Will Climate Thuggery Capture the SEC?

by Marlo Lewis on July 13, 2009

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) may require corporations to assess and disclose the impacts of global warming and climate change policy on their bottom lines, today’s Climate Wire (subscription required) reports. The story indicates that Commissioner Elisse Walter is the key proponent inside the SEC. The big outside push–no surprise–comes from Ceres, the eco-sustainability investment network. Wisconsin insurance regulator Sean Dilweg and Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp are also cited as leading advocates of SEC-mandated “climate risk disclosure.”

Climate Wire rightly notes that, “The move would drive the government deeper into the climate debate, potentially reshaping management decisions at companies across the country.”

The prospect of SEC-required disclosure of climate risk scares the bejesus out of fossil energy producers and energy-intensive manufacturers, Climate Wire indicates:

Big emitters like oil and gas companies, for example, might have to formally reveal the output of their greenhouse gases and the disadvantages they face from federal efforts to charge polluters for every ton of carbon that’s released.

Even more, the revelations could spark financial fallout. Institutional investment groups with trillions of dollars in assets could use the disclosures as the basis for withdrawing money from companies they consider unprepared for rising risk related to regulation and climatic convulsions.

In reality, there is little risk to company bottom lines from climate change per se. Even if one makes the questionable assumption, for example, that global warming will measurably intensify tropical storms over the next few decades, climate risk will always exceed climate change risk by a wide margin. For instance, due to completely natural climatic factors, a company in Florida has a much greater vulnerability to hurricane strikes and damages than a company in Ohio, regardless of how climate changes. Yet this does not stop people and businesses from moving to Florida, enjoying good weather most of the time, and building a prosperous society.

No, the really serious climate risks are policy-related. For example, the application of Clean Air Act permitting rules to stationary sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions–the inescapable consequence of EPA establishing greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards for new motor vehicles in response to the Supreme Court’s April 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision–would potentially expose 1.2 million previously unregulated firms to new controls, paperwork, penalties, and litigation.

Moreover, the endangerment finding prerequisite to EPA adoption of GHG controls for motor vehicles could also compel the agency to promulgate National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for GHG-related “air pollution.” Logically, NAAQS for GHGs would have to be set below current atmospheric levels and, thus, could not be attained even if EPA shut down every car, power plant, and factory in the United States.

Once the regulatory cascade starts, climate policy risk to the U.S. economy could function as a gigantic, permanent, Anti-Stimulus Package. For the gory details, see my comment on EPA’s Endangerment Proposal, especially pp. 33-48.

It’s not enough for Ceres and other eco-zealots to clobber big emitters and industrial energy consumers with costly regulation. They also want those companies to scare away investors in advance of climate regulation via public disclosure of the potential burdens.

However, the Ceres strategy could backfire. If the SEC adopts the Ceres plan, targeted corporations should use the mandated information to publicize the destructive impacts of climate regulations on jobs, growth, investment, and shareholder value. Such information would reveal that the risks of climate policy vastly outweigh the risks of climate change. It could and should fuel a broad-based political backlash against the self-anointed saviors of Planet Earth.

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