September 13, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
In climate-change politics, remember the little things
There's hurricanes and wildfires. Then there's homeowners insurance.
When it comes to the politics of climate change, the things that get most of our attention are most often the big things, like hurricanes barreling through Florida or wildfires blazing through Maui. But the little things should get our attention, too, because they, perhaps as much as the big things, create the conditions for political action.
I’m thinking, for instance, about last week. Here in Connecticut, it was hot! So hot that many of the public school districts in the state were forced to close their facilities earlier than usual. Evidently, air conditioning systems could not keep pace with rising temperatures.
This was hugely disruptive. Local news reported parents being forced to pick up more than one kid at more than one school before arranging for childcare that’s usually not needed, so they can work. Imagine this scenario repeated tens of thousands of times over. Finding childcare is hard. Keeping a job that pays enough to pay for childcare is hard. Add schools closing early due to extreme heat and, well, you get the idea.
Given the direction we are going, and how fast we are going there, it stands to reason that my modest house, atop a hill overlooking a flood plain, might not be insurable in time. It’s my biggest source of wealth. If that goes, well, I don’t want to think about it.
There’s potential to get worse. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the earth experienced the hottest three months ever in June, July and August. It said that, “August as a whole saw the highest global monthly average sea surface temperatures on record across all months, at 20.98°C. [That’s nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit] Temperatures exceeded the previous record every single day in August.”
Another little thing is homeowners insurance.
The more the planet experiences the consequences of climate change – more frequent and more intense hurricanes, more frequent and more intense wildfires – the more insurers are pulling back from covering damages caused by them. The Post reported that major home insurers, including Allstate and Nationwide, have told regulators “that extreme weather patterns caused by climate change have led them to stop writing coverages in some regions, exclude protections from various weather events and raise monthly premiums and deductibles.”
We’re not only talking about places where hurricanes occur frequently. We’re also talking about places where they did not occur frequently but do now thanks to climate change. Nationwide said that it wouldn’t cover “properties within a certain distance to the coastline” – any coastline – due to hurricane risks. The Post: “That means individuals and families in places once considered safe from natural catastrophes could lose crucial insurance protections while their natural disaster exposure expands or intensifies as global temperatures rise.”
My house is about five miles from New Haven Harbor, off the Long Island Sound. I don’t know if I’d meet Nationwide’s threshold. (I don’t buy its product.) But given the direction we are going, and how fast we are going there, it stands to reason that my modest house, atop a hill overlooking a flood plain, might not be insurable in time. It’s my biggest source of wealth. If that goes, well, I don’t want to think about it.
Speaking of flood plains, they’re getting bigger, faster. Considering climate change alone, a team of researchers found that flood damage is on pace to increase by more than a quarter over 30 years. Then they factored in population growth. (Despite the risk, people still build on flood plains, knowing they will flood.) The team “found the increase in US flood losses will be four times higher than the climate-only effect.”
As flood plains get bigger, faster, more land will be uninsurable, faster. That’s going to put immense stress on the National Flood Insurance Program, which is already immensely stressed. According to Ben Winck, floods “have already cost the United States $38 billion this year, nearly tripling the historical yearly average.” He added that its “payouts have ballooned as well. The program’s flood fund lost nearly $1.9 billion in fiscal 2022, up from a $236 million loss the year prior.” It’s also subject to renewal, which the House Republicans won’t promise.
As the air gets hotter, it gets wetter. Wetter air means more rain. A late-summer shower in New England used to be gentle. Now, because the air is sopping, they’re often downpours. (Just this morning, the skies dropped 10 inches of water in six hours.) The housing stock of this region, some of it very old, going back to Puritan times, was not built to endure the impact of subtropical weather. Yet this is where we are.
Hurricanes and wildfires get a lot of attention, because they are the most dramatic demonstration of our environmental peril. They may be the best conditions from which to build a climate-change movement.
But it’s the little things that accumulate — slowly, surely and nearly invisibly — to become (hopefully) a decent life. If things like childcare and homeowners insurance become impossible, a decent life is, too.
That’s another basis for raising hell.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.