Harvard Medical, Insurance Experts: Health, Insurance Risks of Global Warming Are Here Already

Far from being a hypothetical concern for future generations, global warming already is a front-burner issue in the public health and financial sectors (particularly the insurance industry), according to a briefing delivered on Capitol Hill by experts from the Harvard Medical School and Swiss Re.

U.S. House and Senate members were told new "outbreaks" of health problems, including asthma and West Nile Virus, and a palpable danger of added insurance risks and costs, mean that climate-change issues must be addressed now.

Dr. Paul R. Epstein, M.D., associate director, Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, told members of Congress, "Concerns about climate change are often mistakenly placed into the distant future. But as the rate of climate change increases, so do the biological responses and costs associated with warming and unstable weather. The influence of intensifying droughts on the spread of West Nile virus in the U.S. and the impacts of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on allergies and asthma demonstrate that global warming has come into our backyards."

Epstein said the intense weather extremes associated with warming of the atmosphere and oceans create conditions favorable to "clusters" of disease outbreaks. Large outbreaks of West Nile virus (WNV) in the United States and Europe are associated with drought, and prolonged droughts have become more frequent with global warming.

"Today, climate change as a financial issue is very much underestimated from the point of view of the insurance and reinsurance industry's potentially rising costs and risks," said Christopher T. Walker, managing director, Greenhouse Gas Risk Solutions, Financial Services Business Group, Swiss Re. "Carbon is becoming a tradable commodity, allowing companies to hedge their risks, profit from emissions assets and turn this new discipline into a competitive advantage."

In additional to potential liabilities for corporations from greenhouse gas emissions reductions, added Walker, there also are business opportunities where the financial industry and, in particular, the insurance industry, can be the prime mover of emissions reduction activities.

"The reality here is simple," he said. "Insurance and reinsurance companies have the potential to become prime catalysts for the development of renewables, emission reduction and energy-efficient technologies for two reasons: such steps will reduce risks and open up new and lucrative lines of business activity."

Testimony by Epstein and Walker is at odds with a draft report on the state of the environment, due to be released next week by the Environmental Protection Agency. That report, according to an article in the June 19 edition of the New York Times, has been heavily edited by the administration.

New York Times reporters Andrew C. Revkin and Katharine Q. Seelye said drafts of the original section of the report dedicated to climate change, along with the changes recommended by the administration, were given to the newspaper by a former EPA official. According to Revkin and Seelye, the administration's edited version of the report eliminates references to studies indicating global warming is caused by smokestack and tailpipe emissions and could contribute to human health problems and damage the ecosystem.

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