Harvard Medical, Swiss Re Tell Congress Risks of Global Warming “Are Here Already”

June 19, 2003

Experts from the Harvard Medical School and Swiss Re briefed members of Congress yesterday on what they see as the current effects of global warming, indicating that it’s no longer “a hypothetical concern for future generations,” but is causing problems tight now.

Dr. Paul R. Epstein, M.D., associate director, Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School and Christopher T. Walker, Swiss Re’s managing director, Greenhouse Gas Risk Solutions, Financial Services Business Group, told U.S. House and Senate members that global warming already is a front-burner issue in the public health and financial sectors (particularly the insurance industry). They cited new “outbreaks” of health problems, including asthma and West Nile Virus, and a palpable danger of added insurance risks and costs as indicating that climate-change issues must be addressed now.

“Concerns about climate change are often mistakenly placed into the distant future,” Epstein explained. “But as the rate of climate change increases, so do the biological responses and costs associated with warming and unstable weather. The influence of intensifying droughts on the spread of West Nile virus in the U.S. and the impacts of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels on allergies and asthma demonstrate that global warming has come into our backyards.”

He also noted that “The intense weather extremes associated with warming of the atmosphere and oceans create conditions favorable to ‘clusters’ of disease outbreaks. Large outbreaks of West Nile virus (WNV) in the U.S. and Europe are associated with drought, and prolonged droughts have become more frequent with global warming. WNV affects humans directly and the impacts on wildlife have long term implications for the global emergence and resurgence of infectious diseases.”

Walker pointed out the looming financial consequences of global warming. “Today, climate change as a financial issue is very much underestimated from the point of view of the insurance and reinsurance industry’s potentially rising costs and risks,” he stated. “Carbon is becoming a tradable commodity, allowing companies to hedge their risks, profit from emissions assets and turn this new discipline into a competitive advantage.”

Walker added: “So, in additional to potential liabilities for corporations from greenhouse gas emissions reductions, there also are business opportunities where the financial industry and, in particular, the insurance industry can be the prime mover of emissions reduction activities. The reality here is simple: insurance and reinsurance companies have the potential to become prime catalysts for the development of renewables, emission reduction and energy-efficient technologies for two reasons: such steps will reduce risks and open up new and lucrative lines of business activity.”

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