The incredible shrinking coastline

By Chad Hemenway on June 25, 2014

A wise man once said the only way you can deny climate change is if you claim to be incapable of reading a thermometer.

One of my favorite conference speakers of all time—Nicholas K. Coch, professor of geology at Queens College in New York and “forensic hurricanologist”—told this to an insurance-industry audience during Advisen’s property conference a year ago.

I’ve used the line repeatedly, giving credit to Dr. Coch about half the time. Sorry, professor.

I’ve used the line as a quick rebut during climate change conversations. Almost always, there is someone within a group—or someone close by, overhearing—who is eager to “debunk” endless research from folks a heck of a lot smarter than most of us who have concluded there is indeed a climate-change phenomena occurring right….NOW!

My most recent reading includes “Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States,” by the Risky Business Project. Yes, it sounds like a good name for a cover band but it’s actually a group of very astute individuals (most famously, former NYC mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former US Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson) who have attempted to attach dollar signs to climate change (if we continue to do nothing about it) using what they call “a standard risk-management assessment approach.” Because, basically, you don’t have to be a climate-change denier to do nothing about climate change. You just need to be persuaded in one way or another by powerful industry trade groups, for example. Or just be lazy.

But everyone understands dollar signs—especially those that disappear, yes?

The report concludes that each year by 2030, sea level rise and storm surge damage are likely to cause $2-3.5 billion in additional damages in the Northeast, Southeast and Gulf Coast. By 2050 between $66 and $106 billion in coastal property will be below sea level. That amount grows to a about half a trillion dollars by the end of the century.

You’re thinking it’s a coastal problem? Think temperature increases and drought.

National crop production could decline 14 percent by 2050 and up to 42 percent by the end of this century. Wildfire risk increases when vegetation is dry. Electrical infrastructure could be taxed. Labor productivity, especially outdoors, could suffer.

Move to North Dakota or Montana. The report says higher temperatures there could mean these states will benefit agriculturally. With all that gas in the ground in North Dakota for energy, it may not be a bad idea.

I do not need a report to tell me what I saw after Superstorm Sandy, which wasn’t even a damned hurricane and was still really only a few miles south of causing a hell of a lot more damage to New York City.

I do not need any kind of report to reassure my family’s decision to have our home on the bay in Brick, NJ lifted on stilts as it was rebuilt. I know it was the right thing to do because I can see the bay water coming up higher on the bulkhead during a good storm at high tide because the ocean dumped more sand in the Barnegat Bay when it broke through during Sandy. The bathtub is shallower.

If the Risky Business Project is correct, I can also get used to the idea this house might not be around for my children’s children. My oldest will just be hitting middle-age at 2050. That’s a scary thought.

Scarier yet is the fact much of the damage experts say will increase from climate change is not covered by standard insurance policies. Flood (storm surge too) and crop damage are shouldered by our taxes. The industry doesn’t have a lot of skin in the game and certainly has no incentive to jump in to deeper waters after reading reports like this.

Might I suggest that as businesses and policymakers mull immediate action to mitigate climate-change effects (that’s a lot to take for granted, I realize, but I’m hopeful), the insurance industry looks into providing solutions to spread the risk.

Chad Hemenway is Managing Editor of Advisen News. He has more than 15 years of journalist experience at a variety of online, daily, and weekly publications. He has covered P&C insurance news since 2007, and he has experience writing about all P&C lines as well as regulation and litigation. Chad won a Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Single Article in 2014 for his coverage of the insurance implications of traumatic brain injuries and Best News Coverage in 2013 for coverage of Superstorm Sandy. Contact Chad at 212.897.4824 or [email protected].