chapter  9
18 Pages

Climate change and the risk industry: the multiplication of fear and value


Inundated port cities bringing trade and shipping to its knees: Gulf of Mexico oil production crippled by a series of major hurricanes: lower Manhattan under water, or an overtopping Thames paralyzing global financial markets. These images no longer read like scenes from the wildly apocalyptic film The Day After Tomorrow. They are narratives regularly reported in the press and are commonplace in scenario planning conducted by the phalanxes of risk consultants, policy wonks, and academics concerned with the challenges of adapting to the medium and long term implications of global climate change. Future climate projections coupled with disastrous economic scenarios are not hard to come by, thanks to a forest of reports turned out by multilateral organizations, environmental agencies, global insurers, industry associations, policy think tanks, university research centers, environmental non-governmental organizations, and so on. As the economic risks posed by global warming have become increasingly apparent and publicized, the planetary scale of both financial interdependence and climate change impacts have made it impossible for the institutions managing global capital to ignore them. Potential threats often cited include damage to property and infrastructure from sea level rise and coastal subsidence, declines in agricultural and marine productivity, water shortages, increasing health care and health insurance costs and work days lost, and economic losses due to more frequent or severe weather-related disasters such as heat waves, droughts, floods, winter storms, and tropical cyclones (cf. Nicholls et al. 2007, Epstein and Mills 2005, Downing et al. 1999).1 These are the sorts of impacts that prompted sociologist Ulrich Beck to place climate change in a new category of risks generated by industrial society that are fundamentally “uninsurable” (Beck 1999). But is this in fact the case? In what follows I show that the insurance industry is plowing ahead with its attempts to make climate change impacts insurable, and therefore profitable, lines of business. Moreover, I argue that the ways in which the industry is going about this project reveal the

constellations of science, value, and fear – a political ecology of risk – through which the modern insurance industry broadly construed (the risk industry) reproduces itself.2