Cover Story

Building Resiliency in the Face of Climate Change

Climate change demands that companies take a collaborative approach to risk management.
By: | June 2, 2014 • 10 min read

Failing to prepare for extreme weather events cost the United States $1.15 trillion in economic losses from 1980 to 2010, according to the U.S Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). The more telling number comes from a study by Munich Re, which put insured losses for North America during the same period at $510 billion. No doubt government was forced to take on the lion’s share of the rest, but U.S. business also paid out of pocket for a fair amount of the remaining $640 billion in losses.

Here’s another sobering figure. A Business Continuity Institute study indicates that 40 percent of businesses affected by extreme weather for extended periods of time never recover or reopen. It’s likely that for much of the 60 percent that stay open, full recovery is a long and painful process.

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The forces behind these events are gaining steam and they are indiscriminate. From December 2013 through February 2014, drought-stricken California recorded its warmest winter on record. Across the rest of the country, including the South, winter storms were merciless, dealing at least a $15 billion blow to U.S. businesses.

Let the politicians bicker all they want about who or what is to blame for climate change. USGCRP projects another $1.2 trillion in losses through 2050. So for those with boots on the ground and a business to run, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. Climate change is not a future risk, it’s a right-now risk, and the only question that matters is, “Now what?”

Some of the answers to that may surprise risk managers and other business leaders.

The Chocolate Elephant

Here’s what’s on the table. According to the most recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, and coral reefs are dying. Coastal communities are under double threat from sea-level rise and from increased acidity as the waters absorb the carbon dioxide given off by cars and power plants. Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is melting, decaying into yet more greenhouse gases.

Video: A description of the IPCC findings.

Slowing these trends may be possible, but reversing them is not. Therefore, the altered climate — with its attendant storm frequency increases, droughts, wildfires, intense rainfalls, storm surges, the “polar vortex,” the rising sea level and the rest of it — is ours to keep.

Evidence of this mounts daily. Just within the days surrounding the 2014 RIMS conference, wildfires ravaged states on the East and West coasts, tornadoes ripped a path across the South Central United States, and severe floods battered Florida and Alabama. That convergence of calamities no longer seems to strike anyone as shocking. In the years and decades to come, these events are expected to increase in both frequency and severity. In other words, welcome to the new normal.

Superstorm Sandy tested the mettle of many, and served as a wake-up call to those who underestimated the complexity of the climate risks they face. Organizations were brought up short by just how underprepared they really were — and what that could mean to their bottom lines. Risk managers, both public and private, are beginning to parse out what climate change really means and what its total implications are for the organizations they serve.

That task can seem daunting. There are multiple perils involved, which have an exponential impact on possible exposures.

“One of the challenges of climate risk is that for most people, it’s the chocolate elephant — it’s just too big to eat,” said Chris Smy, managing director and global practice leader with Marsh’s environmental practice. That makes it tempting to throw up one’s hands and say, “I can’t solve this.”

The threat seems both too large and too distant. Many reports and articles about climate change include the phrase “by the end of the century …” easily lulling leaders into thinking of it as something that need not be addressed right now, especially when matters such as cyber risk seem so much more immediately pressing.

 Chris Smy, managing director, global practice leader, Marsh

Chris Smy, managing director, global practice leader, Marsh

But the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events is apparent. At the same time, we’re seeing populations gravitate toward cities, and scientists have concluded that cities are warming at a faster rate than rural areas. These facts alone make for a dangerous combination. The population shift toward urban areas also means that many companies don’t have the option to avoid doing business in exposure-prone areas. They need to be where the customers are.

“You have more frequency and severity, and that is exacerbated by more people at risk and more assets to be damaged,” said Bob Petrilli, head of North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. “It’s a triple whammy — it’s multiple economic issues coming together to make things that much worse.”

In the face of these challenges, a dialogue has begun among both corporations and public entities about the concept of resiliency and how to achieve it. What “resilience” means will be different for every company. But it must encompass both the means to minimize exposures and to plan for all contingencies, as well as a clear roadmap to recovery.

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Assessing exposures surrounding climate risk is a more acrobatic exercise than some risk managers are accustomed to. It will take a deep dive into the “what ifs” of each possible peril, looking beyond clear property risks and into anything that could impact a company’s supply chain, as well as a thorough examination of factors that could create business continuity disruptions. For diligent companies, that sounds like standard best practices, but climate risk gives it a new flavor many have not yet tasted. What if the increased frequency of storms, over time, erodes the reliability of power delivery to one or several of my facilities? Could storm surge threaten any of the key bridges we use to transport products out or bring raw materials in? What if there’s a lack of potable water in the city where my key factory is located, or their food supply is sharply diminished by drought conditions? What if threats to the food or water supply create new diseases that incapacitate a large percentage of my workforce in that region?

“One of the challenges of climate risk is that for most people, it’s the chocolate elephant — it’s just too big to eat.” — Chris Smy, managing director and global practice leader, Marsh

That’s not to say that companies need jump on every risk identified. It’s a matter of eliminating the element of surprise. “The horizon may be different,” said John Marren, director of global risk and insurance management for CSL Behring, at a session at this year’s RIMS conference, “but we wanted to have it all on the radar.”

A New Discussion

As companies confront the real problems posed by climate risk, the more they will be faced with the reality that individual companies cannot effectively mitigate every aspect on their own.

“What we’re finally starting to notice is a shift toward this idea of comprehensive risk management,” said Alex Kaplan, vice president, global partnerships for Swiss Re. “It’s not just about your own resilience but it’s also about the community around you. For instance, if you have, say, a corporation that’s based in a city. They could have state-of-the-art technology and could be insured to the teeth, but the city around them ends up collapsing.”

