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CCSLRI Speaker Calls for Public-Private Cooperation on Climate Change Adaptation

Chief climate product officer for Zurich Financial Lindene Patton

An executive with an international insurance firm told audiences at Old Dominion University on Monday, Feb. 20, that private insurers are taking the climate change warnings of scientists very seriously, and that she believes communities should be hard at work right now collecting data to inform their decisions about how to react to the risks.

Lindene Patton, the chief climate product officer for Zurich Financial, spoke to students and faculty in separate sessions before delivering a public lecture to about 200 people in the Big Blue Room of the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Her lecture topic was "Increased Flooding Risk, Adaptation and Insurance: Using Intelligent Tools to Maintain Quality of Community."

ODU's Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative (CCSLRI) and the College of Business and Public Administration sponsored Patton's visit in conjunction with the university's Office of Community Engagement.

The "intelligent tools" the speaker referenced in the title of her public lecture include computational modeling and analysis that can help cut through the confusion and define what steps everyone from individual homeowners to city governments should be taking because of sea level rise and increasing damage levels from storms. She said she was aware that ODU is the home of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center, and that VMASC has the expertise to make contributions in this area.

Cost-benefit analysis for steps that may be taken against storms and sea level rise have been done in other parts of the country, and show some mitigation choices - construction of levees or raising existing housing 6 feet off the ground, for example - may not be cost-effective. "We need to start looking at cost-benefit curves," she said.

Patton believes governments must react at a local level to climate change risks. But before they have the proverbial town hall meetings on the topic, the government leaders must gather information about the community's vulnerabilities, as well as about the feasibility of various mitigation steps, she said. "This is a local problem and nobody from outside can come in and tell you how to do it."

Inevitably, she said, building codes must be a primary tool for lessening long-term risks from flooding and winds. She toured the Norfolk area before her campus appearances and said, "I saw all the buildings built in the last five years in areas of frequent flooding. How could building permits have been granted for them?"

Patton had cautionary words about the National Flood Insurance Program for homeowners. Private insurers may administer this, but the risk is taken by the federal government. The private firms don't provide the coverage because it is "actuarially unsound," she said, and it depends upon people throughout the country paying - through tax dollars - for damages sustained by people who live in flood zones. "It is not good when the parties who create the risk are far removed from those who pay."

Homeowners who are charged unrealistically low rates for flood insurance may be hard to persuade to alter their lifestyles in reaction to climate change, she said. Private insurers can raise rates for businesses because of climate change risks, but, overall, she added, she does not believe the private insurers alone can influence communities to face up to sea level rise and other risks.

Zurich Financial, for which Patton works, is offering extra-cost betterment endorsements to businesses they insure that allow structures that are rebuilt after wind or flood damage to be sturdier and more stormproof than the original construction. Insurance products such as these, together with stricter building codes, can help a community begin to protect itself from suffering a catastrophic weather event in years to come, she said.

Patton acknowledges that any community's decision about how to plan for sea level rise is likely to be complicated by the nation's fossil-fuel-use paradigm and a fundamental belief that the quality of the environment is essentially static. To call for major changes in the way we live in order to mitigate future damages poses challenges to "our existing social structure" and "the fundamental fabric of our economy," she said.

She called for public-private cooperation in climate change adaptation on the scale seen decades ago when government and industry worked together to safeguard and harness nuclear energy. "The government took the nuclear weapons, and nuclear power was pretty much privately financed," she said.

"If we can't figure out how to manage climate change on a community-by-community basis, litigation will do it for us."

She gave several examples of small nations throughout the world that are claiming damages from sea level rise and want to force polluting industries or governments to pay them reparations. Tort liability verdicts similar to those decided against tobacco companies, asbestos manufacturers and hazardous waste producers could very well hit industries that emit greenhouse gases or fail to heed the warnings of scientists about climate change, she said.

Patton has spoken internationally about new imperatives facing insurance companies and their clients regarding climate issues. Zurich Financial has developed a climate initiative and also takes guidance from a climate change advisory council. The council is charged with assessing the insurer's vulnerabilities to climate change-related occurrences such as sea level rise and patterns of unusually destructive storms and droughts.

A licensed attorney, Patton also holds a master's degree in public health. She serves on numerous advisory boards, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Financial Advisory Board.

Her symposium at ODU with its public lecture was the second such event to be presented by the CCSLRI. At the formal launch of the initiative in December 2010, Rear Adm. David Titley, oceanographer of the U.S. Navy, discussed his work as commander of the Navy Task Force Climate Change.

The Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative was started at the direction of ODU President John R. Broderick to apply university resources to challenges predicted to come from sea level rise in urban coastal environments such as Hampton Roads. It has been led since its launch by Larry Atkinson, Eminent Professor and Slover Professor of Oceanography.

One example of a CCSLRI-related project is the development by VMASC researchers of the CoRSE (Continuously Running Simulation Environment) model for sea level rise decision making. The model takes data from 17 public domains - touching on such areas as agriculture, water supplies, energy and emergency services - and shows the interconnections among those interests on a map of Hampton Roads over a 100-year period. CoRSE is meant to be a tool for local and national leaders to make sure decision makers are mindful of potential impacts that climate change adaptation choices might have.