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As more commercial insurers abandon unprofitable areas hardest hit by natural disasters – fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes – questions have arisen whether those same companies are making money off investments and underwriting in fossil fuel operations that may be contributing to the climate catastrophes.
“Insurers are major contributors to the climate crisis, not only by continuing to underwrite and invest in existing fossil fuels, but by supporting the expansion of fossil fuel production,” said a recent statement from Public Citizen, a non-profit, progressive consumer rights advocacy group and think tank. ”As they undermine consumers and their own markets, insurers are creating financial risks that could be passed from consumers and taxpayers to the rest of the economy.”
The U.S. Senate Budget Committee last month launched an investigation into seven insurance giants that could highlight what Public Citizen called “this hypocrisy on a national level.”
The House of Representatives has chimed in as well, with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) on Tuesday introducing the Polluter Portfolio Disclosure Act, which would require insurance companies with more than $100 million in annual premiums to disclose their investments and underwritings related to coal, oil and gas projects, and fossil fuels. The bill would require these disclosures to be made easily accessible and searchable online.
“Insurance companies like State Farm and Allstate shouldn’t be allowed to profit from the climate crisis while neglecting vulnerable communities,” said Rep. Schiff. “Requiring insurers to publicly disclose their fossil fuel investments will help build transparency and empower people to make informed choices about their coverage.”
In the last few months, several insurance companies, including State Farm, Allstate, AIG and others, announced major cutbacks on accepting new homeowners insurance applications in some states, primarily California and Florida. Earlier this month, AAA’s insurance arm said it would not renew some “higher exposure” home insurance policies in Florida, and Farmers Insurance announced it will stop offering new home insurance policies in the state and won’t renew thousands of existing ones, in part because of rising losses from hurricanes.
“Recent estimates show that the insurance industry had over half a trillion dollars in fossil fuel investments in 2019,” said Carly Fabian, Insurance Policy Advocate at Public Citizen. “As insurers recklessly undermine their own markets, transparency on their investment and underwriting practices is crucial to monitor threats to both vulnerable communities and the financial stability of our entire economy.”
David Shadburn, senior government affairs advocate at the League of Conservation Voters said insurance companies are fueling the very climate-intensified extreme weather events they are meant to be insuring against.
“Now we’re seeing some of these same companies refuse to cover some of the people most vulnerable to extreme weather events, especially low-income communities, and communities of color, even as they continue investing in fossil fuels,” he said.
However, there are budding signs that the insurance industry is already cooling toward fossil fuel investment and underwriting. Late last year, the alliance Insure Our Future, said 62% of reinsurance companies have plans to stop covering coal projects, while 38% were already excluding some oil and natural gas projects.
Some investors are demanding divestiture, and some insurers have determined that fossil fuel infrastructure – mines and pipelines – negatively impact other parts of their businesses.
“The call for an immediate end to insurance services for certain fossil fuel activities and producers ignores the importance of providing an effective energy transition to renewable sources,” said Nat Wienecke, senior vice president of federal government relations for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
“Hard exits prevent insurers from contributing what they do best – helping consumers and businesses understand physical and transition risk and operationalize their plans,” he said, adding, “Hard exits may also contribute to negative, global economic impacts, as we remain in a period where traditional fossil fuels are still very much in need and a hard exit would disproportionately impact marginalized communities and developing economies.”
Progressive groups and climate activists see the insurance angle as a powerful weapon against expanding fossil fuel projects. Without insurance, the energy industry would not be able attract investors for the uninsured risks, thus halting projects altogether.
“What we’re seeing is the weaponization of the business of insurance…to [try to] achieve certain public policy objectives,” David Sampson, head of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
Doug Bailey is a journalist and freelance writer who lives outside of Boston. He can be reached at [email protected].
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