Warren Buffett On Climate Change Risk

Climate change made a few headlines over the weekend, both in best actor Leo DiCaprio’s Oscars acceptance speech and in Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

Buffett, facing calls from a proxy voter to file a report on the risks that climate change might present to Berkshire Hathaway’s insurance business, said it seems highly likely that climate change poses a major problem for the planet, but made clear that climate change is not a concern for its insurance operation:

As a citizen, you may understandably find climate change keeping you up nights. As a homeowner in a low-lying area, you may wish to consider moving. But when you are thinking only as a shareholder of a major insurer, climate change should not be on your list of worries.”

Buffett said it was understandable that the sponsor of the proxy proposal believes Berkshire is especially threatened by climate change because “we are a huge insurer, covering all sorts of risks”.

Such worries might be valid, he said, if Berkshire wrote 10 or 20-year policies at fixed prices.

But because insurance policies are customarily written for one year and repriced annually to reflect changing exposures, Buffett maintains that climate change is an opportunity for growth. In his words:

Increased possibilities of loss translate promptly into increased premiums.”

According to Buffett, up to now, climate change has not produced more frequent or more costly hurricanes or other weather-related events. As a result, U.S. super-cat rates have fallen steadily in recent years, which is why Berkshire has backed away from that business.

If super-cats become costlier and more frequent, the likely — though far from certain — effect on Berkshire’s insurance business would be to make it larger and more profitable.”

For a broader perspective on how insurers are dealing with climate change risk, check out the Insurance Information Institute’s issues update paper: Climate Change and Insurance Issues.

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