When it comes to corporate law, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is king. Most people connect the SEC with the stock market, the 2008 financial crisis, and Bernie Madoff. However, for four years, the SEC has required companies to tackle an unlikely target: climate change.
Generally, publicly traded companies are required to disclose material business risks to investors via regular filings (called “10-K filings”) with the SEC. In July 2010, the SEC published binding interpretative guidance requiring companies to address how climate change (and climate change regulation) could potentially impact their businesses in their annual 10-K filings. Like all SEC disclosures, this is aimed at informing market price and protecting investors.
The climate disclosure requirement has been shrouded in controversy since its inception. It was approved in a three-to-two split vote by the five SEC Commissioners. The two in opposition believed that the science was not robust enough to require regulation; this belief was bolstered by criticism by the electricity-generating industry. The House and Senate responded by introducing bills to prohibit enforcement of this disclosure guidance, with their supporters arguing that it was a job-killing veiled attempt to promote a political agenda.
Four years later, the question is: has it worked? Numerous studies have answered this with an unfortunate and resounding “no.” After poring over annual reports of 3,895 U.S. public companies listed on major stock exchanges, a citizen researcher found that almost 75% of the companies failed to mention “climate change” or “global warming,” including retail giants like Apple and Amazon. Of the 1,050 businesses that acknowledged climate change, few disclosed specific issues, with most mentioning that operating costs may be affected by pending EPA greenhouse gas regulation. A Davis Polk & Wardwell study similarly found no significant impact on disclosures.
Why might companies be ignoring the requirements? An ABA study found that companies felt climate change disclosure was a “speculative process” without recognized standards; meanwhile there was also little interest in climate change among potential investors and the financial community. However, a 2011 Ceres report did find that public companies had improved their climate change risk disclosures, but it also noted that corporate filers still need more experience communicating risk, because currently disclosures “often fail to satisfy investors’ legitimate expectations.”
Given SEC personnel and funding limitations, enforcement of the disclosure requirement is limited if not negligible. The toughest penalty for not properly reporting risks is requiring a company to rewrite the report. More often, the SEC simply requests more information in the following year’s report.
Despite these disappointing results, the SEC disclosure rule could still be viewed as a success simply because it puts the idea of climate change risks into the corporate consciousness. At the time the SEC passed the Guidance, the Commission took pains to explain it was “not opining on whether the world’s climate [was] changing.” Nevertheless, the disclosure requirement ensures that climate change is treated the same as any other financial, environmental, or regulatory risk that a company must disclose.
At the time the measure passed, Luis Aguilar, then the Democratic Chairman of the SEC, explained, “this release clarifies that effects resulting from climate change that are keeping management up at night should be disclosed to investors.” Despite this ambitious sentiment, it is not clear that climate change actually keeps officers and directors up at night (except perhaps those in the electricity-generating industry currently battling in court to prevent GHG emission regulations). Given the current lack of interest from managers, investors, attorneys, securities regulators, and the financial industry generally, disclosure does not seem like an effective tactic. Yet, with GHG emission regulations imminent, insurance costs rapidly rising, and the potential for regulation to limit coal, oil, and gas extraction and decrease share prices, a failure to take heed will likely come at an investor’s own peril.