Betting on climate change

A blue-sky proposal by an Asian investment bank raises questions of propriety.

It seems like this is the sort of thing that gets the finance industry a bad name:

A financial product could be constructed with payments linked to a sea-level index, and featuring some characteristics similar to a catastrophe bond or weather derivative...

Protection would come in the form of a higher payment to the policyholder if the sea level rises more quickly than expected and a lower or zero payment if the sea level rises less quickly. Some creativity would be needed to make such a product acceptable to both the policyholder and insurer, but it is quite feasible.

But quite apart from the questionable PR which would result from creating such a product, it probably wouldn't work, as alphaville point out:

In terms of getting the technicals of the product down pat, well why not. But thinking about it – you (as the insurer) would be selling insurance on a potentially massive, truly systemic risk here. Something that could – over time – remove island nations from the map altogether. Not something you can hide from using the law of large numbers, quite possibly.

The chart accompanying the original study shows that 37.2 million people in India alone are at risk from sea-level rises by 2050, and well over 100 million in Asia alone -- as well as another 8 million in the USA. It is likely global catastrophe of that level isn't something the world financial system could escape unscathed, so while the creator of these bonds would make a nice income in the years leading up to disaster -- and an even nicer one if climate change was indeed averted -- anyone expecting that the insurance they had purchased would actually protect them against anything would be in for a nasty surprise. Almost as nasty as the people living in coastal areas.

Floods in Peru. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.