The far-reaching consequences of climate change have the ability to create chaos in the financial system and disrupt the American economy, according to a federal report released Wednesday.
The report, the first of its kind by a US government entity, calls for Congress to swiftly impose a price on carbon and urges financial regulators to “more urgently and decisively” work to understand and blunt the looming economic damage from climate change.
“Climate change poses a major risk to the stability of the U.S. financial system and to its ability to sustain the American economy,” the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s climate subcommittee wrote.
The CFTC, which regulates some financial markets, is made up of three Republican and two Democratic commissioners. The climate change advisory committee, launched by Rostin Behnam, a Democratic commissioner, includes representatives from banks, environmental groups, investors and a major oil company. A disclaimer in the report emphasizes that its conclusions do not necessarily reflect the views of the CFTC or the US government.
Scientists have already identified climate change as culprit in destructive weather events across the United States, including wildfires, severe floods and massive hurricanes.
The report is notable in part because it directly contradicts President Donald Trump’s and other Republicans’ downplaying of the consequences of climate change. The President has called climate change a “hoax,” rolled back environmental regulations and even falsely claimed that wind mills can cause cancer.
Behnam, the Democratic CFTC commissioner, is hoping the broad involvement of industry in Wednesday’s report will change the tone from the administration.
“It’s incumbent on policy makers, elected officials and regulators to start building in rules about climate resilience so we don’t suffer in the long run from these dramatic weather events,” Behnam told CNN Business on Wednesday. “These are real world climate events happening on a more frequent basis and more extreme manner.”
Jobs, income and opportunity at stake
The report warns of potential “financial system stress” that could hurt the economy by limiting access to credit.
“Over time, if significant action is not taken to check rising global average temperatures,” the report said, “climate change impacts could impair the productive capacity of the economy and undermine its ability to generate employment, income, and opportunity.”
Environmental groups involved in the report stressed the urgent need for action.
“For such a politically and sectorally diverse group to issue such a strong call for regulatory action is testament to just how serious a systemic financial threat climate change poses to US capital markets, and how concerned stakeholders from across the political spectrum are about it,” Mindy Lubber, CEO of sustainability nonprofit Ceres, said in a statement.
CFTC Chairman Heath Tarbert, a Republican, struck a different tone on the report, emphasizing the potential disruption caused by the shift to cleaner energy.
“The subcommittee’s report acknowledges that ‘transition risks’ of a green economy could be just as disruptive to our financial system as the possible physical manifestations of climate change, and that moving too fast too soon could be just as disorderly as doing too little too late,” Tarbert said in a statement.
Climate crisis could become a financial one
The report suggests the climate crisis could eventually turn into a financial crisis.
“Climate change could pose systemic risks to the US financial system,” the report said.
That could happen through a “disorderly repricing of assets” that has “cascading effects” on investment portfolios and balance sheets. And those impacts could be amplified by the fact that Corporate America is sitting on record amounts of debt, which could leave some industries vulnerable to a shock.
Another risk is that climate change sparks “sub-systemic shocks,” the report said, that impact particular sectors and geographical regions.
Other reports, outside of the federal government, have similarly warned of dire economic consequences from climate change.
In December, the Principles for Responsible Investment warned that climate change — and the policies designed to fight it — could wipe out $2.3 trillion of value from global stocks.
Last year, Stanford University researchers found that climate change makes poor countries poorer and widens global inequality.
The CFTC climate subcommittee laid out 53 recommendations for dealing with the climate risk, including requiring companies to disclose details on greenhouse gas emissions, piloting climate stress tests, and forcing banks to address climate change financial risks.
The report also urged regulators to incorporate climate risks into their mandates – including the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which is charged with identifying emerging threats to financial stability.
Markets are unprepared for climate risk
But the CFTC climate subcommittee emphasized that the “single most important step to manage climate risk” is for the United States to set a “fair, economy-wide and effective” price on carbon. The goal would be to steer capital towards clean energy and ensure that markets are appropriately pricing the disruption caused by climate change.
Lawmakers and industry leaders have debated a price on carbon, such as a carbon tax, for decades. Even some large fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil (XOM) support a carbon tax in hopes of getting clarity on the uncertain regulatory picture.
“Financial markets today are not pricing climate risk. The financial markets cannot do that on their own,” Bob Litterman, chairman of the CFTC climate subcommittee, said in the report. “Until this fundamental flaw is fixed, capital will flow in the wrong direction.”
The report called on Congress to impose a price on carbon and create other appropriate incentives to fight the climate crisis.
“Only then will the awesome power of the financial system be able to address at scale this existential threat,” Litterman said.