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The Securities and Exchange Commission recently issued a proposed rule for reporting on climate change risk, and it is fairly outrageous. It asks that corporations report on their own direct greenhouse gas emissions (GHG – Scope 1), the emissions caused by their purchases of energy inputs (Scope 2), and the emissions caused by their “downstream” customers and “upstream” suppliers (Scope 3). This is another front in the Biden Administration’s efforts to bankrupt producers of fossil fuels and to force the private sector to radically alter its mix of energy inputs. The SEC’s proposed “disclosures” are sheer lunacy on several levels.

The SEC Mandate

If implemented, the rule would allow the SEC to stray well outside the bounds of its regulatory authority. The SEC’s role is not to regulate emissions or the environment. Rather, as its web site makes clear, the agency is charged with:

“… protecting investors, maintaining fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitating capital formation.

Given this mission, the SEC requires management to disclose material financial risks. Are a firm’s GHG emissions really material risks? The first problem here is quite practical: John Cochrane notes the outrageous costs that would be associated with compliance:

“‘Disclosure’ usually means revealing something you know. A perfectly honest answer to ‘disclose what you know about your carbon emissions’ is, ‘we have no idea what our carbon emissions are.’ Back that up with every document the company has ever produced, and you have perfectly ‘disclosed.’ There is no asymmetric information, fraud, etc.

The SEC has already required the production of new information, and as Hester Peirce makes perfectly clear, the climate rules again make a huge dinner out of that appetizer: essentially telling companies to hire a huge number of climate consultants to generate new information, and also how to run businesses.

In a separate post, Cochrane quotes SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce’s response to the proposed rule. She emphasizes that companies are already required to disclose all material risks. Perhaps they have properly declined to disclose climate risks because those risks are not material.

Current SEC disclosure mandates are intended to provide investors with an accurate picture of the company’s present and prospective performance through managers’ own eyes. How are they thinking about the company? What opportunities and risks do the board and managers see? What are the material determinants of the company’s financial value?”

Identifying the Risk Causers

Regardless of the actual risks to a firm caused by climate change, the SEC’s proposed GHG disclosures put a more subtle issue into play. Peirce describes what amounts to a fundamental shift in the SEC’s philosophy regarding the motivation and purpose of disclosure:

The proposal, by contrast, tells corporate managers how regulators, doing the bidding of an array of non-investor stakeholders, expect them to run their companies. It identifies a set of risks and opportunities—some perhaps real, others clearly theoretical—that managers should be considering and even suggests specific ways to mitigate those risks. It forces investors to view companies through the eyes of a vocal set of stakeholders, for whom a company’s climate reputation is of equal or greater importance than a company’s financial performance.

In other words, a major risk faced by these firms has nothing to do with climate change itself, but with perceptions of “climate-related” risks by other parties. That transforms the question of climate risk into something that is, in fact, regulatory and political. Is this the true nature of the SEC’s concern, all dressed up in the scientism typically relied upon by climate change activists?

The reaction of government bureaucrats to the risks they perceive is a palpable threat to investor well-being. For example, GHG emissions might lead to future regulatory sanctions from various government agencies, including fines, taxes, various sanctions, and mitigation mandates. In addition, with the growth of investment management based on what are essentially shambolic and ad hoc ESG scores, GHG or carbon emissions might lead to constraints on a firm’s access to capital. Just ask the oil and gas industry! That penalty is imposed by activist investors and fund managers who wish to force an unwise and premature end to the use of fossil fuels. There is also a threat that GHG disclosures themselves, based (as they will be) on flimsy estimates, could create litigation risk for many companies.

Much Ado About Nothing

While there are major regulatory and political risks to investors, let’s ask, for the sake of argument: how would one degree celcius of warming by the end of this century affect corporate results? Generally not at all. (The bounds described in the Paris Agreement are 1.5 to 2 degrees, but these are based on unrealistic scenarios — see links below.) It would happen gradually in any case, with ample opportunity to adapt to the operating environment. To think otherwise requires great leaps of imagination. For example, climate alarmists probably fancy that violent weather or wildfires will wipe out facilities, yet there is no reliable evidence that the mild warming experienced to-date has been associated with more violent weather or an increased incidence of wildfires (and see here). There are a great many “sacred cows” worshiped by climate-change neurotics, and the SEC undoubtedly harbors many of those shibboleths.

What probabilities can be attached to each incremental degree of warming that might occur over several decades. The evidence we’ve seen comes from so-called carbon-forcing models parameterized for unrealistically high carbon sensitivities and subjected to unrealistic carbon-concentration scenarios. Estimates of these probabilities are not reliable.

Furthermore, climate change risks, even if they could be measured reliably in the aggregate, cannot reasonably be allocated to individual firms. The magnitude of the firm’s own contribution to that risk is equivalent to the marginal reduction in risk if the firm implemented a realistic zero-carbon operating rule. For virtually any firm, we’re talking about something infinitesimal. It involves tremendous guesswork given that various parties around the globe take a flexible approach to emissions, and will continue to do so. The very suggestion of such an exercise is an act of hubris.

Back To The SEC’s Mandated Role

Let’s return to the practical problems associated with these kinds of disclosure requirements. Cochrane also points out that the onerous nature of the SEC proposal, and the regulatory and political threats it embodies, will hasten the transition away from public ownership in many industries.

The fixed costs alone are huge. The trend to going private and abandoning public markets, at least in the U.S. will continue. The trend to large oligopolized politically compliant static businesses in the U.S. will continue.

I would bet these rules wind up in court, and that these are important issues. They should be.

Unfortunately, private companies will still have to to deal with certain investors who would shackle their use of energy inputs and demand forms of diligence (… not to say “due”) of their own.

The SEC’s proposed climate risk disclosures are stunningly authoritarian, and they are designed to coalesce with other demands by the regulatory state to kill carbon-based energy and promote renewables. These alternative energy sources are, as yet, unable to offer an economical and stable supply of power. The fraudulent nature of the alleged risks make this all the more appalling. The SEC has effectively undertaken an effort to engage in corporatist industrial policy benefitting a certain class of “green” energy investors, exposing the proposal as yet another step on the road to fascism. Let’s hope Cochrane is right: already, 16 state attorneys general are preparing a legal challenge. May the courts ultimately see through the SEC’s sham!