A poignant and very real example of this, said Kaplan, is the Toyota plant in the Turkish city of Van. “It was up to the most incredible standards of seismic protection. So when they had an earthquake in 2011, the factory was virtually unscathed.” However, Kaplan explained, 600 people in the surrounding community were killed, 6,000 buildings were destroyed and 60,000 people were left homeless. “So even though Toyota was physically OK, none of its workers could get to work. And frankly, even if they could get to work, they probably had bigger problems to worry about.”

The corporation with the best risk management, the best strategy and the best risk transfer still has to be aware of where they’re located and what around them could also be impacted and prevent them from moving forward, said Swiss Re’s Petrilli.

Bob Petrilli, head of head of North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions

Bob Petrilli, head of North America, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions

“A corporation can’t really survive and thrive unless it’s in a location that has a resiliency plan, and if you’re not talking about that together, then you’re never going to get there,” he said. “This public-private partnership type of approach and thought process is relatively new to our industry — but I think it is critically important.”

These ideas — which are spreading slowly — represent a fundamental shift in how climate risk is perceived.

“Many of us in the industry have been focusing on not just the idea of resiliency but on this overarching concept of enterprise risk management, but it’s also broader, it’s global, it’s about interconnectedness,” said Lindene Patton, chief climate product officer at Zurich.

However, she added, “People are not accustomed to thinking that broadly.” So, no doubt, there are some that are going to balk at such a bold departure from tradition. Put in perspective, though, it’s only a logical step for companies that are already engaged in their communities from a corporate citizenship standpoint.

“Corporations like to be integrated with the communities they’re in, they support things within the community to raise their own stature,” said Petrilli.

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“But they probably haven’t in the past met with the city or the municipality from a risk management standpoint to discuss things like ‘What if this? What would we do?’ Once that dialogue starts, it becomes more of a ‘We’ve all got a dog in this fight’ conversation.”

Experiencing the pain of losses will increasingly drive organizations toward this perspective.

“A corporation can’t really survive and thrive unless it’s in a location that has a resiliency plan, and if you’re not talking about that together, then you’re never going to get there.” Bob Petrilli, head of North America, corporate solutions, Swiss Re

A good example, said Marsh’s Smy, is how, since Superstorm Sandy, there’s been a lot of activity in the New York tri-state area around trying to prepare, as a region, for repeat events of that magnitude.

“There’s an opportunity for organizations to engage with local government,” he said.

As organizations look through the lens of climate risk as a way to assess their risk profiles, they’ll begin to recognize that there are areas they can’t control, said Smy, “and they may well decide, ‘We can no longer be a bystander.’ Once you reach that conclusion … then there’s action that can be taken.” That may take the form of lobbying for changes, investing money in nonprofits conducting resilience studies, seeking out public-private partnerships, or even investing in infrastructure.

“The more we talk, the more we get to the point where there is a joint approach to an event,” said Petrilli. “It kind of screams for some collaboration.”

At the very least, opening a dialogue will help flesh out the breadth of the exposures so that action plans can be developed around them. “What people are beginning to focus on is sharing information and on the idea of public-private partnerships,” said Zurich’s Patton. “[It’s about] trying to just define these externalities … Does the power work? Can you drive down a road? Can you get gasoline? Is the metro running? Those are all questions we’re not used to asking. We’re used to only worrying about the things that are under our control.”

For risk managers who find that the idea of community partnerships is a hard sell to the C-suite, Patton added that the benefits go beyond managing climate risk. Companies can approach their community’s climate risk issues much as they would any other public service project, she said. “Not something huge, not something that would go outside their economic model, but just a twist in the way that they’re interacting with their communities. It has all sorts of co-benefits that come with it … things like brand, value, advertising. It’s a way to rethink how they get their name out in the community” in a way which is moving toward resilience while delivering other benefits.

Strategic Planning

The nature of climate risk dictates that companies factor climate changes into corporate decision-making just the same way that companies might evaluate market conditions, tax implications, political instability or any other key exposure.

That long-range scope might not be the responsibility of risk management in some organizations.

“That looks a lot more like strategy,” said Marsh’s Smy. “That’s planning, more than managing day-to-day risk.”

Climate risk and resiliency, then, are the place where strategy and risk management are converging. Savvy business leaders will view decisions through the lens of resiliency in order to protect the organization’s interests.

Ultimately, said Smy, this can better position risk managers within an organization. “It creates an opportunity to address something that’s a strategic issue, at the board level, and I think that’s a great opportunity for risk managers to be thoughtful about it and not be kept in the box of insurance.”

“Resiliency is an opportunity for risk managers to elevate their place at the table,” said Andrew Thompson, global lead for catastrophe risk and insurance at Arup.

A true chief risk officer, said Zurich’s Patton, can act as an adviser to other parts of the organization, to help them think more broadly about the effects of climate risk on their decision-making process.

“The goal is to have people — as they’re thinking and planning — ask themselves, ‘Will this make us more or less resilient?’ ” said Max Young, communications director for 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative focused on building global resilience.

Corporate risk management has evolved into a sophisticated function in most corporations, said Petrilli. And now it is being further refined. “It has gone beyond insurance buying and into ERM,” he said.

“Resiliency is an opportunity for risk managers to elevate their place at the table.” — Andrew Thompson, global lead, catastrophe risk and insurance, Arup

“The board of directors needs to know not only what their operations are going to look like in the next year and the next cycle, but also that nothing is going to knock that off track.” And they also need to know that if an event does happen, there’s a well-thought-out plan in place that will maintain the company’s vitality. “That takes real strategic thinking,” he said.

Related R&I Coverage:

Climate Change Hits the Courts

Expanding the Definition of Expected Risks

The Emerging Tort Storm

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now and where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]