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Ocean warming risk – why does it matter to insurance?

One of the things I’ve seen firsthand in my insurance career is the interrelated nature of risks; they rarely occur in isolation. A loss in one area often triggers or exacerbates others. Such is also the nature of our environment, where we are observing disturbing changes.

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One of the things I’ve seen firsthand in my insurance career is the interrelated nature of risks; they rarely occur in isolation. A loss in one area often triggers or exacerbates others. Such is also the nature of our environment, where we are observing disturbing changes.

I was fortunate to have served in the U.S. Navy and have been awed ever since by the oceans’ vastness, power and complexity. Understanding the oceans is difficult. Astonishingly, humans have spent 100 times more hours on the moon than in the deepest part of Earth’s oceans.

A new report on ocean warming by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), titled Explaining ocean warming: Causes, scale, effects and consequences describes the phenomenon as ‘one of the greatest hidden challenges of our generation’. The analysis report has been compiled by 80 scientists from 12 countries.

Even though our planet has enough land area to accommodate more than 7 billion people, 71% of its surface is covered by water. Oceans have a critical influence on life as we know it – heating and cooling the planet, providing food and supporting global commerce, yet we have only recently started to understand them.

The report is part of XL Catlin’s focus on Ocean Risk, which describes the potential effects that changes taking place in the ocean will have on businesses, society and ecosystems around the world.   

 

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According to this scientific review, fundamental changes to the ocean’s chemistry, physics and the wealth of life it supports are already evident with human food security and health under threat along with dangers from more extreme weather events and reduced crop yields.”

 

The ocean is now being recognised for shielding us from the worst impacts of climate change. Indeed, a staggering fact produced by the Grantham Institute in 2015 concluded that if the same amount of heat that has gone into the top 2000m of the ocean between 1955-2010 had gone into the lower 10km of the atmosphere, the Earth would have seen a warming of 36°C.

According to this scientific review, fundamental changes to the ocean’s chemistry, physics and the wealth of life it supports are already evident with human food security and health under threat along with dangers from more extreme weather events and reduced crop yields.  It also identifies other changes to ocean health including acidification and de-oxygenation which will impact every level of marine life from the smallest plankton to mammals.

​These impacts include:

  • Coastal communities at greater risk of inundation from storm surges, more intense tropical storms and rising sea levels.
  • Compromised food security from shifting fish populations and depleted fish stocks.  Harvests from marine fisheries in South-East Asia are expected to fall by between 10% and 30% by 2050 relative to 1970-2000, as the distributions of fish species shift, under a high ‘business as usual’ greenhouse gas emission scenario.
  • Reduced crop yields in key regions will be affected, including North America and the Indian sub-Continent, from increased rainfall in mid-latitudes and more drought patterns in sub-tropical zones.

  • Human health is endangered from the spread of viruses, diseases and pathogens in the warmer ocean and passed to humans directly or through the food chain. These include the bacteria causing cholera and the neurological disease ciguatera.

  • The cost of ocean change is steadily rising. All negative impacts will have a cost. As an example, the loss to tourism from recent widespread coral bleaching is calculated to be $23 billion. The cost by 2100 of losing coral reefs could amount to $1 trillion per year.

 

Why should the insurance industry care about ocean warming? For one thing, we are in the risk business, and ocean warming represents enormous risks. To manage any risk, we first have to understand it. If science and nations are to mitigate climate change, we must clearly grasp how the decline in coral reef health, loss of polar ice, ocean warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification are affecting the people and property that the insurance industry helps to protect.

​As an industry built on managing risk, we must continue to study the risks facing our planet from climate change and work together to mitigate their effects. Let’s use our expertise in analyzing risk and helping rebuild lives and livelihoods to preserve opportunities for future generations.

Note: This article was first published by Risk & Insurance

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