January 29, 2020 – 427 ANALYSIS. As Australia’s bushfires rage on, questions arise on the long-term impacts on human health, biodiversity and the economy. This analysis shares lessons learned from the recovery from recent wildfires in California to offer some pointers of what might happen when the bushfires finally subside. While immediate economic impacts include emergency relief bills, business interruptions, costly loss of goods and reduction in tourism, the long-term impacts vary based on municipalities’ financial resources, economic make-up and preparedness.
Real Estate Markets
Over the past three years wildfires have razed thousands of buildings across California, destroying multiple communities. The impacts on real estate markets varies depending on the share of properties destroyed in a local community, as well as insurance penetration. After five percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock burned in 2017, the city experienced an increase in property prices and rents following the fire: displaced households needed new dwellings, construction workers and emergency relief officials needed housing and amenities, and local businesses found new clientele. Although an estimated 3,300 people left Sonoma County after the 2017 fires, in Santa Rosa, CA, rebuilding has occurred more rapidly than expected. The areas affected by the fires had relatively high insurance rates, and families were able to pay for the reconstruction of their houses. Irreplaceable personal items were lost, but the city experienced a mini-economic boom due to construction in the area.
In contrast, the city of Paradise went from 26,000 residents before the Camp Fire down to 2,000. More than one year later, only a handful of houses have been rebuilt, and many residents struggle with whether they should move back. Insurance penetration was much lower in Paradise, and many low-income households cannot afford to rebuild their lives there.
Aside from short-term shortages in housing stock, long-term impacts on real estate and local economies depend on two main factors: whether the area experienced a permanent or long-term population loss, and whether insurance companies continue to offer policies for the area. This phenomenon has also been at play after other climate-related events, such as when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The storm led to a four percent decrease in the island’s population.
Impacts can also indirectly touch other communities near wildfires: the same Camp Fire that devastated Paradise narrowly missed the neighboring city of Chico, CA. While Paradise’s economy has yet to recover, within three months of the fire, Chico’s population grew by 20%, with the addition of about 20,000 people. While Chico became the nation’s hottest real estate market the month after the fire, it also missed relief funds offered to towns touched by flames. From a sewer system now tasked with transporting 600,000 more gallons per day, to the need for more police force and a higher hospital demand, a year after the event, the city struggled to accommodate a population the city planners hadn’t expected for a decade.
In California, the biggest impact was on the utility sector. As power lines and electric equipment were found to have started the wildfires, the liability ultimately resulted in Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) bankruptcy, coined “the first climate-change bankruptcy.” In Australia fires are most often started by dry lightning so utilities are not so exposed to liability risk, but may still be exposed to significant costs from disruptions and repairs associated with wildfires.
The insurance sector is also very exposed. Merced Property and Casualty local insurance company went bankrupt after California’s Paradise fire. The company had USD23 million (AUD34 million) in assets and owed USD64 million (AUD94 million) in liabilities after the fire, which the state of California took over after the company defaulted. Insurance claims for the bushfires have already reached around AU939 million (USD646 million). Australian insurance companies could face material losses, particularly those with concentrated portfolios of properties or companies in regions affected by the fires.
For example, insurer IAG is the primary insurer in New South Wales and is thus expected to face the most financial risk from the current fires. IAG and Suncorp have both temporarily stopped selling wildfire insurance in exposed areas of Australia, to prevent last-minute insurance purchases. The final bill may be absorbed by reinsurance companies, which also need to contend with multiple, costly events globally. Increased losses, even if they do not lead to a bankruptcy, can also open the door to liability. In 2019 insurance giant QBE saw a shareholder resolution regarding its lack of preparedness for climate impacts.
Beyond utilities and insurance, businesses across sectors face several short-term risks from wildfires, including business interruptions, labor shortages and reduced consumer activity due to evacuations or smoke which can affect urban centers not themselves touched by flames. Businesses may also face increased costs due to equipment and property damage or loss. In the long term, recurring wildfires could decrease attractiveness of certain parts of Australia, which would reduce companies’ hiring pool and decrease tourism revenues.
Residents’ decisions to stay in a recovering area is largely affected by whether insurance companies choose to provide coverage or pull out after wildfires. This in turn, is a key factor in the viability of long-term development and the strength of cities’ tax bases. Faced with potential population loss, local governments may attempt to provide public insurance if private insurers leave a city or region, such as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in the U.S. However, as seen with the NFIP, this mechanism can lead to unsustainable development and a moral hazard, encouraging unwise economic decisions by shifting risks from the individual buying property, to the government and therefore the public.
