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Niedner: Insurer can’t sue God, seeks scapegoat

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: June 26, 2014 6:26AM



For obvious reasons, few folks watch the weather more closely than farmers. The rest of us get annoyed when a storm forces flight cancellations or an all-day soaker that we would scarcely notice on a Tuesday ruins our weekend festivities.

For farmers, however, dry spells, an unseasonal freeze or even a 5-minute hail storm can mean the difference between having a good crop and tightening the proverbial belt while waiting to try again next year.

These days, more than ever perhaps, everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Urban and rural residents alike ponder the intense storms and weird patterns that we have witnessed of late. One can hardly escape the debate about climate change and whether, even if global warming isn’t a lunar landing-style hoax, human activity has exacerbated it.

Mostly our responses don’t go beyond hand-wringing. Big-money interests have worked hard to convince us that the only trustworthy scientific studies are the ones they have commissioned.

Those studies say, “Houston, we don’t have a problem,” and even if we do, every imaginable response would prove bad for business. Such thinking leaves us behaving like addicts in denial.

Deep down we know we can’t continue our habits of bingeing and excess, but between now and when something finally forces us to sober up, we’ll keep on using and stay high on our commodities of choice.

Except for Farmers — the Farmers Insurance Group, that is, which last month filed lawsuits against the city of Chicago and some 200 other municipalities for allegedly failing to prepare adequately for the effects of climate change. These suits come in the wake of an April 2013 rainstorm that overwhelmed the infrastructure and left much of the Chicago area flooded.

When insurance claims in the aftermath created a secondary deluge, insurers, despite their deep pockets, began to look for someone to blame and to shoulder part of the financial hit.

Once upon a time, earthquakes, tornadoes and other deadly storms were considered “acts of God.” Insurance policies named them as such, and policyholders could make no claims on damages that the Almighty had inflicted.

Indeed, for most of human history, earthlings assumed that God directed the weather pretty much like Walt Disney controlled his animated mice and ducks. (Was there ever a farmer who never prayed for rain?)

Today, however, we mostly leave God out of our insurance policies. Meteorologists have thoroughly de-mystified the weather, and besides, heaven is notoriously difficult to sue.

But someone must bear the blame, preferably someone required to answer a subpoena. So, Farmers Insurance is suing the government, albeit on a local level.

To my mind, this is both good news and bad. It strikes me as good news that a well-known player in the insurance industry, a first-order financial behemoth, acknowledges the reality of climate change and insists that something be done about it.

While not calling for proactive measures, at least some big money now demands reactive responses. Perhaps someone in a 90th-floor office somewhere has opened one eye and realized that if we all drown, starve or die of thirst, it would be really bad for business.

It’s a start. However, I can’t help noticing in all this a kind of Catch-22. Big business has actively led efforts to trim government, diminish its revenue and cut funding for most everything, including education, benefits for veterans and the infrastructure.

Now that the infrastructure has failed to meet current demands, who sues for damages? Big business.

And who will pay when some judge decides on a settlement? Not Farmers but farmers, and lots of ordinary taxpayers with flooded basements.



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