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Betting on change

Granted, a warming globe isn’t just downside for insurance firms. There are also profitable new business opportunities, as Hoppe points out. Munich Re is now offering coverage for renewable energy products, because wind farms and solar parks need insurance against the possibility that low wind and weak sunlight will reduce their output. “It’s very important for investors to dampen and level out the volatility from season to season,” Hoppe says. Munich Re has also developed a product to cover solar cells that wear out before their expected 30-year lifetime.

Buying insurance against bad weather isn’t entirely new. Farmers have done it for years. But back in the late ’90s, before Enron imploded, it created a huge new market of selling “weather futures” to electric utilities — hedges that would pay out if, say, a mild summer hurt their sales (because people would use less air conditioning.) After Enron pancaked, weather futures stayed around — still mostly for utilities and farms — but buying them wasn’t easy: You had to personally contact one of the few weather-futures traders who’d set up their own trading desks in the wake of Enron’s dissolution. But with climate-change models predicting increasingly erratic weather, a new generations of startups is heading into the field, figuring that almost any firm might want to hedge against the bad economic effects of weather — such as clothing manufacturers (who could suffer massive losses in coat sales if an unexpectedly mild winter emerges), airlines (since weather is the top cause of delays) or sporting-event promoters (when it’s rainy, everyone stays away).

Weatherbill is one such startup. Founded three and a half years ago by Google expatriates, it lets anyone use their website to quickly create weather insurance for almost anything. Type in the thing you’re trying to insure — say, an Iowa county fair in the third week of July — and the Weatherbill system calculates the probability of what the local weather will be like up to two years out, down to a 100-mile-wide area. It then uses that guess to instantly price a weather future or insurance contract. CEO Dave Friedberg told me Weatherbill had already sold contracts to the likes of the US Open, and that he envisions worldwide opportunities: Global agriculture suffers billions in weather-related losses each year, for example, yet many countries don’t have any institutions offering easy weather insurance. That’s especially true for countries likely to be the first to experience the dire consequences of climate change, such as coastal regions of Asia or Latin America.

“If you think about Brazil, their two biggest industries are mining and agriculture,” Friedberg says. “That’s billions of dollars, and there’s a massive market for developing crop insurance. If we can figure out agriculture and do it right, the opportunity is huge to go country by country.” Does he believe that global warming is already noticeable? “Oh yeah,” he says. In just the three years that Weatherbill has been collecting data, extreme weather events have risen 8 percent.

One of the big political questions of climate change is how far we’ve gone: Have we passed a tipping point of no return? Has the atmosphere already accumulated such high levels of greenhouse gases that even if we manage to cut back on emissions, we’ll still wind up with a globe so much hotter that everyday life will change significantly? One emerging sector built on the assumption that we have is the “adaptation marketplace (pdf)” — firms offering new products and services to help companies and cities cope with changes. A 2009 study by Oxfam identified seven potentially lucrative adaptation areas, such as water management and disaster preparation; one firm in this field — the Minneapolis-based Pentair Inc., which makes pumps and filtration systems — has soared to $3.35 billion in annual revenues, partly due to contracts from the Army Corps of Engineers to provide massive pumps that will protect New Orleans against another Katrina. Another firm, North Carolina’s WeatherPredict, has developed a technique to retrofit roofs with aerodynamic edges, reducing the damage they sustain in hurricane winds. Firms that produce genetically engineered crops are also predicting they’ll reap profits from climate change: Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, and their sister firms have registered 55 worldwide patents for “climate ready” seeds designed to thrive in conditions of drought or other stress, according to a 2008 report by ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organization.

Will all this climate-propelled economic activity be good for the planet? Sure, it can be satisfying to see some major CEOs agree that climate change is a real and present danger. But many environmentalists predict that the flurry of new economic activity will create its own new problems.

The melting Arctic, in particular, gives many observers the willies. It’s likely to see an explosion in seabed oil-and-gas exploration and tourism. (Cargo shipping, interestingly, is likely to increase at a slower rate, partly because cargo ships ferrying “just in time” products can’t abide the delays that even small ice floes would cause — and nobody thinks the Arctic will be entirely ice-free for 100 years or more.) Arctic experts and the Navy predict a catastrophe the first time a tourist vessel or oil tanker hits an iceberg and cracks up. “Tourist vessels aren’t ice-hardened, and in the polar regions “there’s no search and rescue or salvage,” standing by says Lawson Brigham, a University of Alaska professor who chaired the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (pdf), a four-year study of how the commercial activity will progress in the warming north. “The water’s near freezing. All you need is one good Titanic.”