The desire to help an area rebuild needs to be balanced against a forward-looking perspective on the new realities of climate change. As temperatures increase, droughts become more common and wildfire conditions become more frequent, climate change will make some areas no longer suitable for human settlement. In California some insurers have stopped offering wildfire insurance to certain fire-prone counties. After careful deliberation the state recommended the creation of a Wildfire Victims Fund to help pay claims to wildfire victims, while also supporting wildfire mitigation. However, this comes alongside recommendations to require home and community fire risk reduction standards, establish a development fee for new construction in the wildland-urban interface, and mandate that new development must be reachable by firefighters within a maximum amount of time.
The impact of wildfires on a city’s credit rating may also affect its economic prospects after an event. Issuers in Sonoma County were not downgraded after the 2017 fires, because of their strong credit quality, insurance coverage, commitment to rebuilding and long-term economic viability. The County has an emergency reserve fund, which helped make up the shortfall in property taxes for destroyed properties, assuaging any concern from rating agencies on their balance sheet post-disaster.
However, a Moody’s credit analyst noted that smaller, less well-resourced communities like those burned during the 2018 fires in rural Shasta County, will face less rapid rebuilding, which means less revenue and more difficulty repaying their debt. This highlights the need for proactive preparedness efforts, particularly as those municipalities in particular need of financing may see credit declines if they experience wildfire loss.
Hidden Costs: Health Impacts
Wildfires’ impacts on human health can be long-lasting and widespread. While Paradise, CA burned down in 2018 San Francisco, about 200 miles away, had the worst air quality in the world. This led to school closures and business disruptions during the event, but its impacts are still being felt. Three to five months after Sonoma County’s 2017 fires there was a 20% increase in emergency room visits for breathing challenges, as well as a 20% increase in visits for cardiac problems three months after those fires. While populations are advised to stay inside to shelter from smoke, many evacuation victims do not have that option.
Suburban wildfire smoke is particularly dangerous because burning gas stations, buildings, cars and other man-made materials releases many toxins, along with tiny PM 2.5 particles. The long-term impacts of inhaling countless chemicals are not yet fully understood but will likely exacerbate the well-documented damage to lungs and hearts caused by PM 2.5 particles. As public health costs increase, municipalities’ expenses may rise and human productivity may decline, posing additional risk to economies and communities made fragile by wildfire.
Preparing for a New Normal
Recent attempts at risk mitigation highlight the challenges to improve prevention. In October and November 2019 over a million Californian’s lost power during multiple PG&E “Public Safety Power Shutoffs,” meant to reduce the risk of wildfire during “red flag” conditions, with high winds and warm temperatures. With less than a day’s notice in some cases, residents, businesses and schools around San Francisco’s Bay Area spent days without power. Elderly and those relying on medical equipment faced life threatening hardship, local businesses experienced significant loss, long-term, high-profile research was disrupted, and costs of the event were expected to be around USD2 billion (AUD3 billion).
Australia and California used to share firefighting resources since they didn’t need them at the same time, and firefighting contractors built their businesses around staggered fire seasons. Now, Australia and California fight fires concurrently, business models must shift and municipalities must reallocate resources.
As climate change increases the occurrences of wildfires across the globe, policymakers and communities will need to balance these considerations and invest in adaptation and resilience to limit the impact of future fires.
Natalie Ambrosio contributed to this analysis.
Four Twenty Seven works with investors and businesses to provide portfolio hotpot screenings and real time due diligence with site-specific data on heat stress, water stress and other climate risks. Wildfire analytics are forthcoming. Contact us for more detailed analysis and site-specific data on climate risk exposure and its economic impacts.
I couldn’t seem to turn on the TV this week without being inundated with coverage of the ongoing floods and tornadoes in the Midwest. The dearth of other content is not just due the doldrums of the sports and political seasons — things are genuinely getting worse on the disaster front. Much worse.
The horrible scenes of twister damaged homes across the Midwest and continuing flooding along the entire Mississippi River merely displaced the stories on recovery efforts from the Hurricanes Maria, Irma, Harvey, Michael as well as the Camp Fire and other drought inflamed disasters in California and the Western U.S.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment predicts more frequent and severe storms, longer and more severe droughts, and the continued and likely accelerating rise of sea levels. All of this will only add to the challenges faced by states, counties and municipalities that are on the front lines of these disasters and to the taxpayers who foot the bill for the hundreds of billions in recovery and rebuilding costs.
