Liberty Mutual has been a Boston institution for over a century and, across that span, like any good insurance company, it’s been fixated on risk — in 1946, its employees invented the automatic safety switch that stops elevators from crashing to the ground if something goes wrong. (Thank you, by the way.)
But that focus seems to have slipped in the global warming era. Liberty Mutual recently received the lowest grade of 30 global insurance companies from Insure Our Future, a group of climate change campaigners. It refused even to answer the questionnaire the group sent, and probably for good reason. Among other things:
⋅ Liberty Mutual has devoted almost 10 percent of its investments in precisely the fossil fuel companies driving the climate crisis, and those investments include the very dirtiest companies: TC Energy, for instance, which is trying to build the Keystone XL pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta, over the strenuous objections of indigenous communities and Midwest farmers.
⋅ It insures many of the most egregious projects — the Transmountain pipeline, another massive straw sucking the filthiest oil on earth out of Canada and shipping to the Pacific to be sold to Asia, or the Mariner East pipeline in Pennsylvania so that fracked gas can be shipped to Scotland to make plastics.
⋅ Its subsidiaries are just as dirty. Liberty Metals and Mining Holdings, for instance, is pressing ahead with a new coal mine in Queensland, Australia, even as bush fires rage across the continent and the Great Barrier Reef begins to disintegrate in the hotter, more acidic seas that come with global warming.
Liberty Mutual should follow the lead of others in the insurance industry. Some have begun to move more aggressively on climate change, halting investments in coal and tar sands, and refusing to insure the aggressive expansion of the industry. That makes sense: Insurance companies own the piles of data that prove the existential threat to life and property climate change poses. Chubb, for instance, another American insurance giant, declared in July that it would stop insuring new coal-fired power plants or companies that made most of their money from coal; it would even stop investing its premiums in coal companies. That’s a modest step — it still leaves oil and gas untouched. But it also leaves Liberty Mutual in the dust.
“Chubb recognizes the reality of climate change and the substantial impact of human activity on our planet,” said Evan G. Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Chubb. “Making the transition to a low-carbon economy involves planning and action by policy makers, investors, businesses, and citizens alike. The policy we are implementing today reflects Chubb’s commitment to do our part as a steward of the Earth.”
Liberty Mutual obviously has access to the same data on the risks of global warming — it aggressively attempted to cancel homeowner policies for those near wildfires spawned by ever-deepening drought and ever-higher temperatures. A Liberty Mutual spokesperson called dropping policies and raising rates a “necessary step to responsibly manage our overall exposure to wildfires.” Or as account representative Clifton Padgett explained, “nothing against the policyholder; it’s just a business decision.” California has since banned this practice, at least temporarily.
This should be obvious to a company whose symbol, the Statue of Liberty, was half drowned in the first global warming epic, “The Day After Tomorrow.” Or — since it’s admittedly a little much to ask them to take Hollywood seriously — a company whose Back Bay neighborhood may look very different before much longer, according to the latest maps of sea-level rise. That culture of risk management should make them leaders, not followers, in the climate fight. After all, it’s not as if the core of its business is at stake: There are a lot of investments to insure that aren’t pipelines and coal mines. Compared to, say, a homeowner who can’t find insurance, shifting the company’s portfolio away from fossil fuels is a minor trauma.
Instead of helping, though, Liberty Mutual has so far chosen to profit from the climate crisis. In 2008, the company launched an insurance product designed to cover corporate boards of directors in the case of climate change litigation. Let’s hope they purchased a policy for themselves.
Bill McKibben is cofounder of the global climate campaign 350.org and a member of the environmental studies faculty at Middlebury College.