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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.