heat wave in Toronto this week

Forest fires in Ontario and beyond lead to higher home insurance rates

David SuzukiDavid Suzuki is a world-renowned scientist, broadcaster, activist, co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation and author of more than 30 books on ecology (written with files from senior editor Ian Hanington).

The world is on fire. Sometimes it seems not enough people care.

If smoke-choked skies and evacuations don’t convince people the climate crisis is real, and costly, maybe insurance companies will. As wildfires tear through Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe and more, and as floods and rising sea levels erode coastlines and destroy homes worldwide, insurers are noticing.

In Canada, claims for extreme weather events have more than quadrupled over the past 15 years. Insurers expect to pay out $2 billion and rising every year for disaster-related claims. The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire alone is estimated to have cost about $9 billion for firefighting, evacuations, industry shutdowns and damage to homes and businesses.

In the U.S., two major insurance companies have stopped offering new homeowner policies in California, partly due to “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure.” Increasingly frequent and intense hurricanes, wildfires and floods have made it difficult to insure homes in Florida, Texas, Colorado, Louisiana and New York.

Even when insurance is available, rates are often skyrocketing, leaving a growing number of homeowners unable to afford insurance. Because many banks won’t offer mortgages without home insurance, ownership and housing markets are being affected. Many insurance companies can’t afford to stay in business.

It will get worse if we don’t do everything possible to address climate disruption. By early June, nearly 10 million acres had already burned across Canada. Normally, only 600,000 acres would burn by then. Climate change is causing hotter, windier and drier conditions; longer summers; reduced snowpack; and more lightning strikes — all of which increase the frequency and intensity of fires.

Increasing wildfires also contribute to further global heating — when forests burn, the carbon stored by forests and plants is released into the atmosphere, and the burned forests no longer sequester carbon. In 2017 and 2018, wildfires in B.C. emitted more greenhouse gases than all other sectors of the province combined.

The best solution is to do everything possible to halt and reverse climate disruption by getting off fossil fuels and protecting carbon sinks such as forests.

Ultimately, though, unless we take the climate crisis seriously and employ all the many readily available and emerging solutions, we’ll see more fires, floods and extreme weather events. The rising costs will affect everyone from marginalized and remote communities to homeowners to society at large. We can no longer afford incremental change. We’ve run out of time, and nature’s warnings are ever more urgent.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO