Navigant Research Blog

Business Community Wakes to Climate Change Risks

Richard Martin — June 27, 2014

Attempting to reframe the climate change debate in terms of profit and loss, instead of politics, a bipartisan group of business and political leaders has released a report that says the United States faces billions of dollars in economic losses due to global warming.  Titled Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States, the study was produced by the Rhodium Group, an economic research firm, in association with a committee headed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer, the billionaire former hedge fund manager who has devoted his fortune to the effort to limit climate change.

Essentially, Risky Business makes the point, through an exhaustive database of the probable economic downsides of rising seas, drought, higher temperatures, and crop failures, that regardless of politics, it is irresponsible to ignore the risks of climate change – especially if you’re a businessperson, investor, or money manager.  With its high-powered lineup of Republican and Democratic financial heavyweights, Risky Business is the latest signal that the business community is awakening to the grave consequences of ignoring anthropogenic climate change, even as political leaders fail to act.

Ignored Rule

“Viewing climate change in terms of risk assessment and risk management makes clear to me that taking a cautiously conservative stance — that is, waiting for more information before acting — is actually taking a very radical risk,” wrote Paulson in a New York Times essay earlier this week.

In 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) established a rule requiring publicly traded companies to divulge their exposure to climate change risks in their reporting.  That rule has mostly been observed in the breach.  A February study by the Ceres Group, a Boston non-profit that looks at the financial implications of climate change, reported that, “A large number of companies fail to say anything about climate change in their 10-K filings. Forty-one percent of S&P 500 companies failed to address climate change in their 2013 filing.”

That is changing, as business leaders, driven by regulators and shareholders, have started to factor in likely climate-related effects on their businesses.  Large investors, meanwhile, have started to punish companies that produce or continue to rely on fossil fuels.  The announcement by Stanford University in May that it would eliminate fossil fuel investments from its $18.7 billion endowment portfolio is the most significant victory to date of the divestment movement.

Popping Sound

In an update to its 2011 report, Unburnable Carbon, the Carbon Tracker Initiative calculated that only 20% to 40% of the total listed reserves of the world’s fossil fuel companies can be burned if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Current fossil fuel company valuations represent a carbon bubble.  Eventually, the initiative stated, some form of price will be put on the carbon represented by those reserves, dramatically reducing their value.

“The scale of this carbon budget deficit poses a major risk for investors,” wrote the report’s authors, Jeremy Leggett and Mark Campanale.  “They need to understand that 60-80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of listed firms are unburnable … Capital spent on finding and developing more reserves is largely wasted. To minimize the risks for investors and savers, capital needs to be redirected away from high-carbon options.”

Politicians have utterly failed to come to grips with the environmental crisis of climate change.  Now, by framing it as an economic crisis, the business community is having a go.

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