most needed.

The insurance sector is part of the finance industry, and it is disinvesting in climate-endagered places and instead doubling down on its bets on fossil fuels. We can't rely on the insurance sector to discipline other industries by generating "price signals" about the true underlying climate risk. And insurance doesn't just invest in fossil fuels – they're also a major buyer of municipal and state bonds, which means they're part of the "bond vigilante" investors whose decisions constrain the ability of cities to raise and spend money for climate remediation.

When American cities, territories and regions can't float bonds, they historically get taken over and handed to an unelected "control board" who represents distant creditors, not citizens. This is especially true when the people who live in those places are Black or brown – think Puerto Rico or Detroit or Flint. These control board administrators make creditors whole by tearing the people apart.

This is the real doom loop: insurers pull out of poor places threatened by climate disasters. They invest in the fossil fuels that worsen those disasters. They join with bond vigilantes to force disinvestment from infrastructure maintenance and resiliency in those places. Then, the next climate disaster creates more uninsured losses. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Finance and insurance are betting heavily on climate risk modeling – not to avert this crisis, but to ensure that their finances remain intact though it. What's more, it won't work. As climate effects get bigger, they get less predictable – and harder to avoid. The point of insurance is spreading risk, not reducing it. We shouldn't and can't rely on insurance creating price-signals to reduce our climate risk.

But the climate doom-loop can be put in reverse – not by market spending, but by public spending. As Arun writes, we need to create "a global investment architecture that is safe for spending":

Public investment in emissions reduction and resiliency can offset climate risk, by reducing future global warming and by making places better prepared to endure the weather and other events that are locked in by past emissions. A just transition will "loosen liquidity constraints on investment in communities made vulnerable by the financial system."

Austerity is a bad investment strategy. Failure to maintain and improve infrastructure doesn't just shift costs into the future, it increases those costs far in excess of any rational discount based on the time value of money. Public institutions should discipline markets, not the other way around. Don't give Wall Street a veto over our climate spending. A National Investment Authority could subordinate markets to human thriving:

Insurance need not be pitted against human survival. Saving the cities and regions whose bonds are held by insurance companies is good for those companies: "Breaking the climate risk doom loop is the best disaster insurance policy money can buy."

I found Arun's work to be especially bracing because of the book I'm touring now, The Lost Cause, a solarpunk novel set in a world in which vast public investment is being made to address the climate emergency that is everywhere and all at once:

There is something profoundly hopeful about the belief that we can do something about these foreseeable disasters – rather than remaining frozen in place until the disaster is upon us and it's too late. As Rebecca Solnit says, inhabiting this place in your imagination is "Completely delightful. Neither utopian nor dystopian, it portrays life in SoCal in a future woven from our successes (Green New Deal!), failures (climate chaos anyway), and unresolved conflicts (old MAGA dudes). I loved it."

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