Can Michael Bloomberg (finally) move the needle on climate disclosure?

Can Michael Bloomberg (finally) move the needle on climate disclosure?

Michael Bloomberg
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Michael Bloomberg will look to bring attention to climate related financial disclosures as chair of FSB's task force. 

Former New York City mayor, media mogul and erstwhile presidential contender Michael Bloomberg recently got a new gig: chair of the Financial Stability Board’s (FSB) task force on climate-related financial disclosure.

The announcement may be new to those outside the corporate sustainability realm, but to those in sustainable business the move may have invoked a moment of déjà vu where the year is still 2014.

That's because back in May 2014, Bloomberg was appointed chair of another sustainability-focused finance board. He was named chair of the board of directors of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), which also looks to help companies voluntarily disclose climate-related financial risks.

Other nonprofit organizations, such as GRI and CDP, also create their own guidance and standards for companies on disclosing climate risks, which raises the question: is all of this activity actually making a dent in corporate disclosure?

George Serafeim, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, whose research focus includes sustainable investing and integrated reporting, said these organizations do have an important role to play.

"Those organizations are providing the platform that you can use in order to achieve the goal of increasing transparency in the market," said Serafeim. "And, as a result, increasing the financial stability of the financial system."

Still, many companies continue to abstain from climate risk disclosure, and even fewer are disclosing these risks in much detail.

Out of the 20 largest industrial companies in the United States in 2015, three did not mention any information on climate change, and only one company quantified the risk of climate change in its 10-K, according to InfluenceMap, a non-profit that analyzes how companies are influencing climate change policy.

Additionally, a study by sustainability non-profit Ceres in 2014 shows 41 percent of S&P 500 companies in 2013 did not include any information on climate-related issues in their 10-Ks.

Ceres also scored companies based on the quality of their disclosures in their 10-Ks, and out of the 488 companies in the S&P 500 that disclosed 10-Ks only 14 percent scored higher than a 5. A score of 5 is "one short paragraph or a couple of lines focused on climate-related risks or opportunities," according to the report.

The disclosure dilemma

Some may wonder about the overall importance of disclosing climate-specific risks for large corporations with long lists of priorities any given quarter.

Wim Bartels, KPMG’s global head of sustainability reporting and assurance and a member of the FSB task force, said he has seen from his own experience how disclosing this type of information actually can play an important role in internal decisions.

"Whenever someone starts to collect information to report, it also stimulates your thinking within the company," said Bartels. "That can be the basis of rethinking where you should go as a business and how climate impacts your business."

The question, then, returns to the best way to encourage this kind of introspection at more companies.

SASB was created in 2011 to create standards for different industries on disclosing material sustainability information on a range of relevant issues (not just carbon and climate) in annual filings, such as 10-Ks required by the Securities and Exchange Comission. The organization has released most of its standards already, but will finish releasing all of its standards by next month.

With many companies still failing to disclose climate risks in annual filings, Michael Muyot, founder of the sustainability analytics firm CRD Analytics, said SASB has not been successful thus far in translating climate issues to mainstream financial disclosures.

"In the beginning people had higher expectations for what SASB was going to do, in terms of getting companies and industries to really focus in on 10-Ks," Muyot said. "While I think that might still be an objective, the companies that I’m speaking with don’t really take it seriously."

Serafeim believes it’s too early to evaluate SASB’s effectiveness as a standard-setting organization. 

"For SASB, I would say it's very early for them still to say whether they have been successful since actually they are still completing their standard setting process for all industries this year," said Serafeim.

The recently formed FSB task force’s approach differs from SASB and other organizations because it is only looking at climate-related risks in financial filings. It is not a standard-setting organization.

Lapse enforcement

The recent addition of the Bloomberg-led FSB task force to the disclosure paradigm also brings up the question about the potential effectiveness of these organizations without more enforcement from regulators.

In 2010, the SEC issued guidance on how companies should disclose material climate-related risks. The problem: There has been little enforcement so far, leaving companies largely to voluntarily report these risks.

A New York Times article mentions how the SEC issued 49 comment letters to companies regarding the adequacy of their climate disclosure in 2010 and 2011, but only three in 2012 and zero in 2013.

"What happened was that most of the companies, because the guidance was so broad and generic, responded with boilerplate disclosures," said Serafiem. "The question is whether the securities regulators will provide a much more specific framework that companies can use."

Muyot instead sees change coming as a result of divestment from large pension funds rather than through regulatory enforcement of climate risks. 

"I don’t expect too much," said Muyot. "If it happens, great. But we never count on it and I haven’t seen enough."