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Who pays for extreme weather?

By Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

As the northeast begins to recover from the ravages of Sandy, there are estimates that the giant storm caused some $20 billion in property damage and up to $30 billion more in lost economic activity.

The question now is who will pay that tab -- as well as the cost of future disasters that climate change will inevitably bring about.

It's already clear that the private insurance industry, as usual, will do everything in its power to minimize its share of the burden. Insurers take advantage of the fact that their policies often do not cover damages from flooding, passing that cost onto policyholders. Most of them are unaware of the fact and fail to purchase federal flood insurance until it is too late.

Insurers also exploit clauses in their policies that impose much higher deductibles for non-flood damages during hurricanes. Fortunately, governors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are blocking that maneuver by giving Sandy a different official designation (which is consistent with the National Weather Service's use of the term "post tropical storm").  It remains to be seen, nonetheless, to what extent the insurance industry manages to create new obstacles for its customers.

The challenges for homeowners are just one part of the problem. Sandy also did tremendous damage to public infrastructure -- roads, bridges, subway stations, etc. Although these are government assets, should the public sector bear the cost of rebuilding?

Many people are arguing, in the words of a New York Times editorial, that "a big storm requires big government." That's certainly true when it comes to initial disaster response.  Many more people would have died and much more damage would have occurred but for the efforts of public-sector first responders and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been remade since its debacle during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But the challenges associated with extreme weather go far beyond those relief functions. There's now discussion of the need for New York City to build a huge flood-prevention system along the lines of that in the Netherlands.

Taxpayers, especially those of the 99 percent, should not be forced to assume the entire cost of such a massive undertaking. Extreme weather is clearly linked to climate change, which in turn has been largely caused by the growth in greenhouse gas emissions caused by large corporations, especially those in the fossil fuel industry.

Holding corporations responsible for the consequences of climate change is not a new idea. Yet it is one that all too frequently gets drowned out amid the bloviating of the climate deniers, much of whose funding comes from the very corporate interests they are working to get off the hook.

Back in 2006 BusinessWeek wrote that lawsuits targeting corporations for global warming were "the next wave of litigation," following in the footsteps of the lawsuits that forced the tobacco industry to cough up hundreds of billions of dollars in compensation. Such cases did materialize. For example, in 2008 lawyers representing the Alaska Native coastal village of Kivalina, which was being forced to relocate because of flooding caused by the changing Arctic climate, filed suit against Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, Duke Energy and other oil and utility companies, arguing that they conspired to mislead the public about the science of global warming and this contributed to the problem that was threatening the village.

Such suits have not had an easy time in the courts. The Kivalina case was dismissed by a federal district judge, and that dismissal was recently upheld by the federal court of appeals. A suit brought by the state of California against major automakers for contributing to global warming was also dismissed.

It is far from certain that corporations will continue to get off scot free. In fact, groups such as the Investor Network on Climate Risks argue that the potential liability is quite real and that this should be a matter of concern for institutional shareholders. The Network, a project of CERES, pursues its goals through initiatives such as appeals to the SEC to require better disclosure of climate risks and through friendly engagement with large corporations.

Yet it may be that a more confrontational approach is necessary to build popular support for the idea that big business needs to be held accountable for its big contribution to the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing steps in the opposite direction. The Bloomberg Administration in New York has already announced new storm-related subsidies that will apply not only to struggling mom-and-pop business but also to giant corporations. Unless there is a popular outcry, the city will repeat its mistakes in the wake of the 9-11 attacks of giving huge amounts of taxpayer-funded reconstruction assistance to the likes of Goldman Sachs (see the website of Good Jobs New York for the dismaying details).

The fact that the large New York banks that stand to benefit from Bloomberg's new giveaways helped finance fossil-fuel projects that contribute to climate change shows just how self-defeating this approach is.

Rather than using public money to help wealthy corporations pay for storm damage on their premises, we should be forcing those companies to pay the costs of addressing the climate crisis they did so much to create.

(Photo from the Rainforest Action Network.)

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