The Government Accountability Office found that the increasing frequency and scale of disasters as well as the federal government’s role in funding recovery and flood and crop insurance, make climate disaster a high risk for federal fiscal exposure. GAO reported that the federal recovery efforts alone have cost nearly half a trillion dollars since 2005. To put that spending in context, it represents approximately $4,000 out of the pockets of every American family. Congress will either have to put our nation further into debt or shift the burden to our taxpayers. Addressing climate change is not only an environmental imperative, it’s critical to our nation’s economic security.
It is clear that we have learned a lot about how to respond to, and recover from, major disasters. In the past 40 years. federal agencies, state and local governments, and the extensive network of volunteer organizations such as the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and the Cajun Navy deserve much credit for their growing ability to save lives and help rebuild communities.
It is also clear that just getting better at response and recovery will keep us on the defensive, always playing catch-up. More importantly, the focus and investment post-disaster does little to keep us safe in the first place. We have to retire the old approach that we can just come in after the storm or fire and rebuild — even if we rebuild stronger. Ask anyone who lost their home, business, community or especially a loved one to one of these disasters. They will tell you that as appreciative as they are for the world-class support from governments and volunteers, it’s small comfort for the trauma and years of personal recovery they face. We need to get ahead of the curve by investing in resilient communities and infrastructure so fewer families have to live in devastation.
Congress is beginning to address this. While some members seemed locked in a partisan fight that is keeping funding from storm and fire ravaged communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California, Congress did add a program in the 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act that shines a ray of hope on efforts to be more proactive in disaster mitigation. The creation of a National Public Infrastructure Pre-Disaster Mitigation fund, which FEMA plans to implement through a new program called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities allows FEMA to invest in communities before a disaster strikes. Research by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that just building to the current resilient building codes returns 11 times the cost of the initial investment. FEMA’s new program will allow several hundred million dollars in resilient investments to move forward each year without having to run the congressional appropriations gauntlet, but this is really just a small start.
FEMA’s new pre-disaster fund represents only six cents for every dollar spent on reactive recovery. We need to help communities rebuild, but we also need to be serious about investing to make our communities safe from the coming storms, fires, and other climate threats. While construction to current resilient building codes is the right answer for new construction, it doesn’t address the vast balance of structures built on codes that are old and don’t address the new science and technology of climate resilience. We need to invest in fixing or replacing our failing infrastructure and ensuring that all new construction is resilient to future risks — or we will face this problem all over again.
This doesn’t mean that the federal government alone shoulders the entire responsibility. A successful resilience strategy will only work if we bring both the public and the private sectors into the fight. Resilient building codes are one example, but we also need to value and incentivize resilient investments for everyone.
There is a silver lining to our climate challenges — economic growth. Americans are very good at innovating and building and we can leverage our need to be more resilient by growing the economy with good resilient and sustainable jobs. Some of these jobs are found in building, upgrading and maintaining our new and existing infrastructure to make it resilient to the increasing risks from a climate-impacted world.
Not only can we put Americans to work building our resilient future, we can take the lessons we learn in that effort and export it to the rest of the world. This is an approach that works for all Americans and provides a strong economic as well as environmental future for people in all parts of our nation and the world.
This is what we did to become world leaders in democracy, agriculture, manufacturing and technology in the previous centuries, and we can do it with climate in the 21st century. Climate change is real and addressing it is literally an opportunity we can’t afford to ignore.
This story was first published on The Hill.
What does the future hold?
New research on sea level rise emphasizes the potential for dire changes over the course of the century. Recent satellite data suggests that warming water is causing East Antarctica to melt more quickly than previously thought and a study released in early May found that almost a quarter of West Antarctica’s ice is thinning, with its largest glaciers shrinking five times faster than in 1992. A study based on expert opinion found that there is the possibility of sea levels rising by 2 meters (6.5ft) under an extreme scenario of 5˚C global temperature increase. This would mean an area of land as big as Libya would be lost, and up to 2.5% of the population globally could be displaced.
Extreme scenarios of sea level rise will have severe impacts on our cities and economies. Sea level rise is happening today to a lesser extent; however it is already having tangible impacts on real estate values. This means increasing costs for property owners and tenants, but it also has far-reaching market impacts on access to and cost of insurance, fluctuations in market values and potential increase in local taxes to fund adaptation efforts.
Of all U.S. states, Florida is expected to experience the greatest consequences of sea level rise. Between 1960 and 2015, sea levels along the Florida coast rose by 10-15 cm (4-6 in), and the range of projections vary wide looking a few decades out, with projections ranging from 33 to 122cm (13-48 in) by 2060.
