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Tornadoes, acid oceans and insurance companies

Published Mar 8, 2012 9:28 PM

The tornado season in the United States started early this year — a whole season early. Winter’s grip was still on the land when deadly twisters in the Midwest and South disintegrated homes and flung people and animals around like rag dolls. Like everything else about the weather these days, that broke all kinds of records.

The number of tornadoes was mind-boggling: More than 100 of them coiled and roared over 12 states, killing 40 people. It happened three weeks before the start of spring. Thousands picking through the rubble of their broken homes days later shivered as snow fell.

A huge swath of the United States was affected, from Nebraska to South Carolina, from Mississippi to Ohio. The Feb. 29-March 3 storm system was so large and powerful that debris sucked up by a twister in Henryville, Ind., was later found 68 miles away.

Such tragic scenes are becoming all too familiar as the planet warms and weather patterns are disrupted. Stunned survivors call out for help, while frustrated scientists who know only too well the cause of such disasters plead with increased urgency for government action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Scores of international conferences have been held with little political result. Let’s not forget that the U.S., with just 5 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 25 percent of the accumulated carbon dioxide gas warming the planet. But the capitalist government in Washington is too busy waging wars and cutting social benefits to pay much attention to the problem of global warming, even when it strikes so close to home. In fact, many elected representatives — who represent first and foremost the powerful energy companies that profit off oil, natural gas and coal — still profess the thoroughly discredited view that global warming doesn’t exist.

Insurance industry weighs in

Will that change now that the insurance industry has weighed in, calling on the government to do something about climate change?

On March 1, one day after the latest outbreak of tornadoes began, insurance industry representatives spoke at a press conference in Washington organized by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat. Present were people from the Reinsurance Association of America, the firms Willis Re and Swiss Re, and the nonprofit organization Ceres.

“As a member of the global insurance industry, we have witnessed the increased impact of weather-related events on our industry and around the world,” said Mark Way, head of Swiss Re’s sustainability and climate change activities in the Americas. “A warming climate will only add to this trend of increasing losses, which is why action is needed now.” (Insurance Networking News, March 2)

What has led the insurance industry to take on the lies and misinformation spread by the energy industry? Profits — or rather the threat of losing them. In other words, the capitalist insurance industry is driven by the same motive as the capitalist energy industry. But in this case their interests collide head-on.

And those speaking at the press conference made no bones about it. Their unusual activism is all about money, they said. In the 1980s, insurers paid out an average of $3 billion a year on claims related to weather-caused damage. That number went up to $20 billion a year by the end of the last decade. And it continues to rise.

“Property and casualty insurers in the United States experienced an estimated $44 billion in losses last year when hurricanes, droughts, tornadoes and other natural disasters were more severe, longer, more frequent and less predictable than in the past,” said Insurance Networking News in its report on the press conference. What the insurance companies are looking for is government money to make up their losses.

This is not the first time that the insurance industry has lobbied against practices that cut its profits and drove up the price of premiums. While health advocates warned for decades about the deadly risks of smoking, it took the intervention of insurers for the government to intervene and ban smoking in public places. Again, it was all about profits — something that capitalist politicians can understand.

Don’t bet on market forces

Could this happen again? Don’t bet on it. The problem of tobacco was very small compared to the problem of global warming, and the energy industry is much more powerful, with strong ties to banking and the military. Plus, the change effected was primarily in individual behavior — stopping smoking. But no matter how conscientious individuals try to be with regard to climate change — driving cars with better mileage, riding bikes and walking to work — it’s all a drop in the bucket.

What is needed to slow down, much less reverse, global warming is a massive reorganization of production, transportation and housing simultaneously with seeking and developing new sources of energy and energy conservation.

Meanwhile, the situation grows more dire. The magazine Science just published an alarming report by 21 scientists on the acidification of the oceans. One of its authors, Andy Ridgwell of Bristol University, said, “The geological record suggests that the current acidification is potentially unparalleled in at least the last 300 million years of Earth history, and raises the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.”

The increasing acidity of the oceans comes directly from the release of carbon dioxide. One quarter of the gas is absorbed by sea water, where it is converted into carbonic acid.

There is no lack of evidence that a planetwide disaster is unfolding. And the cause is right here at home. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people cannot get jobs as the capitalist system sheds workers and cuts needed services.

Clearly, time is growing short for a revolutionary reconstruction of society. No band-aids can do the job. Only by defying bourgeois property rules can the working class — the vast majority, the 99%, many of whom have no future under capitalism — take over and control the world’s immense productive apparatus that exists so that socialist planning can begin to convert it to meet human needs and save the planet.