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Insurers Reel from Record Weather Losses in 2004

Insurers to Pay Record Disaster Damages in 2004, Dec. 16, 2004

BUENOS AIRES - Natural disasters will cost insurers a record $35 billion this year, after hurricanes lashed the Caribbean and southeastern United States and a record 10 typhoons soaked Japan in events seen as linked to global warming, climate experts said on Wednesday.

"2004 will be the costliest year for the insurance industry worldwide, so it will be a new world record even if we adjust all previous years for inflation," said Thomas Loster, a climate expert at Munich Re, one of the world's biggest reinsurance companies.

Overall destruction costs will surge as high as $95 billion worldwide, Loster said during a news conference with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), citing a study based on the first ten months of the year.

That compares to an average of $70 billion a year during the last decade.

The United States led the amount of insured losses with a whopping $26 billion in damages. But it is poor countries like the small island nation of Grenada that suffer most when extreme weather hits.

Hurricane Ivan struck Grenada in September, killing 28 people and razing thousands of homes and the crucial nutmeg and cocoa crops to rack up losses of $1 billion -- twice the size of the country's economy.

Poor countries "do not have the chance to be on the safe side via insurance, they are directly confronted with these problems," Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director, said.

"We have to take action now because otherwise to fight against this changing climate will be extremely devastating and very costly," Toepfer said.

Toepfer said that extreme weather would exist without global warming, but he cited evidence showing that the number and the intensity of such disasters has been increasing.

The report came during the United Nations conference on climate change in Buenos Aires, the first to take place after Russia ratified the Kyoto protocol to cut emissions of gases believed to cause global warming.

Major reinsurance companies, such as Munich Re, were not hard hit by this year's rampant hurricanes because of improved claims settlement and liability control, Loster added.

But the insurance industry is worried that new, climate-related risks are emerging.

As an example, UNEP cited a storm unofficially dubbed Hurricane Catarina which developed in the Southern Atlantic off Brazil where sea surface temperatures are normally too low to trigger tropical cyclones.

"It is, I believe, unquestioned that climate change is happening now and it is happening at an even higher speed than we expected before," Toepfer said.