Widespread flooding risk in Florida
65,000 homes in Florida worth $35 billion are expected to be underwater or impacted daily by high tides in 2040. From soaring insurance premiums and increasing risk of disclosure to declining property value and diminishing tax revenue, sea level rise is already challenging property owners, investors and banks. Among other impacts, the value of single-family homes in Miami-Dade County that are exposed to sea level rise declined by about $465 million between 2005 and 2016.
Furthermore, climate change is predicted to increase the number of strong hurricanes in the region. These stronger storms will combine with sea level rise to exacerbate the impacts of extreme floods. Storm surge flooding damages buildings and landscaping, destroys merchandise, and can also have wide-reaching economic impacts due to damaged power and transportation infrastructure.
Last but not least, tidal flooding, also called “nuisance” or “sunny day” flooding increased from 1.3 to 3 days per year in the Southeast from 2000-2015. By the end of the century tidal flooding could happen daily. Even with no rainfall, these floods have significant impacts – halting traffic, overburdening drainage systems and damaging infrastructure.
Investors and businesses have a responsibility to understand these risks: using best available science to measure exposure to sea level rise and other flood risks, getting informed on adaptation efforts by local governments, and engaging with local industry associations or other groups to promote further investments in resilience.
Four Twenty Seven works with investors to provide portfolio hotpot screenings and real time due diligence with site-specific data on sea level rise and other climate risks. Contact us for more detailed analysis and site-specific data on sea level rise exposure and detailed analysis of local jurisdictions’ response.
Do bond ratings reflect governments’ and businesses’ exposure to physical climate change? Founder & CEO, Emilie Mazzacurati, joins the Bond Buyer’s Chip Barnett to discuss physical climate risk for investors, businesses and governments. Emilie describes the financial sector’s growing awareness of material climate risk in their bond and equity portfolios and shares efforts being taken to understand and address these risk. Chip and Emilie also discuss the challenges cities face when striving to adapt to climate impacts, the benefits of building resilience and the interactions between corporate and community resilience.
For more insight on the interactions between climate change, cities and financial risk read our reports on Assessing Exposure to Climate Risk in U.S. Munis and Assessing Local Adaptive Capacity to Understand Corporate and Financial Climate Risks, or listen to our webinar on Building City-level Climate Resilience.
FEBRUARY 19, 2019 – SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – Four Twenty Seven receives Climate Change Business Journal Awards for three climate change risk and resilience projects.
The Climate Change Business Journal (CCBJ) released its 10th annual CCBJ Business Achievement Awards, recognizing outstanding business performance in the climate change industry. CCBJ assesses markets and business opportunities across the emerging climate change industry and acknowledged Four Twenty Seven’s contributions to this field through our global dataset on climate risk in real estate, the development of the California Heat Assessment Tool and our contribution to the EBRD-GCECA initiative on Advancing TCFD Guidance on Physical Climate Risks and Opportunities.
Four Twenty Seven and GeoPhy earned the Technology Merit: Climate Change Risk Modeling and Assessment award for releasing the first global dataset on climate risk exposure in real estate investment trusts (REITs). REITs represent an increasingly important asset class that provides investors with a vehicle for gaining exposure to real estate portfolios. However, real estate is also increasingly affected by risks from climate change. Four Twenty Seven applied its scoring model of asset-level climate risk exposure to GeoPhy’s database of listed REITs holdings to create the first global, scientific assessment of REITs’ exposure to climate risk.
The California Heat Assessment Tool (CHAT) earned the Project Merit: Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience award for its innovative approach to helping public health officials, health professionals and residents understand what changing heat wave conditions mean for them, through a free online platform. CHAT is part of California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment, a state-mandated research program to assess climate change impacts in California, and was developed by Four Twenty Seven, Argos Analytics, the Public Health Institute and Habitat 7 with technical support from the California Department of Public Health.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Global Centre of Excellence on Climate Adaptation initiative on Advancing the TCFD Recommendations on Physical Climate Risks and Opportunities earned the Advancing Best Practices: Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience award. This project culminated in a conference and report building on Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations and providing common foundations for the disclosure of climate-related physical risks and opportunities. It identifies where further research or market action is needed so that detailed, consistent, industry-specific guidelines can be developed on the methodology for quantifying and reporting these risks and opportunities. Four Twenty Seven and Acclimatise provided the technical secretariat that led the working groups and authored the report.