Canadian Underwriter

Insurers, society face irreversible climate change: reinsurance board exec

December 19, 2017   by Greg Meckbach, Associate Editor

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Wildfires that hit British Columbia earlier this year and that continue to affect California are among the effects of climate change, says Karen Gavan, former CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Economical Insurance.

B.C. Wildfire Service Forest Protection Technician Brian Clark monitors a controlled burn being conducted to help prevent the Finlay Creek wildfire from spreading near Peachland, B.C., on Thursday, September 7, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

“Literally California has been burning all fall,” said Gavan, a Toronto resident who currently serves on the board of Swiss Re America Holding Corporation, in a phone interview Monday.

Also, this year has been one of the “worst wildfire seasons” for British Columbia, Gavan added.

Quoting Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc. (CatIQ), Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) reported in September that wildfires this past summer in the Williams Lake and Elephant hill areas of B.C. have caused more than $127 million in insured damage.

South of the border, wildfires that hit northern California in October caused insured losses of more than US$9.4 billion, the state’s insurance department reported Dec. 6.

The Thomas fire, which broke out two weeks ago, is 45% contained but still threatens areas northwest of Los Angeles, including Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, The Associated Press reported Monday. The Thomas fire has burned more than 1,000 structures, including at least 750 homes, AP reported.

Fire in California and B.C. are “part of climate change,” Gavan told Canadian Underwriter Monday, adding this is causing rising sea levels, flooding, increased severity of storms and wildfires.

“I think societies need to adapt to the changes and prepare for the impacts of climate change,” she said. “I don’t think we are going to reverse it or undo it. I think we have to adapt.”

The risk of damage from extreme weather — including floods, convective storms, hurricanes and hail — is increasing, said Rob Wesseling, CEO of The Co-operators Group Ltd., in an interview Friday.

Climate change “is not just an insurance industry discussion,” Wesseling added. “As a society in Canada, we need to resolve ourselves to put our homes, businesses and critical infrastructure in places we can afford to defend them.”

Gavan is one of three nominees for Swiss Re Group’s board of directors announced Dec. 8. Swiss Re Group’s board election is scheduled April 20, 2018. Also nominated as non-executive and independent Swiss Re board members are Eileen Rominger and Larry Zimpleman.

Gavan retired as Economical CEO last year and was succeeded by Rowan Saunders, former CEO of RSA Canada. Gavan, a former chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Transamerica Life and Aegon Fund Management Inc., also serves on the board of Mackenzie Investments, a Toronto-based mutual fund provider.