Friday, November 12, 2021
Weighing the Costs, Benefits, and Authority for Mandatory SEC Climate-Related Disclosure Rules
According to SEC Chair, Gary Gensler, “[w]hen it comes to climate risk disclosures, investors are raising their hands and asking for more.” He has therefore asked his staff to prepare recommendations on new mandatory climate-change-related disclosure rules.
There appear to be two principal policy goals behind this proposed mandatory climate-related disclosure regime. First, to advise current and prospective investors of previously undisclosed physical and transitional climate-related risks through reliable, consistent, and comparable disclosures. Second, to structure the disclosure requirements to highlight “bad actors” and incentivize changes in the climate-related behavior of publicly traded companies.
Not everyone is, however, convinced that new, mandatory climate disclosures are necessary or even wise. For example, two of the five current SEC Commissioners have questioned the wisdom and/or need for new climate disclosure rules. In addition, Professor Stephen Bainbridge and Professors Paul and Julia Mahoney have expressed concern over the costs of a new climate-disclosure regime, as well as skepticism over the claim that climate disclosures are important to the average investor.
In our recent essay, An Economic Climate Change?, my coauthor George Mocsary and I weigh into the debate over the wisdom of new mandatory climate-change disclosure rules for issuers by asking: (1) Are the goals behind the proposed reforms worthy and appropriate for an SEC disclosure regime (the mission of which is to maintain efficient markets and facilitate capital formation)? (2) Can these goals be accomplished under the existing regime? (3) What would a new disclosure requirement cost, both directly and indirectly? (4) Would any benefits from increased disclosure outweigh those costs?
We conclude that, with respect to disclosure of transitional climate-related risks (risks to issuers from current or prospective regulatory demands and broader market trends toward a carbon-neutral world), new disclosure rules would be either redundant or outside the scope the SEC’s statutory authority.
Concerning mandatory disclosure of physical risk (a company’s risk to physical assets, markets, and supply chain due to climate-related extreme weather events), we express concern that the unreliability of the nascent discipline of “event attribution science” (which strives to identify causal links from human-influenced climate change to extreme weather events) would force issuers into rampant speculation that would be of little use to investors. It is not consistent with the SEC’s mission (and is likely outside its current statutory authority) to mandate disclosures that would be of little or no use to investors.
Finally, we conclude by highlighting the potential for some unintended consequences of mandatory disclosures in this area. For example, the burden of such disclosures may force some currently public companies to go private. This would have the result of further reducing the already decreasing number of investment opportunities for Main Street investors. Moreover, capital may shift abroad to markets that do not require climate-related disclosures, making U.S. markets less competitive. And perhaps most concerning, new climate disclosure rules may force larger, more eco-friendly companies to reduce their carbon footprint by selling off fossil-fuel-based assets and business lines. These assets may be purchased by private or foreign companies that are less concerned about the environment. This may actually result in a net increase in carbon emissions.