Report: Public filings don’t provide enough information on climate change risks

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Investors may not know the risks climate-related events could have on companies based on public filings, a new report from the Government Accountability Office found.

The Securities and Exchange Commission reviews filings to make sure that companies follow federal securities laws in disclosing information to investors. In 2010, the SEC issued guidance on how climate-related information should be disclosed in public filings.

But the oversight office cannot fully review the climate-related risks companies disclose in public filings because of inadequate information, according to the independent report publicly released March 22.

"When companies report climate-related disclosures in varying formats and specificity, SEC reviewers and investors may find it difficult to compare and analyze related disclosures across companies’ filings," the GAO reported.

The GAO is a nonpartisan government office providing auditing, evaluation and investigative services for the United States Congress.

The GAO reviewed 116 company filings across five categories: oil and gas, mining, insurance, electric and gas utilities and food and beverage. The GAO chose these categories as they were most likely to be impacted by climate-related risks.

Extreme weather events have cost the U.S. billions of dollars in damages since 2012 and have severely impacted local economies and taxpayer dollars, the report said. Some types of companies can also see severe losses.

The GAO found that the companies don't provide enough information, often not quantifying what risks climate change poses and using generic language that isn't specific to the company.

In response to the report, the SEC said there are no plans to change its system, the GAO said.

In its review for filings for an insurance company, an oil company and a food company, the GAO found limited information on climate-related impacts. The report did not disclose the names of the companies.

The filings were 389 pages, 117 pages, and 136 pages long, respectively, yet the number of mentions of climate-related disclosures were nine, 13 and six, based on a GAO analysis using the nonprofit Ceres’ SEC Sustainability Disclosure Search Tool.

"Given that SEC reviewers primarily rely on information companies disclose in filings, it may be difficult to determine whether a low level of disclosure indicates that the company does not face any climate-related risks or does not consider the risks to be material,” the GAO reported.

The GAO said that investors and industry associations differed on whether there should be additional climate disclosures.

"Representatives of industry associations told GAO that they consider the current climate-related disclosure requirements adequate and no additional climate-related disclosures are needed," the GAO reported. "However, some investor groups and asset management firms have highlighted the need for companies to disclose more climate-related information."

In 2017, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed SEC filings for nine different agribusiness companies to see what the companies recorded as risks associated with climate change in their annual reports.

The Center found that while many of the companies address climate change in their reports, they don't consistently use the term "climate change."

However, each of the nine companies included a mention of potential issues due to climate change, such as changing weather patterns, potential legislation or changes in regulation.

For example, Archer Daniels Midland does not mention “climate change” in its 2016 annual report but does write, "The Company’s business could be affected in the future by national and global regulation or taxation of greenhouse gas emissions."

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