Footing The Bill For Climate Change: 'By The End Of The Day, Someone Has To Pay' As the risks of disasters grow, the insurance industry is adapting with them — and consumer advocates and others fear that the brunt of the bills will increasingly hit low-income homeowners.
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Footing The Bill For Climate Change: 'By The End Of The Day, Someone Has To Pay'

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Footing The Bill For Climate Change: 'By The End Of The Day, Someone Has To Pay'

Footing The Bill For Climate Change: 'By The End Of The Day, Someone Has To Pay'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/648700837/649779386" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Families without flood insurance are wondering if they can rebuild after the flooding from Florence. For those who are covered by insurance, the price is growing, as are the risks. Here's NPR's Colin Dwyer.

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: Florence was a massive, wet monster, and an expensive one, too. Early estimates put the storm's price tag as high as $22 billion. But Florence is just one on a growing list of natural disasters recorded by Munich Re. The German-based company offers insurance for other insurers in case of catastrophe, so they have good reason to keep track. Ernst Rauch leads research on this stuff for Munich Re, and he's been doing it for three decades.

ERNST RAUCH: When I look back to the 1980s, we recorded 200 to 300 events - catastrophe events annually. And today, we are close to about a thousand events.

DWYER: That means a lot of losses insurers have to be prepared to cover - more than $130 billion worth last year alone. But these losses go beyond the balance sheet.

DAVE JONES: Loss of life, community devastation.

DWYER: That's Dave Jones, California's insurance commissioner. He's not too concerned about hurricanes. It's wildfires that keep him up at night.

JONES: The climate scientists tell us that we're going to continue to see temperatures rise, and that will contribute to more catastrophic weather-related events.

DWYER: You see, climate change is not just on the minds of insurers. It's also on the minds of the officials who regulate them, like Jones.

JONES: In 2017, collectively, we had the highest insured losses on record associated with wildfires in the state's history.

DWYER: It's his job to be sure that insurance companies can continue to cover these losses. But it's also his job to protect the folks who actually suffer those losses. And that's becoming even harder these days, especially in risky areas for wildfires, like Mendocino County, where California's biggest fire on record blazed earlier this year.

He says complaints about price increases have shot up in these regions. And recently, he has seen a 15 percent increase in the number of homeowners who've found that their insurance company would not renew them at all. Now people are still finding insurance, but more residents are turning to a state-created program as a last resort, which can often be even pricier.

JONES: And those areas that were traditionally thought to be of a lower risk are now being treated by the insurers as a higher risk.

DWYER: And the state expects the situation to get worse. Officials predict the area burned by wildfires will increase dramatically in the coming decades. But it's not just California. Hurricanes, droughts, floods - with global temperatures expected to increase, consumer advocates expect these insurance pains to increase with them. And looking ahead, that pain may not be evenly distributed.

BOB HUNTER: The insurance companies will take care of themselves.

DWYER: Bob Hunter of the Consumer Federation of America.

HUNTER: But poorer people who can't afford that are going to buy the slimmed-down policies. And then the very poor, of course, will be priced out. So those are the people who will probably - will, not probably - will get hurt the most.

DWYER: That's a point voiced not just by advocates, but by regulators and researchers in the insurance industry.

RAUCH: So it really becomes, sooner or later, a social issue.

DWYER: That's Ernst Rauch of Munich Re again.

RAUCH: By the end of the day, someone has to pay for the increasing risk caused by climate change.

DWYER: And one thing is certain. Those bills will be expensive when they come due. Colin Dwyer, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF WE CAME FROM THE NORTH'S "SEA'S DESCENT")

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