Maryam Golnaraghi is director of climate change and emerging environmental topics at The Geneva Association, an insurance industry-funded think-tank.
She leads a programme of research and international convening activities to build cooperation among insurers, the scientific community, governments, policymakers, regulators and other stakeholders, so they can tackle key climate challenges.
Her 2018 report on Climate Change and the Insurance Industry is a go-to resource on ways the insurance industry can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. But she has also led work on climate risk modelling, the global infrastructure challenge and integrating climate risk into business models, among many other topics.
She has a wide and deep knowledge on climate issues and, perhaps more importantly, an ability to mobilise and align the private and public sectors to find solutions to confront climate change.
What inspired you to work on climate change issues?
After I finished my PhD in ocean climate modelling in the 1990s, I did two years at Harvard Business School where I worked on commercialisation of technology; I saw a lot of value in climate models and climate forecasting.
While there, I presented to roughly 70 CEOs about disruptive technologies that can help manage risk. I talked about El Niño and I predicted the 1997-98 El Niño, based on the science and the models. Except for two CEOs from insurance industry, they all said climate change is a far-fetched issue.
Obviously, the ENSO happened and it had a big impact [Editor's note: it was one of the most powerful El Niño's in history]. About 15 of those CEOs contacted me asking: "What was that? How did you know?" And that set me off on a career making climate change a core business issue.
What are your work priorities right now?
First is working on the next generation of climate risk analytics for insurers, on both sides of the balance sheet, and working with regulators. I recently launched an international task force of leading insurers to bring knowledge to regulators and help develop meaningful regulation around climate change and integration of climate risk analytics.
Second is mapping climate litigation risk and what it means as a risk and opportunity for the industry. Climate liability has always been the elephant in the room. But it's an opportunity for insurers to work with their corporate clients – and governments – because litigation is the most inefficient way of enabling climate action.
Third is the role of the insurance industry in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. We know there is a huge capital gap in clean and resilient infrastructure to enable that transition. The industry can work with government to achieve better risk management for infrastructure systems that open up capital flows.
Tell me one step the insurance industry needs to take, to improve its response to climate change?
I would love to see the board and C-suite of every insurance company in the world start to understand climate change as a core business issue. Once we do that, then the power of this industry as a catalyst to help the world transition into a much more resilient economy will be unleashed.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic we can avoid the worst effects of climate change?
I have had serious ups and downs. For 10 years, I worked deeply in the UN, from drafting and negotiating climate change agreements to working with over 60 governments in helping them build policy and institutional capacity.
When I left, in 2014, I found myself thinking after all these years, we have not moved the dial forward and it may have moved backward because it's all about marketing and headlines for governments and industry.
One hope for me was Mark Carney and the TCFD. That was the tipping point for climate change, shifting from a governmental discussion at the UN to being an issue for business. When companies have to report on their climate risk, they're going to take it seriously.
Another thing that has given me hope, honestly, is Covid-19. We saw that when there is a crisis, governments can come together and work at the scale that we need to tackle climate change.
What are you doing personally to reduce your climate impact?
I will highlight the large amount of time I volunteer to mentor the younger generation. We need to create scale, and we need to make sure the transition happens in the most well-planned way. So I have trained about 40 people, mostly in the private sector but also in government. I also mentor small start-ups that are developing new technology.