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Playing hide-and-seek with insurance CEOs

When I joined a meeting of Insure Our Future campaigners at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris the other day, a staff member of the Geneva Association, the think-tank of global insurance CEOs, stood at the door to our meeting room listening in. Caught in an awkward situation, she quickly excused herself and walked away.

The embarrassing incident is typical for the approach of the insurance think-tank, which held its annual meeting in Paris in late May and early June, the Insure Our Future campaign: They are closely following our efforts, but have so far declined to engage with us.

The Geneva Association plays an influential role in shaping the discussions among the world’s leading insurance CEOs. After we surprised the Association with a series of creative actions at their last annual meeting in San Francisco, we contacted their staff several months ago offering a formal dialogue on coal insurance during their 2018 meeting in Paris. Alas, the Association’s Board rejected our proposal.

Insurance companies play an important role in propping up coal and tar sands projects, and we have no time to lose as we fight to keep destructive fossil fuels in the ground. So we decided to make sure that climate change and fossil fuels were on the agenda of the insurance CEOs anyway. We were encouraged to see that the city council of Paris also asked insurance CEOs to exit the coal sector ahead of their meeting in the city.

On May 22, twelve NGOs engaged in the Insure Our Future campaign sent a letter to leading insurance companies asking them to exit the coal and tar sands sectors, and we published a briefing paper on the role of insurers in supporting tar sands. Like in San Francisco, we decided to organize a creative action at their meeting venue, the Paris Le Grand InterContinental Hotel, and to invite the CEOs to an informal conversation at a meeting room which we rented next to theirs at the luxury hotel.

Ska-Hiish Manuel, an activist of the Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia whose lands are threatened by a tar sands pipeline, joined us for the action, along with colleagues from Re:Common and Urgewald.

On the first day of the annual meeting, the ballroom of the InterContinental was decorated for the Geneva Association, security personnel were patrolling the corridors, and staff and CEOs were mingling in the hotel lobby. Some twenty activists which we had mobilized were also at the hotel, closely watched by security staff even when we went to the toilets. Yet the meeting didn’t start, as if the CEOs were afraid of facing some civil society intervention.

After playing hide-and-seek for two hours, we decided to pull-off a little flash-mob in the hotel lobby. Adapting Michael Jackson’s hit record, our song and dance troupe called on the insurance CEOs to “lead it, just lead it” on climate change. After the performance, Ska-Hiish Manuel called on the CEOs to stop insuring and investing in the tar sands industry, which is violating indigenous rights and undermining the Paris agreement.

The insurers lingering in the hotel lobby made a conscious effort not to watch our flash-mob. Likewise, the hotel reception refused to accept the letters and meeting invitations which we had brought for the insurance CEOs, and their security staff asked us to leave the hotel.

The leaders of the insurance industry can engage with us or try to ignore us, but we won’t go away. As I said when we addressed the insurance CEOs in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel, we’ve got climate science and public opinion on our side, and public pressure will only grow until they agree to ditch the coal and tar sands industry.

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