Other realms of climate-change commerce aren’t much prettier when you look at them closely. In agriculture, the advent of climate-ready crops is clearly useful, maybe even crucial, for adaption. But it also concentrates ever more power in the hands of a small coterie of firms that own the patents to drought-resistant seeds, and the cost could cause serious hardship in the desperately poor countries of Asia or Africa, where the seeds might be most needed.

And it’s also true that the number of climate visionaries in industry is still quite small. Certainly, companies with skin in the game are preparing for a warmer world. But as the McKinsey report found, they’re in the minority. The grand majority are deeply myopic, focused narrowly on goosing profits in the next quarter — who cares what’ll happen ten years from now?

(Climate Desk contributor Felix Salmon writes that the reasons for inaction are sometimes simple, but also counter-intuitively complex.)

In a sense, that makes businesses a mildly agnostic force. When climate change finally does impinge on their business, they’ll probably take action to adapt to it. But it also means that if they can see a short-term profit from fighting against climate science and sowing doubt, they’ll do that, too. This is precisely what’s still happening in the energy industry, where many firms that pay lip service to the reality of climate change also quietly funnel millions to lobbyists who fight ferociously to prevent Congress from passing laws that curtail C02 emissions.

“We all know big companies who are doing all this green stuff, and their lobbyists are trying to kill the carbon bill as quickly as they can,” says Mindy Lubber, president of Boston-based CERES, an association of environment-minded investors whose members have $10 trillion under management.

It may be that the corrective force comes not from inside corporations, but from investors. Many large investors, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System — the nation’s second largest public-pension fund — have begun demanding that firms examine and disclose any potential risks from global warming. Shareholder resolutions demanding action on climate change have nearly doubled in the last two years, rising from about 55 in 2007 to 99 in 2009, Lubber notes. In February, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidelines requiring that publicly traded firms better disclose their climate-change risk, including potential “physical” risks.

(Join a live Grist forum on the new SEC regulations.)

“Anyone that’s building out new manufacturing facilities without working out water shortages related to climate change is getting itself into trouble,” Lubber adds. “Or anyone that’s building on waterfront property.” Another common request from shareholder resolutions is for companies to calculate the cost of their carbon footprint. Even if electric utilities and the US Chamber of Commerce are fighting against carbon-limiting legislation, investors seem to believe it is inevitable — indeed, they evidently think the government might cap carbon even in the next few years, which could dramatically increase the cost of electricity.

To make corporations true partners in tackling climate change, Lubber thinks investors need to push for basic changes in the way their companies function. CEOs whose bonuses are based on bumping next-quarter results will make short-term decisions. Those who are paid based on reducing carbon usage will make long-term ones — investing in technology and processes that reduce greenhouse gases. “If they’re compensated for producing 86 percent more widgets, they’ll do that. But if they use less fuel, they ought to be compensated for meeting their carbon-reduction goals.”

In the short run, though, there’s probably only one force that will get today’s blithe firms to snap to attention-and that’s legislation. If Congress actually puts a price on carbon, it’ll hit the world of industry with tsunamic force. At minimum, it would probably goose the price of electricity and make emissions-heavy industries instantly less profitable. (Indeed, this is one of the things the SEC and many investor groups are urging firms to do: calculate how badly they’ll be shellacked if new regulations make carbon expensive.) Not everyone will be a loser. The McKinsey study calculated that alternative-energy firms will do quite well (for obvious reasons), but so will less-predictable sectors like the construction industry, as people rush to retrofit buildings with extra insulation and energy-saving rebuilds. The farsighted firms — and the ones who work on the colder fringes of the world — can see the future clearly, because they’re living it. But with the stroke of a pen, Obama can bring it a lot closer. Whether it’s a melting Arctic or a bold new law, the biggest forces shaping industry are, as it were, man-made.

This piece was produced by the Climate Desk collaboration. Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired.

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