Climate Risk Disclosures — Coming Soon to a 10-K Near You?

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is re-examining its rules regarding whether companies should or must disclose climate change related risks. According to an article in ClimateWire, revisions could be issued by the end of October. On Friday, SEC Commissioner Elisse Walter said that SEC staff are working on preparing recommendations, and two options are still on the table. One option is a rule-making that would set specific rules for disclosing climate risks. The other would be a re-interpretation of Form 10-K disclosure rules to require companies to disclose and comment on operations tied in with mitigating climate-change risks.

These changes likely result from frequent criticism by shareholder groups that companies are ducking requirements under the current SEC rules to disclose the climate-related liabilities they face from greenhouse gas emissions, including emerging regulations, rising commodity prices, potential for property damage and long-term costs associated with replacing equipment and infrastructure after climate-related risks take their toll. Spurred on by shareholder initiatives and corporate social responsibility programs, a number of businesses have already started to voluntarily report their climate risks and disclose information on potential financial impacts. But, as stated in the Investor Network on Climate Risk’s most recent letter to the SEC on this issue, climate risk disclosures in SEC filings still remain relatively rare. A June 2009 survey by INCR and CERES found that only two of 100 companies in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, insurance and transportation sectors disclosed more than half of the climate-related information sought by investors in their Q1 2008 reports. Changes to the SEC rules could make such reporting a requirement.

Even with forthcoming changes to the rules, the SEC’s Walter urged companies not to wait for the SEC to act. As ClimateWire reported, "People should be looking at their own particular facts and circumstances," Walter said. "For example, if you’re operating a plant in an area where there’s drought, and there are serious water needs, and you don’t know if you can satisfy them, costs will triple. That would be one example."

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