BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for November 2009

Insuring against climate change

Susan Watts | 15:00 UK time, Sunday, 29 November 2009

As the cost of the clean-up in Cumbria rises to over £100m ($165m), after this month's record rainfall, the world's biggest insurer has told me that his industry should be spending 10 times more than that each year to help avert the worst effects of climate change.

Man in New OrleansThe cost of insuring against the effects of climate change - and of not insuring - is preying on the minds of the big insurance companies. Scientists are always reluctant to attribute single catastrophic weather events, like a storm or heavy rain or drought, to global warming. Most climate scientists, though, do expect climate change to increase the frequency of costly, extreme weather. And for insurers, making sense of the pattern of events like this is their business.

For Newsnight, I went to Munich to ask the head of the largest insurance group in the world, Munich Re, how he sees that pattern changing. Nikolaus von Bomhard, chief executive officer, agreed that Hurricane Katrina, and the tens of billions of dollars paid out by his industry, was a wake-up call for everyone, not just for politicians.

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Just a few per cent of the insurance industry's financial resources could set the world on a low-carbon path, he said.

I asked him how much of Munich Re's money under management he's now investing in green technology projects that could help avert the worst effects of climate change, and lower insurance costs. "I would dare to say that something from the 1-to-2% point range is possible, and that in our case is already something like $2 billion."

Doesn't sound very much, considering the work that needs to be done? Well that's what I thought - and here's how von Bomhard answered that. "It is not a free philanthropic exercise that we do here. So it must make sense also for our policy and shareholders. But don't forget that if the entire insurance industry did that, they have investments under management of several trillions... then a lot of money is coming into that pool - a lot of money..."

One or two percent of several trillion dollars? That's tens of billions... every year.

Matt Huddleston, Principal Climate Change Consultant at the Met Office, is working with insurers, bringing together weather and climate research to help equip the industry as it faces an exponential rise in the cost of payouts.

Hurricane Katrina satellite image"They're terrified that they might have a year where they have a lot of damage from winter windstorms in Europe, a lot of land-falling hurricanes in America and hail damage in the Midwest - all in the same year," he told me.

"And the question is, can we understand those risks that can be predicted in the future, and what does that mean for the industry if those things are connected and not independent?"

Von Bomhard put it another way: "If we do not do something now to contain the development of these risks they will - we will - end up with an uninsurable event because the capacity will not suffice to insure any more. So it's not about protecting our business rather to develop jointly with all those constituencies and make sure it stays within let's say quantities that can be insured."

At the company headquarters, we caught a glimpse of Munich Re's determination to understand the changes the world, and it, might face. On one floor, the company employs a mini academic department of weather and climate experts, who first spotted an increase in frequency of catastrophic weather events in the 1970s, long before climate change became a household phrase.

And there's another surprise beneath the HQ itself - built just before the First World War, and with the feel of an imposing stately home. It's linked to buildings around it by a network of tunnels, brightly-lit in psychedelic colours. The men and women in formal dark business suits strike a contrast as they nip through the strange, mind-bending corridors.

Cockermouth streetAnd the sums of money it and the rest of the insurance and re-insurance industry commands are mind-bending too, according to Nick Mabey, of environmental think tank E3G. "They have huge amounts of money under management. We need huge investment into the low carbon sector, over a trillion a year to 2030 in low carbon." He told Newsnight that the time for these companies to act is now.

"If we started to see the insurance companies coming forward and saying to governments, 'We want to buy your green bonds, we want to invest in your green funds overseas', that would be very powerful and that would help government convince other parts of the private sector that their was money available in liquid in this area..."

This weekend Gordon Brown called for a start-up fund of $10bn (£6bn) a year to help the developing world to adapt to climate change and move to low-carbon economic growth. Compare that with the clout of the insurance and pensions world. At last look, even after the financial crisis, together they command some $60-odd trillions...

You can watch my report on Newsnight, at 10.30pm on BBC2.

What have the noughties done for science?

Susan Watts | 17:16 UK time, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The deputy head was still trying to shout to me about his school's values as the band struck up with a shrill whistle.

Local dignitaries and former staff started jiggling to the music. But most surprising perhaps was that all this razzmatazz was to celebrate the opening of a new science wing.

What an eye opener to see the whole of the Sawston Village College near Cambridge so excited about science.

Their guest of honour, the Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir John Sulston, sent his own children here, and we were there to ask him what he thinks the past decade has done for science.

And here was one answer right in front of our eyes. An impressive new building, sparkling equipment, and children involved, excitedly, in science experiments.

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For the time being there is more money for science at the end of this first decade of the 21st Century, and a feeling of cautious confidence too.

The children were surrounded by old science lab favourites - the small "pop" of an explosion as they slid a burning splint into a test tube of hydrogen, and more modern additions too - jelly babies on cocktail sticks, wedged across tubes of liquorice - a visual aid for students learning about the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule.

_46711420_hubblespacetelescope_ap.jpg It was Sir John who led the UK's contribution to the Human Genome project, which produced a read out of the DNA code that makes a human a human.

The international project opened a decade some thought might not get started at all.
The Millennium Bug was set to strike at the heart of our electronic-dependent world. It did not, the machines were okay.

What began instead was a decade of astonishing scientific endeavour. Stem cells held out the promise of rejuvenation, fertility techniques allowed us to screen out disease and think about shaping our own evolution.

The Hubble Space Telescope looked out to the edge of the Universe and far back in time, and we wondered about intelligent life elsewhere as we found more and more planets around other stars.

The Large Hadron Collider tried to tell us more about how it all began, until it broke.

I asked Sir John how significant a moment it was when the working draft of the Human Genome was announced at the start of the decade.

"I think philosophically very significant because the idea of a species evolving from a 4.5 billion year process now being able to read its own DNA... I don't believe that's happened before. It epitomises our strength as an intelligent, thinking and transcendently thinking organism."

But a lot of promises were made back then, about revolutionising medicine.

"Inevitably in the excitement, all sorts of examples were given - that this would be important in medicine, and so on. But I always contended the most important part was the foundational aspect, knowing our genome, and knowing lots of other genomes... and comparisons between all those is the most powerful tool."

Sir John warned though about taking short cuts.

"The whole thing is being oversold by some. For example people who offer to scan your genome and offer to tell you what your medical condition is likely to be - this is almost entirely rubbish at the moment. Understanding which genes are involved in which processes, to build up the entire network of genetic pathways that make a human being is a multi-decade long job."

He worries that the decade has seen what he calls a "channelling" effect - with researchers asked to focus on work with an obvious ability to create immediate profit.

"Now there's no harm in that in a sense it's a win-win situation: do good science, get lots of profit. But if you neglect all sorts of other areas, and particularly neglect the future then we're in trouble. It's very important... to fund research which doesn't have any immediate utility necessarily, but looks as though it may be important in the future."

Sir John told me about what he had said to the children of Sawston College earlier that day.

"I was saying that I personally had found tremendous excitement and joy in science. I recalled how excited I was learning about things at school. And then I talked about how some of them would make basic discoveries which would change our understanding of everything, how some of them would make things which would make society better."

I am sure that hearing from a Nobel Prize winner would help to drive the students to great heights of ambition. But I suspect their enthusiasm can be traced just as firmly to the energy of the team of science teachers at their school.

Given the problems their generation will face - such as finding enough food and clean energy for a growing population - science education will need to be perceived as being not just for scientists, but for everybody.

That way more people will understand something of the nature of relative risks, and about the power and limitations of science in future decades.

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