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Forcing change: could insurers do more to influence climate policy?

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As fossil fuel pressure campaigns continue to build, and insurers withdraw cover in the context of a hardening market, brokers with affected clients are hitting back.

InsuranceNEWS.com.au has previously reported how underwriters with connections to the controversial Adani coal mine have had their identities leaked to the media, and clients with direct or indirect links to the sector are increasingly facing soaring premiums and difficulty obtaining cover.

Advocates for the sector argue this is neither fair nor sensible while the Australian economy is still so reliant on coal exports and renewable energy remains – in the minds of many – a work in progress.

They say that right now we still need the coal industry, so insurers should do their job and insure it.

The insurance industry, many believe, should be made of sterner stuff and not give in to pressure from the likes of Insure Our Future, which last week also turned its attention to oil and gas.

If we thought the economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic was bad, just wait and see what would happen if insurers pulled the plug on fossil fuels.

But there’s another way to look at it.

Perhaps, in the absence of decisive government leadership on fossil fuel reduction and a rising public clamour for more climate-friendly programs, it should fall upon the insurance industry to force change.

It wouldn’t be the first time. It was the industry’s withdrawal of exclusion-free professional indemnity cover for building surveyors and certifiers that finally sparked serious government action on the building defects crisis.

And while it is painful for those directly affected, soaring premiums in disaster-prone northern Queensland have forced governments to listen to industry calls for mitigation measures.

In an interview in the latest Insurance News magazine, outgoing Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) CEO Rob Whelan admits that he wishes he’d done more on climate change during his tenure.

He says the industry always knew climate change was “an important material risk” but it was pushed into staying silent.

“There were very strong views within the Government at various times that this was not an issue, and that we needed to keep out of it,” Mr Whelan said.

He believes the Black Summer of bushfires and other natural catastrophes – with insured losses of $5.2 billion and counting – has created the opportunity to “prosecute a stronger position”.

Despite this, ICA remains largely silent on emissions, preferring to focus on the need for measures to mitigate the current risk.

Mr Whelan says while emissions must come down, there’s no doubt that there has to be a transition. Change cannot happen overnight if Australia is to keep the lights on and wheels turning.

But there’s also no doubt that time is running out and the status quo on coal cannot prevail for much longer.

Climate change sceptics still point to reports and statistics that they say cast doubt over changing weather patterns, what’s causing them, and how they should be interpreted.

But despite that counter-argument, the scientific consensus that the insurance industry globally supports is overwhelmingly clear – emissions must be reduced, and we don’t have much time left to do it.

Like it or not, the insurance industry holds a key position in the issue, both as a major investor in national infrastructure and as the entity that measures the possible consequences of risks and sets the premium.

While the Federal Government would prefer the insurance industry to maintain its softly-softly approach to coal and its well-documented impact on climate change, there is a tipping point where insurers’ responsibility to their shareholders will outweigh the need to not upset conservative politicians who scorn climate change science.

When the tipping point is reached, will it be the insurance industry that injects the urgency required to force the real change that’s needed?