Riskies

I spent yesterday at the Northeast Risk & Resilience Leadership Forum, in the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, CT. This is an event put on by the Risk Sciences Foundation, which is connected to the reinsurance company Renaissance Re. It was a one-day meeting on the risks faced by the northeast US coasts due to storms, sea level rise, and climate change: what the risks are, and what governments, private companies, and anyone else might do about them. With its two-year anniversary coming up, Sandy loomed large.

This meeting was different than my usual. I go mainly to scientific conferences, where the speakers are mostly other research scientists and everyone talks about scientific research. There are sometimes a few people with a policy bent, but they’re a minority, and they don’t change the dynamic much; they come to keep up with the science.

The crowd at this meeting was more eclectic. One wouldn’t necessarily think of the different groups who showed up as being similar, but they share an interest in the theme of coastal risk. Beyond that, they share a set of concepts and understandings about what could be done better.

Of course you had your insurance and reinsurance people; they organized the meeting. Then there were people whose jobs are about making housing more disaster-resistant, through building codes and the like (Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety). This group is connected with the insurance industry but doesn’t actually sell insurance. There were people from government agencies – federal (including one U.S. senator and one Obama administration official), state, and local; some had titles that wouldn’t have existed too many years ago (e.g., “Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space” or “Senior Policy Advisor, Climate Change and Insurance”). Then you had various nonprofits of a more or less environmental bent (National Wildlife Federation, Union of Concerned Scientists). And finally, a few academic scientists.

All these people agree that we don’t take the risks from coastal storms seriously enough, and that more money and effort should be put into pre-disaster “resilience” (ultra-trending buzzword of the moment) rather than just post-disaster recovery.

There are differences of emphasis in how the different constituencies would do this. The nonprofit types advocate for green infrastructure, ecosystem restoration, and sustainable development – including slowing or even reversing development in the most vulnerable coastal areas. Insurance people (and ok, a lot of others) advocate for reform of the National Flood Insurance Program to make it solvent – exactly as the Biggert-Waters act did, before it was substantially rolled back – and thus to de-incentivize development in those risky areas by raising rates there. Housing people advocate for better housing.

There was no contentious argument about which of these was more important. Rather, there seemed to be consensus that all of them are good, all are complementary, and none are being done enough now.

The scientists, like me, just advocate that everyone should pay attention to the science. (I argued that sea level rise is the most important factor increasing risk, at least as far as we can say now with certainty; changes in storms may well be important too, but are more uncertain and will take longer to show up above natural variability). That wasn’t a hard sell here; if there were any climate change deniers in the house, they stayed silent.

The fact that this was true at a meeting organized by a reinsurance company is big by itself. The insurance industry is not Greenpeace or 350.org; they take climate change seriously for purely business reasons. Given the way the political discussion around climate is often cas in this country, insurance (or reinsurance) companies do us all a service by talking about it publicly. (The US military is perhaps the other organization that takes climate change most seriously while conforming least to any stereotype that one might associate with that stance. There were no military at this conference to my knowledge, but there was Alice C. Hill, high up in Obama’s Homeland Security team. She said “Climate change is a threat multiplier.”)

While a lot of interesting people said a lot of interesting things, I was mainly impressed just by how well this diverse group hung together. There should be a name for this collection of people that captures their shared interest and purpose. I hereby propose “riskies”.

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