Friday, April 15, 2022
Shortly after President Barack Obama’s first press conference in 2009, the Huffington Post published an article, "When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife?", that challenged the false premises of many of the questions being asked of the new president. The article opens by noting:
Sooner or later every human being on the face of this planet is confronted with tough questions. One of the toughest and most common is the infamous loaded question, “when did you stop beating your wife?” which implies that you have indeed been beating your wife. How do you answer without agreeing with the implication? How do you not answer without appearing evasive?
The author’s solution is that you should refuse to answer the question by simply responding, “no,” or by challenging the false assumption imbedded in the question. But what if the question is not asked at a press conference, by opposing counsel in the courtroom, or at a cocktail party, but as part of a federally mandated disclosure regime? This is a dilemma issuers may face if the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC’s) proposed rule to "Enhance and Standardize Climate-Related Disclosures for Investors" is adopted.
Existing SEC disclosure rules and guidance already require that issuers disclose man-made-climate-change-related risks that would materially impact market participants’ investment decisions concerning the company. Nevertheless, the SEC has determined that the existing regime grants boards too much discretion in deciding whether and how to disclose climate risk—which has resulted in climate-related disclosures that are insufficiently "consistent," "comparable," and "clear."
The SEC’s proposed changes to the disclosure regime would compel all publicly-traded companies to answer specific, standardized climate-related questions concerning, for example, the physical risks of human-caused-climate-related events (e.g., “severe weather events and other natural conditions”) on their business models and earnings in a manner that will be consistent and comparable with the answers of the thousands of other regulated issuers. But what if the boards’ honest answers to these difficult questions cannot be made to fit the SEC’s proposed one-size-fits-all mold? What if some issuers question the premises of the questions?
What if, for example, a board is not convinced that extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, etc., can be traced directly to human versus non-human causes? In such circumstances, mandatory reporting on either transitional or physical risks due to human-caused climate change might look a lot like mandatory disclosures on questions like “When did you stop beating your spouse?” Can issuers satisfy the SEC’s reporting requirements by simply answering “no,” as the Huffington Post author suggested President Obama should have answered such questions, or by challenging the premise of the question?
There is no doubt that the extent, effects, and appropriate response to human-caused-climate change is a partisan issue in the United States. One Vanderbilt survey found that 77.3% of respondents who identify as “liberal” believe that climate change is a serious problem, but only 17.2% of those who identify as “conservative” regard climate change as a serious problem. Moreover, the division over the impacts and appropriate responses to climate change are not just political—they exist in the scientific community as well. For example, Steven E. Koonin, a former Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy under President Obama, and member of the Academy of Sciences, recently published a book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, which questions a number of the premises informing the SEC’s proposed disclosure regime.
Take, as just one example, the proposed rule’s mandatory disclosure of “physical” risks to issuers due to extreme weather events resulting from human-caused-climate change. The home page of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, which the SEC credits as a principal source for its proposed rule, includes a video presentation by former Democratic Presidential Candidate, Michael Bloomberg, stating that climate change is a “crisis that shocked the [financial] system” in 2021: “wildfires, heat, flooding, and other extreme weather events have devastated communities and cost trillions of dollars this year alone.”
The premise of Bloomberg’s statement, which the SEC has effectively adopted, is that our models can reliably trace these extreme weather events to human causes. But is this true? Koonin points out that while a recent U.S. government climate report claims that heat waves across the U.S. have become more frequent since 1960, it “neglected to mention that the body of the report shows they are no more common today than they were in 1900.” Koonin also points out similar holes in common claims that human-caused climate change is responsible for extreme weather events like flooding, wildfires, and hurricanes. More fundamentally, Koonin argues that the new field of “event attribution science,” which provides the principal basis for claimed causal links between human influences and extreme weather events is “rife with issues,” and he is “appalled such studies are given credence, much less media coverage.”
None of the above should be interpreted as an attempt on my part to take sides in the climate debate. (I am no authority; my PhD is in philosophy, not in anything useful.) It is just to illustrate how these issues continue to be highly contested subjects of debate in both political and scientific circles.
The worry I raise here is that this sphere of discourse is far too contested and politically charged to be the subject of a mandatory disclosure regime. In response to challenges by Commissioner Hester Peirce and others that the SEC’s proposed rule on climate disclosure compels speech in a manner inconsistent with the First Amendment, Commissioner Gensler has responded that the reporting requirements do not mandate content. But, again, is this correct? If the disclosure questions are loaded, don’t they (at least implicitly) dictate the content of the response—particularly if the questions are carefully designed to elicit “standardized,” “consistent,” “comparable,” and “clear” answers?