Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Life and health insurers consider the cost of climate change

Posted By on Wed, Mar 10, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Climate change isn't just about the temperature. It's about how the earth, and it's inhabitants — all of them — react to change.

In this case, climate change is forcing giant corporations to change.

Biting bugs are buzzing northward and asthma has spread like a dust cloud, but there are deep divisions about how concerned health and life insurers should be about disease and death caused by climate change.

So far, this corner of the massive industry has remained in the background of its climate debate, letting its counterparts who specialize in property losses worry in public forums about potential risks from rising sea levels and more powerful storms.

But there can be storms inside the human body, as well, scientists say, pointing to increases in malaria, heat waves, lung illnesses and other diseases spread by insects that are expanding into new territory as temperate climates experience warmer winters that are less likely to kill them.

The insects' spread could be a signal of new risks that are coming, says Paul Epstein, a doctor at Harvard Medical School who studies the health effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

"Beetles, stinging insects, mosquitoes are all responding much faster [than expected]. That's the kind of leading indicator in terms of health costs that should be looked at by the health insurers," he said. "The life and health folks have really not taken this seriously yet."

That is perhaps not surprising. Yes, people are already dying from the byproducts of warming, according to the World Health Organization and other scientists. But most of those deaths are occurring in Africa and other developing areas of the world, where insurance protection is a rarity.

Yet insurance regulators are expecting answers, and soon. Large insurance companies are under the climate spotlight for the first time as new rules requiring them to disclose their efforts to understand and address the financial exposures they may have to global warming are arriving now. Companies that earn at least $500 million in annual premium have to provide answers to a dozen climate-related questions by May 1.

Read the rest of this New York Times article, by Evan Lehmann, here.

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