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Underwater: Floods and the Social Classification, Pricing, and Distribution of the Risks of Climate Change in the United States


Is climate change insurable? Can insurance, as a technology of risk and governance, organize an adequate social and economic response to the complexity and scale of this modern, global risk? The dissertation assesses the insurability of climate change risks through the lens of the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the public insurance program that underwrites virtually all flood insurance for homes and small businesses in the U.S. The NFIP is under intense financial strain, struggling to pay claims from recent flooding events and $23 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Federal reforms to the NFIP in 2012 and 2014 revisited the question of financial responsibility for flood risk, bringing renewed scrutiny to risk classification, pricing, and distribution in the NFIP, and how these insurance processes should change with the expectation of rising sea levels and stronger storms. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative data, the dissertation traces these processes: the political contestation that shaped them and their social effects. I find that these processes serve as channels through which this particular climate change burden, of more frequent and severe flooding, is individualized. Specifically, updated official risk classifications, combined with changes to the calculation of insurance premiums, shifted more financial responsibility to individual policyholders, who had to find ways to mitigate the risk and its cost in the short term, and grapple with the price of flood risk as a “signal” of climate change in the long term. The dissertation uncovers the social and political challenges of using insurance to manage the risks associated with climate change, of using old programs to meet new threats.

Much of the scholarly debate on the insurability of climate change has emphasized technical and epistemological problems related to risk knowledge. Based on the case of the NFIP, I argue instead that distinct and significant limits to insurability derive from contentious risk politics and the social uncertainties that enhanced risk assessments generate. I develop this argument with chapters on risk classification, about establishing boundaries, physical, social, and symbolic, that set categories of risk; on pricing, the use of practices and tools to calculate the cost of risk; and on distribution, the social and spatial allocation of risk and responsibility. Preceding these chapters, a historical chapter traces the origins of the NFIP, how it governs flood risk, and how it arrived at its crisis point.

In addition to intervening in the insurability debate, Underwater also seeks to break new ground in the sociology of climate change. Sociologists have shown that the natural disasters—floods, storms, wildfires, heat waves, and so forth—we connect to climate change have fundamentally social sources, and the threats now facing individuals and communities intersect with social differences, such as gender, race/ethnicity, class, and age. However, it is not simply the social production and distribution of hazards themselves that are sociologically important. It is also the representation of those hazards as risk, their economization, and how they are used to govern societies and shape behavior. In other words, we can build our sociological understandings of climate change not solely from investigating the social production and effects of floods, but also from examining the policies and programs that govern them. These policies and programs both shape how our society adapts to the physical, economic, and political pressures of climate change and structure how individuals experience these pressures in their daily lives.

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