Bad Guidance: SEC Playing Global Warming Politics

On Jan. 27, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) voted 3-2 to issue interpretive guidance instructing publicly traded companies to inform investors of the possible material impact of governmental reactions to possible climate change. In a statement, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro said, “We are not opining on whether the world’s climate is changing, at what pace it might be changing, or due to what causes. Nothing that the Commission does today should be construed as weighing in on those topics. Today’s guidance will help to ensure that our disclosure rules are consistently applied.” According to the SEC’s news release, the four areas that companies must take into account are:

  • Impact of Legislation and Regulation
  • Impact of International Accords
  • Indirect Consequences of Regulation or Business Trends
  • Physical Impacts of Climate Change

Commissioner Kathleen Casey, a Republican, strenuously objected: “I can only conclude that the purpose of this release is to place the imprimatur of the commission on the agenda of the social and environmental policy lobby, an agenda that falls outside of our expertise and beyond our fundamental mission of investor protection.” For the other commissioners’ statements, go to the SEC statement page.

There’s no doubt the SEC’s disclosure requirements will exacerbate the reputational risk that the litigation industry seeks to exploit, creating another point of attack in the public relations campaigns that now accompany high-profile environmental lawsuits. James Freeman, a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, called the guidance “a litigation breeder” that would consume SEC time and resources best spent on real priorities. (See WSJ News Hub video.) The New York Times summarized in a predictable editorial, “The commission, which took pains to say that it was not expressing an opinion on whether the world’s climate was changing, has long required companies to reveal financial or legal impacts from other environmental challenges — potential liabilities under the Superfund law or the Clean Water Act, for instance. It has also been petitioned by investor groups and environmentalists to add climate change to the list of those challenges.”

Yes, and that list of petitioners includes familiar promoters of litigation shakedowns against business: The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo among others. (The Ceres investment group, CalPERS and the Environmental Defense Fund issued a joint news release and Pax World Management also praised the SEC.) See their original petition (Sep. 18, 2007) to the SEC, and the Supplemental petition (Jun. 12, 2008).

Freeman suggests the Obama Administration is trying to achieve through its executive branch appointments what it cannot achieve in Congress, that is, implementation of regulatory regime to control greenhouse gas emissions. Probably so. What’s not subjec to dispute is that the SEC guidance will impose additional costs on companies, draw SEC resources away from other, more pressing enforcement needs, and serve the interests of the litigation industry.

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