“ISN’T it funny that the end of the world as we know it goes
by such a harmless name – I mean, Sandy, mild little Sandy?” said someone in an
Well, just because it affected New York doesn’t mean it’s
the apocalypse. But over the past couple of decades, the end of the world as we
know it has been quietly sneaking up on us. And at damage of upwards of $20bn,
Hurricane Sandy provides one example of how the change will affect us – in
cold, hard cash (or should that be hot, hard cash?).
In a press release on October 17, when Sandy wasn’t even a
twinkle in the thunder-god’s eye, short-term insurance giant Munich Re pointed
out that, aside from 30 000-odd deaths, severe weather in North America had
cost $1 060bn (in 2011 values) from 1980 to 2011, with insured losses amounting
The company added: “Climate change particularly affects
formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the
long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity. The view that weather
extremes are becoming more frequent and intense in various regions due to
global warming is in keeping with current scientific findings.”
Swiss Re has also made strong statements about climate
change, and was very involved in Climate Week 2012, held (ironically) in New
York in September 2012.
Reinsurance companies are among the most conservative (small
c) creatures around.
They don’t make unconsidered statements or policy
commitments. They are the insurers who insure other insurers, so when events
like Katrina and Sandy happen, they are in it up to their necks.
With around $30bn-plus in gross written premiums, Swiss Re
and Munich Re are far and away the biggest. If they’re seriously concerned
about the impact on their bottom line, you can bet your bottom dollar the rest
of us should be, too.
The ghost of the term "global warming" haunts this
topic (since what’s happening raises overall temperatures but also causes
severe cold at certain times and in certain places, climate change is a more
useful term); as a result, most people seem to think of the phenomenon as
little more than a smooth and rather benign rise from, say, a warm summer day
of around 25º to a toasty one of about 28º.
But this increased heat pumps energy into the system which
triggers or worsens disastrous and costly events (like hurricanes, hailstorms
and heat spikes).
A scientist working with farmers in Limpopo recently told me
that although they now have to plant crops significantly earlier, thanks to
higher average temperatures, the worst impact for them is the increasingly
common sudden, violent storm, which hammers seedlings, or a sustained, serious
spike in temperatures, which just makes the young plants lie down and die.
At COP17 in December 2011, I spoke to farmers from all over
Africa, and they all had similar stories to tell. A woman farmer from Zambia
said that over a few years, several crops had been washed away by unusually
heavy storms, and pointed out that after planting twice in one season, she
simply didn’t have the bucks to buy more seed.
Storms later in the season also strip fruiting plants of
blossom, a disaster I now truly appreciate after having my plum tree ravaged by
huge hailstones – few surviving blossoms mean few fruit this season. And higher
temperatures have made double cropping impossible for some farmers in East
Think about what all of this means for food security – and
add this for good measure: research by the International Maize and Wheat
Improvement Centre has shown that the longer maize is exposed to temperatures
of 30º and more, the lower the yield. (And note this: Dr François Engelbrecht
of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research points out that, thanks
to peculiarities of local climate systems, southern Africa is tracking global
temperature increases at double the rate of the rest of the world – if they get
1º, we get 2º, if they get 2º, we get 4º.)
Sustained heat triggers drought, so the rise in extreme heat
events is scary: in a study published May this year in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space
Studies said while extreme heat used to affect 0.1–0.2% of the globe, in recent
years “the portion of global land area covered by summer temperature anomalies
[...] has averaged about 10%, an increase by more than an order of magnitude
compared to the base period”.
Drought, as in a 2011 severe drought in Mexico, the worst
since records began 70 years back, caused at least a 40% drop in agricultural
Drought added fuel to poor Portugal’s woes this year – the
country lost half its olive crop, and cereals were hit hard. The recent drought
which affected more than half of the USA is expected to push up food prices
over the next year. And so the litany goes on.
These facts represent hot, hard cash indeed. And possibly
hot, hard times, with a dollop of unrest (think 2008, when high food prices
caused riots in 28 countries).
So even if you don’t give a hoot about losing the fynbos or
coral reefs, surely this enormous economic impact – already affecting us all –
will make any thinking human being serious about working to curb climate