Fla. Searches for New Beginning Amid Continuing Insurance, Climate Woes

April 5, 2007

Canceled insurance policies and skyrocketing rates plaguing the state since the active hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 are a premonition of Florida’s future under a warming climate, an insurance expert told the state Cabinet on Tuesday.

Rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and the need for renewable energies were some of the topics a half-dozen experts touched on at the cabinet’s first of four climate change workshops. And despite a recent special session to address insurance woes, one predicted a gloomy future for insurance unless proactive measures are taken.

“What we have seen in recent years in terms of insurance losses are but a harbinger of things to come,” said Tim Wagner, co-chairman of the Climate Change and Global Warming Task Force for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. “Insurance is priced based on statistics and probability. What climate change has done is create ambiguity and uncertainty in the pricing scenario.”

While he favors the development of a national catastrophe fund to back up coastal states in the event of a major disaster, Wagner said it would be a tough sell for many interior states that don’t want to subsidize overbuilding along the coast.

The true costs of insurance along the coastlines need to be transparent, not artificially lowered by government subsidies that encourage building in fragile areas, he said. The state can strengthen the insurance market by tightening development rules and requiring tougher building codes, he said.

That theme – that despite strong evidence of a warming planet there are specific actions Florida can take to counteract the danger – was a recurring one during Tuesday’s nearly four-hour meeting.

Gov. Charlie Crist echoed the sentiment, telling the Cabinet it has a real impact on climate change policies. The cabinet’s management of coastal lands and natural resources, conservation efforts and choice of power plant locations all have an affect, said Crist.

Crist and the Florida Legislature have placed an unprecedented emphasis on climate change and energy policies this year.

Experts told the Cabinet that sea levels in Florida have risen roughly six to eight inches over the last 100 years because of expanding ocean water due to warmth and the melting of Arctic ice. Those levels could rise seven to 23 additional inches by 2100, seemingly small changes that have large consequences, they said.

Current warming, which experts now largely believe is being caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, is heating up the oceans and will lead to stronger hurricanes on average, said Stephen Mulkey, a climate-change expert at the University of Florida.

Some of the remedies that Mulkey proposed to the panel – such as greenhouse gas inventories, energy efficiency standards, requirements for renewable energies like wind, solar and biofuels – are for the first time being considered in legislation this year. But Florida has lagged far behind many other states in developing policies to counteract global warming, despite being in the cross hairs of its effects.

Crist declared at the end of the meeting it was “a great new beginning for Florida.”

The Cabinet will hold its next climate workshop on June 12.

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