Bloomberg had a frustrating story yesterday on the difficulty of advancing a consensus in Congress on tackling climate change. Summarizing the testimony from a hearing from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Bloomberg’s Mark Drajem cited the statements of a handful of Senators:

  • “The climate has always and will always be changing because there are influences on our climate that will always be outside Congress’s control.” —Senator David Vitter
  • “What we need to talk about is jobs. [Democrats and President Obama] are willing to bet the economy today on an uncertain . . . prediction about the future.” —Senator John Barrasso
  • “I don’t know what it will take to convince you of what is going on outside the window.” —Senator Barbara Boxer, in rebuttal.

Let’s start by being clear: The current climate researchquite devastatingly demonstrates that the extreme weather patterns caused by anthropogenic climate change are of a magnitude much greater than any previous, natural change.

But rather than relitigating settled science, I’d like to focus on the tension highlighted by Senator John Barrasso’s criticism of the Obama administration. The idea that efforts to combat climate change now would unreasonably harm the economy directly contradicts the testimony provided by Frank Nutter, President of the Reinsurance Association of America. Where scientists have failed to overcome conservatives’ skepticism, perhaps the private sector—a.k.a. the business world—can break through.

What does reinsurance have to do with the economic devastation wrought by climate change? Reinsurance is insurance purchased by insurance companies, often as a risk management strategy, and is considered essential for the fiscal solvency of the insurance industry. A rash of natural disasters, however, has squeezed these companies and have made them quite fearful of the weight of future obligations. Insurers are skittish about extreme climate events; droughts (because of the market for crop loss insurance) and flooding (because coastal and riverine property development is so popular) are particular worries. Indeed, Nutter testified that Superstorm Sandy alone caused $18 billion dollars in insured losses.

Nutter stressed to the Committee that,

The industry is at great financial peril if it does not understand global and regional climate impacts, variability and developing scientific assessment of a changing climate.

Not only does the insurance industry provide the fiscal relief necessary for communities to rebuild after disaster, its pricing decisions also provide a necessary feedback loop for prospective construction. Given the economic damage currently being inflicted by climate change, ignoring action on the grounds of causing harm to economic growth is clearly a concern misplaced.

The problem, as evidenced by the response of testimony by climate skeptics in Congress, is that there is no enthusiasm for proactive adaptation and mitigation strategies within the legislative branch, especially if those strategies require significant federal funding. Sadly, there is not a critical mass of senators and representatives who would agree with the view of Swiss Re, a major reinsurer whose analysis Nutter quotes in his prepared testimony:

Today, global warming is a fact. Since the beginning of industrialization and the rapid growth of world population, man’s activities—along with natural variability—have contributed to a change of climate manifesting itself as a considerable increase in global temperature. Climate change has the potential to develop into our planet’s greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century.

The reception of President Obama’s climate agenda so far in his second term does not occasion much confidence.

While the public supports his climate plan—61 percent, according to a recent poll—those poll respondents do not sit in Congress. His nominee for the EPA faced a confirmation delay, orchestrated by senators angered by the “Ivory Tower fantasy” of Obama’s plans. Those plans, including an effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, face criticismeven from members of his own party. There has been little momentum for significant global action.

Science does not appear to be winning the PR war on climate change. Fortunately, private sector leaders like Nutter recognize the false choice of delaying environmental action for the sake of the current economy. Climate hawks might do well to lean on business leaders like Nutter to help them carry the day with the Congress.

Based on the outcome of this hearing, they’re going to need all of the help they can get.