(Dow Jones) A divided U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday voted to encourage companies to disclose the effects of climate change on their business, bringing a partisan debate over global warming into a new arena.
Democrats and Republicans split over approving the guidance in a 3-2 vote. Democrats portrayed the action as clarifying existing disclosure requirements. Republicans said the SEC appeared to be more interested in supporting an environmental agenda than in addressing more pressing issues stemming from the aftermath of a financial crisis.
"We are not opining on whether the world's climate is changing, at what pace it might be changing or due to what causes," SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro said. But she said that the guidance "will help to ensure that our disclosure rules are consistently applied, regardless of the political sensitivity of the issue at hand, so that investors get reliable information."
Investors had pushed the SEC to act, citing the need to factor climate risks into stock-buying decisions. Those same investors now plan to study the next round of corporate disclosure requirements to determine whether companies are following the guidance.
"In cases where we see there's a clear lack of disclosure," we will ask "the SEC to intervene and enforce," said Peter DeSimone, the director of programs at the Social Investment Forum, which focuses on socially responsible investing. He said that of particular interest would be insurance companies, oil and gas companies and the automotive industry, "which are a little more susceptible to climate risk than others."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is already preparing to regulate greenhouse gases and starting this year will require companies to disclose greenhouse-gas emissions from individual facilities that produce a certain amount of pollution. The SEC guidance potentially goes a step further by requiring public companies to discuss global warming at a company-wide level so that investors don't have to tally up activities at each individual factory or plant.
"I can only conclude that the purpose of the release is to place the imprimatur of the commission on the agenda of the social environmental policy lobby, an agenda that falls outside of our expertise and beyond our fundamental mission of investor protection," said Kathy Casey, a Republican commissioner.
New York York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has already been pushing for climate disclosures. Last year, AES Corp. (AES) agreed to disclose the financial risks that global warming may pose for investors, the latest pact resulting from a probe of energy companies that began in 2007. The New York attorney general was part of the group that had petitioned the SEC to act.
Insurance companies are among those most likely to be affected by the SEC action. Under the SEC guidance, a company that is assessing disclosure obligations should consider the "actual and potential physical impact" of climate change on its business. The commission said that insurance companies may want to consider disclosing whether severe weather or changes in sea levels increase the risk of insurance claims in coastal regions.
The SEC also said that companies should consider whether the impact of existing climate laws and regulations is material to their businesses. The agency said that in some cases companies may need to consider whether to share information about the impact of pending regulation or legislation.