End of the ostrich era

December 11, 2006

For a clear-eyed view of the threat posed by global warming, just ask an insurance underwriter.

Those green-eye-shade guys work for folks who make money by accepting risk - but no more than the minimum necessary to be profitable. And after covering $51.5 billion in losses when three once-in-a-century storms all hit in 2005, insurance companies that survived became very wary of protecting property owners against loss from natural disasters that are increasingly unpredictable because of climate change. Part of their calculation is the rate at which this warming effect is accelerated by human activities that produce carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas.

Thus, it was almost comic to see Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe use his waning days last week as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to challenge the "hoax" of global warming one more time.

His loyalty is to the fossil fuel industry, which fears curbs on CO2 emissions. But it's way past time for the rest of Congress to take its head out of the sand and confront global warming for the major threat that it is. Mr. Inhofe's successor as chairman, California Democrat Barbara Boxer, has vowed remedial action, and she deserves broad support.

As the insurance industry makes clear, addressing global warming is no academic exercise. Everyone has something at stake.

Here in the mid-Atlantic region, the most immediate threat comes from hurricanes and rising sea levels. A recent update in projections of storm activity along the Maryland-Delaware-Virginia coast for the next five years increased the likelihood of storm damage by 30 percent from previous predictions. The projections were based on higher surface temperatures in the ocean and associated changes in atmospheric circulation.

At a minimum, that means a higher cost of flood insurance in vulnerable areas - if it can be obtained at all.

There are no guarantees that global warming can be reversed or even how much it can be abated. But Mrs. Boxer is determined to try to follow the model set by her home state, which committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent as of 2020.

Other Democratic-run committees are promising to pursue their own approaches.

President Bush, who, like Sen. Inhofe, has been clinging to the notion that man-made global warming is some kind of media hype, could make some much-needed repairs on his tattered legacy by joining the new Congress in addressing the obvious reality.

This year's blissfully calm storm season can't be read as a sign that the danger has passed. Just ask the actuaries.

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