With the United Nations Climate Change Conference set to begin December 7, 2009 in Copenhagen, activists and observers are dialing up the volume both with calls for reform and with updated reports of the projected risks that global warming threatens. Among the long-standing initiatives advocates are now seeking to advance is the petition before the SEC calling for the adoption of climate change disclosure requirements.
These renewed calls for disclosure reform, as well as the release of additional data regarding insurance industry exposure to climate change, are clearly intended to coincide with the upcoming UN conference. One question, however, is how much recent email revelations of climate change researchers’ practices will affect the current dialog.
First, with respect to climate change disclosures, on November 23, 2009, a coalition of twenty public pension funds, public officials and environmental groups filed a "Supplemental Petition on Interpretive Guidance" (here) renewing their call for the SEC to "act promptly to clarify that existing disclosure requirements apply to climate change." Background regarding the group’s initial September 2007 petition can be found here.
As described in their November 23, 2009 press release (here), the group has renewed its call for climate change disclosure reform because of the "spate of recent regulatory, legislative and scientific developments – including the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mandatory greenhouse gas reporting rule – and the new economic opportunities that dramatically change the landscape of corporate climate change disclosure."
In a separate development, a November 23, 2009 report issued jointly by Allianz and the World Wildlife Fund entitled "Major Tipping Point in the Earth’s Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector" (here) asserts that rising sea levels due to global warming could put trillion of dollars of U.S. assets at risk. Among other things, the report states that the planet’s atmosphere is close to dangerous atmospheric thresholds or "tipping points" that could cause dire environmental and economic consequences. The World Wildlife Fund’s November 23, 2009 press release regarding the report can be found here.
In addition to rising sea levels, the report also cites three additional "tipping points" that likely to have an impact: an increasingly arid climate in California; disturbances in the summer monsoon in India and Nepal; and reduction to the Amazon rainforest due to drought.
At the same time, the upcoming Copenhagen conference is clearly creating pressure for governmental action, as suggested by the announcements last week that both Chinese and U.S. officials will arrive at the conference with various country-level carbon emissions goals (as discussed here).
This same pressure could increase the likelihood of implementation of reforms such as the proposed climate change disclosure requirements, as these types of initiatives afford governmental officials the opportunity to show they are taking actions without at the same time requiring theme to address proposals that could directly affect economic activity or that could prove politically more controversial.
However, one wild card that has been played in the midst of all of these developments is the recent revelation of email communications amongst climate change researchers. These emails have been portrayed as suggesting that the researchers manipulated data to support their findings of climate change and that they suppressed contrary points of view. The question arises of how much these disclosures will undermine the perception of trustworthiness of the scientific conclusions on which so much of the current dialog is premised.
One example of the way in which the email revelations can affect perceptions is the joint Allianz/WWF report described above. Two of the three individual authors of the report are affiliated with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, which is the institution form which the hacked emails were obtained. While the report’s authors’ affiliations would hardly have occasioned comment previously, now these institutional associations will inevitably raise the question whether the report and its conclusions reflect trustworthy and objective scientific analysis, or something else.
Climate change skeptics and reform opponents are already attempting to seize on the email disclosures to try to suggest that, due to the damage to the perception of trustworthiness of the climate change science, reform initiatives are doomed.
There is no doubt that the email disclosures have affected the dialog. At the same time, events such as the upcoming Copenhagen conference carry their own inertial dynamic. President Obama’s commitment to address the conference certainly will reinforce this dynamic. In this context, reform initiatives, such as the proposed climate change disclosure application, could acquire a certain inevitability. That is certainly the hope of the initiative’s proponents.
The prospect for increased climate change-related disclosure requirements, and the continuing agitation of climate change activists, will put increased pressure on public companies to address climate change issues in their public filings. As I recently noted (here), investor interest in climate change-related disclosures, along with the effects of voluntary initiatives (such as the NAIC’s climate change disclosure project, about which refer here), may separately create their own independent pressures for corporate climate change disclosures.
As these disclosure expectations become more generalized, the possibility of investor litigation relating to climate change disclosure also increases. As I recently noted (here), litigation developments in other areas of the law have moved the possibility of climate change-related disclosure litigation one step closer.