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Climate change: words don't matter as much as action

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In the quarter-century that the threat of global warming has been hanging over general insurance in Australia, the debate has become fragmented and absurdly complex.

Climatologists say Australia will be one of the earliest countries to suffer from the long-term impacts of man-made climate change, but action to deal with the issue has been stymied since 2013 by internecine warfare between climate sceptics and realists in the ruling federal Coalition.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison seems to have decided the best way to maintain peace in the ranks is to pretend that by 2030 greenhouse gas emissions will have been reduced by 26-28% below 2005 levels – despite a government report last year predicting the reduction will be just 7%.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA), which must deal with the consequences of climate change and transmit its views to a generally unreceptive government and a public starved of information that brings the issue to their doorsteps.

So it’s worth looking at an unfortunate tangle ICA found itself in last week over one of the many sub-issues that lie under the heading of “climate change”.

It started two weeks ago when ICA President Richard Enthoven delivered a strong “state of the industry” address to the National Insurance Brokers Association (NIBA) convention, in the course of which he noted that climate change is “sensitive politically”, despite robust industry data that aligns with climate science.

Then he said: “Changing weather systems may well make certain regions more exposed to storm, flood or bushfire, thereby potentially making parts of Australia uninsurable.”

Just as “climate change” has become Canberra’s version of Harry Potter’s Voldemort – it “Must Not Be Named” – so “uninsurable” seems to enjoy the same status in ICA’s Pitt Street headquarters.

Despite the cautious use of the adverb “potentially”, Mr Enthoven crossed some kind of Rubicon in his speech.

ICA wants to move past the whole debate about the existence of climate change to focus on the benefits of mitigation, and prefers to always point to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation that the Commonwealth invest at least $200 million a year (matched by state and territory governments) on infrastructure.

It enjoyed a small victory earlier this month when the Government announced that about $50 million from the Emergency Response Fund will be earmarked annually for mitigation works. The Labor Party made that $50 million a condition of its support for the fund.

Days later ICA’s happy glow turned to irritation when the ABC published research from the Climate Risk consultancy which states that extreme weather events caused by climate change will make hundreds of thousands of Australian properties uninsurable.

It says nearly 720,000 addresses – or one in every 20 Australian properties – will be uninsurable by 2100 if global warming continues at its current rate.

This was 130,000 fewer properties than the original assessment made by Climate Risk in March. At the time that earlier report set the consultancy and ICA into a minor skirmish over the difference between “uninsurable” and “unaffordable”.

ICA’s argument is that homeowners in high-risk areas may have to pay more, but it doesn’t believe any part of Australia will become uninsurable.

Climate Risk Director of Science Karl Mallon told his organisation is “taking a responsible position to inform communities about the risk in their suburbs that they may have no idea about”.

“The insurance industry isn’t doing that, so we see it as a responsible thing to do – to try and engage communities and also encourage them to implement resilience measures ahead of an event.”

But ICA spokesman Campbell Fuller criticised Climate Risk’s report, saying extreme weather projections based on climate change models should be “agreed upon and understood by all relevant stakeholders before they are used in a way that may unnecessarily scare householders and businesses, disrupt communities and lead to poor decisions and outcomes”.

Climate Risk charges a fee for the use of its data, but ICA says information about future risks must be based on transparent methods and data, and the insurance industry “is investing in the development of transparent risk tools for climate change, based on centuries of underwriting expertise and extreme weather knowledge”.

In other words, ICA sees its data as being far better than Climate Risk’s data. Fair enough, it should be. But is all this hair-splitting really necessary?

The ABC wasn’t slow to point out that ICA’s vehement attack on what it called “irresponsible” reporting puts the council at odds with its President’s statement that climate change “may make certain regions more exposed to storm, flood or bushfire, thereby potentially making parts of Australia uninsurable”.

It may be that ICA is concerned the focus on insurance and climate change could switch political and community focus away from the need for investment in mitigation to the relative affordability of property insurance.

As Mr Fuller put it last week: “No area of Australia should be uninsurable, provided governments invest appropriately in permanent mitigation and resilience measures to protect communities from known and projected risks, including the impact of climate change.”

That’s also a point Mr Enthoven emphasised in his NIBA speech, and it’s one that Climate Risk says it’s keen to support.

“Where we furiously agree [with ICA] is that we can do something about this,” Mr Mallon told last week.

Doesn’t the fact that without mitigation some properties may become uninsurable – or unaffordable, if you prefer – make a compelling case for government action?

Call it information the public should know or call it scaremongering, Climate Risk’s fulsomely illustrated information, circulated widely around Australia via the ABC, contributed significantly to raising public awareness of the issue.

It doesn’t really matter how you define “uninsurable”, or how many properties you put in that category. The fact is some homeowners in Australia are already faced with unaffordable premiums and the issue is going to get worse unless serious work on mitigation is done.

If Climate Risk’s data isn’t as good as ICA’s, its cut-through on the issue was nevertheless impressive and has helped raise awareness in a very personal way. A substantial change in official policy towards mitigation will come sooner if there’s pressure from the community – and to achieve that a bit of data-backed scaremongering shouldn’t be seen as all that bad.