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May 18, 2011 

Heavy Rains and Flooding May Be “New Norm”

Insurance Companies, Local Governments Preparing for Likely Future Extreme Weather

WASHINGTON (May 18, 2011) – Extreme weather events, such as the heavy rains that recently flooded the Mississippi River, likely will occur more frequently in the future, prompting local governments to prepare for the impact of climate change, according to scientists and adaptation experts participating in a telephone press conference held today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“Climate change is about more than warming.  What we’re really seeing is global ‘weirding,’” said climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, associate professor at Texas Tech University.  “It is altering the character and conditions of the places we know and love. For many places around the world, what we are likely to see could be feast or famine—more frequency of weather at the extremes, from intense storms to prolonged droughts.

“We can’t attribute any one event to climate change,” she added, “but we do know that every event that happens is already superimposed on very different background conditions than we had 50 years ago.”

States, municipalities and businesses—especially the insurance industry—are keenly aware of the trend toward more frequent extreme weather events.  In a recent interview with Wall Street analysts, Allstate CEO Thomas Wilson said:  “It’s just that you see a lot more severe weather.  We are acting and running our Homeowners business as if that is a permanent change as opposed to an anomaly.”

Economic losses from natural disasters have soared from a global average of $25 billion annually during the 1980s to $130 billion a year during the decade ending in 2010, said Nikhil da Victoria Lobo, senior client manager in the Global Partnerships team at Swiss Re, a leading international reinsurance firm.  He told reporters on today’s call that although it is impossible to estimate what percentage of those losses were due to climate change, there’s little doubt that “climate volatility was a major contributor.”  

Swiss Re, he added, is working closely with local governments around the world to help them bear less of the burden for costs associated with extreme weather.  “"We live in a world where rising budget deficits are being coupled with extreme weather events that further aggravate these financial burdens,” he said. “However, insurance can put a price tag on climate risk, and help local governments more efficiently prepare for and finance what may happen."

A big challenge for local governments is determining what municipal infrastructure may be vulnerable to future extreme weather events and what capital investments will best protect residents and property.

“Chicago’s sewers were installed over the past 150 years and it takes decades to replace this aging infrastructure under the best of conditions,” said Aaron Durnbaugh, Chicago’s deputy commissioner for natural resources and water quality and another member of today’s panel.  “So we need to know what to expect and act accordingly.  Given our financial challenges, we just need to be sure that if we’re replacing a sewer or adding green infrastructure, it’s ready to handle the kind of rain events we’re likely to see.” 

Another speaker at the UCS briefing, Missy Stults, climate director for ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability, said local officials need to start preparing now to handle the effects of climate change.

“Local governments are on the front line of weather and climate action,” she said.  “And they’re starting to embrace their role as first responders and planners for whatever may happen in the future. They need to make sure that their cities and towns are resilient and that everything keeps running. 

“In the end, though,” Stults added, “planning for climate change is just about smart planning for tomorrow.” 

In conclusion, Hayhoe warned that climate change was “loading the dice” to increase the likelihood of extreme weather. A heat wave like the one in 2005 that killed more than 700 Chicago residents could happen as often as three times a year in the future. 

“It’s like we’re adding more sixes to the dice,” she said.  “When you roll the dice the question becomes: ‘Was that a natural six or a man-made six?’”

 

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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