The recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal to find that greenhouse gases "contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare" is just the latest in a series of actions and events suggesting that climate change related issues could affect a large number of companies, in a variety of ways, including most specifically with respect to at least some companies’ disclosure obligations. These trends could have important implications for potential liability exposures of directors and officers of public companies.


On April 17, 2009, the EPA released a proposed "endangerment finding" with respect to six greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide). The EPA’s April 17 press release can be found here and a summary of the proposal can be found here. Under the EPA’s proposed finding (which can be found here), the EPA is proposing that the six gases "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations." The EPA also proposes to find that motor vehicle emission of these gases "contribute to concentrations of these key greenhouse gases and hence to the threat of climate change."


The proposed endangerment finding was promulgated in response to the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA (discussed at length here). The EPA’s proposed finding, which is now in its public comment period, does not itself include any specific regulatory action or requirements. However, if the proposed finding is adopted, regulatory and even legislative action seems probable, especially given the politics and inclinations of the current President and Congress. Indeed, the adoption of the proposed finding could motivate legislators to act preemptively, to try to avert regulatory provisions they might find unacceptable.


The potential scope of any future regulatory or legislative action can be gauged by the specific observations in the EPA’s proposed endangerment finding. That is, the proposed finding not only concludes that climate change "impacts human health in several ways" (such as increased threat of catastrophic weather activity or harm to water and other natural resources), but also that the effects of climate change will have a "disproportionate impact" on certain vulnerable segments of the populations, such as the very poor, the elderly and those already in poor health.


The EPA’s report also includes the suggestion that climate change has "serious natural security concerns" based on the instability that could follow in the wake of "increasing scarcity of resources."


With these kinds of concerns as a starting point, the potential for any ensuing regulatory or legislative activity to have a disruptive impact on many industries and companies seems high. Indeed, if the risk assessments in the EPA’s findings are anywhere near accurate, the climate change itself, independent of any governmental action, could have a disruptive impact on many industries and companies.


Many of the industries and companies likeliest to be affected already are under pressure to anticipate these changes and assess their possible future impact.


The most recent effort to mandate these kinds of assessments is the disclosure requirement adopted on March 17, 2009 by the National Association of Insurance Examiners (NAIC). The NAIC’s March 17 press release can be found here and further background regarding the NAIC’s disclosure initiative can be found here.


The NAIC’s new disclosure requirements specify that no later than May 1, 2010, all insurance companies with annual premiums over $500 million must complete a Insurer Climate Risk Disclosure Survey. The Survey is designed to require the insurers to disclose "the financial risks they face from climate change, as well as the actions the companies are taking to respond to those risks."


Under the NAIC’s mandate, insurers will be required to report on "how they are altering their risk-management and catastrophe-risk modeling in light of the challenges posed by climate change." Insurers must also report on "steps they are taking to engage and educate policymakers and policyholders on the risk of climate change," as well as "whether and how they are changing their investment strategies." As discussed below, the requirement for insurers to disclose how they are "engaging and educating" policymakers and policyholders could be the bridge that extends the NAIC’s initiative to many other industries.


Another industry under pressure to analyze and assess climate change impacts is the utilities industry. As discussed (here), in August 2008, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached the first of several regulatory settlements with utilities companies, in which the settling companies agreed "to disclose financial risks that climate change poses to investors."


Among other things, the settling utilities have undertaken to disclose risks associated with probable future climate change regulation; climate change related litigation; and the physical impacts of climate change. In his press release relating to the first of these settlements, Cuomo expressly stated that he expected these companies’ disclosure undertakings to "establish a standard."


The insurance and utilities industries may be the most likely industries but they are far from the only industries that potentially will be affected by climate change regulation and the physical impacts of climate change. Other obvious possibilities include auto manufacturing; oil and gas extraction, production and distribution; transportation and shipping; mining; agriculture; tourism; and forestry.


But the comprehensive nature of climate change suggests that the potential impacts will not be restricted just to these more obvious industries; the regulatory and the physical impacts of climate change are likely to extend to any business that is engaged in manufacturing; owns or operates vehicles; owns or operates buildings or other physical facilities; or has any other process or activity that has carbon outputs.


In other works, the impacts could well reach every company and enterprise. This assessment may seem overly dramatic, but at a minimum it seems likely that the kinds of disclosure requirements now facing insurance companies and the utilities industry could come to be expected of many other companies. As Cuomo said in connection with the settlement described above, he expects that the disclosure requirements will "establish a standard."


Whether these changes will actually take place remains to be seen. But whether or not they ultimately happen, the prudent course would seem to be to anticipate that they will. Which leads to the point referenced above, about the prospect that insurers could wind up driving change for many other companies.


That is, with insurers themselves obliged to start reporting next May among other things on what steps they are taking to engage and educate policymakers and policyholders on climate change, one possibility is that insurers could take the lead in communicating the message that prudent companies should assume that these changes are coming. Insures could wind up spurring their policyholders to undertake the same kind of risk assessment and disclosure that Cuomo is requiring in the regulatory settlements with the utilities.


Specifically, it seems possible that D&O insurers, in order to fulfill their own disclosure obligations under the NAIC’s mandate (and to look proactive while doing so) could undertake to "educate" their policyholders about the need to assess both the possible regulatory and physical impacts of climate change on their operations and financial condition, and to disclose those assessments to investors, as a way to manage a variety of climate change related risks.


In any event, whether or not insurers actually take that step, well-advised companies may independently conclude on their own that given the possible regulatory and physical impacts of climate change, risk assessment and disclosure is simply prudent.


One of the lurking dangers when a single issue predominates, as the global financial crisis recently has, is that all other concerns may seem trivial and unimportant by comparison. For many companies, especially those outside the insurance and utilities industries, climate change issues may now seem subordinate and remote to the point of irrelevance. But when we finally emerge from the current crisis, we may find that the climate change risks loom larger than ever and are more important than anyone now imagines.


This is not the first time I have raised these climate change related issues (refer for example here). I know there are those who think I am alarmist about this issue, and I suppose the skeptics could be right. However, even the most hardened cynic will have to acknowledge that, given the EPA’s recent pronouncement and given the current political environment in Washington, regulatory and even legislative activity seems likely, which is clearly a risk, trend or uncertainly that prudent companies will be assessing and disclosing.


And allow yourself for a moment to consider the possibility that the risk assessments in the EPA report could actually come to pass. At a minimum, if these things are possible, shouldn’t companies also be assessing the possible impact of climate change on their operations and financial condition?


Many companies today might conclude that there will be time enough tomorrow to deal with tomorrow’s problems. That was exactly the logic that led Detroit to keep grinding out SUVs and Hummers for the last twenty years, when more forward-looking competitors were already capturing market share by making hybrid vehicles. Just as Detroit’s past leaders are now criticized for their lack of vision, so too may other corporate leaders who now defer on these issues find themselves later under siege for failing to look ahead and anticipate the changes and problems just ahead.


Somehow, on Earth Day, these issues seemed particularly important for me. And for my kids.