Chicago floods 2013

clarkmaxwellA very wet Chicago-area neighborhood in April 2013. Now Chicago might get soaked in another way.

Leaders of Chicago-area municipalities will have to explain in court why they didn’t do a better job of bracing for the types of floods that climate change is starting to bring down upon us. If they fail to make their case, then taxpayers could be on the hook for flood-related costs that would normally be borne by insurers.

Farmers Insurance recently filed nine class-action lawsuits on behalf of itself, other insurers, and customers in the wake of heavy flooding a year ago. The damaging floods followed the type of climate changejuiced rainstorms that Chicago’s mayoral advisors had concluded would pose growing threats to the city’s unusual flood control system. Reuters explains:

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The legal debate may center on whether an uptick in natural disasters is foreseeable or an “act of God.” The cases raise the question of how city governments should manage their budgets before costly emergencies occur.

“We will see more and more cases,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School in New York. “No one is expected to plan for the 500-year storm, but if horrible events are happening with increasing frequency, that may shift the duties.”

Gerrard and other environmental law experts say the suits are the first of their kind.

Lawyers for the localities will argue government immunity protects them from prosecution, said Daniel Jasica of the State’s Attorney’s Office in Lake County, which is named in the Illinois state court suit.

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The strategy is a long shot, according to legal experts, but the potential payout is big enough that Farmers is willing to give it a try.

As if climate adaptation weren’t already urgent enough, now insurers are helping to make sure that government leaders get the message.