Science: Trickle-down climate risk regulation


The following opinion was published on September 1, 2022 in Science. Read the full piece here. 

Climate change impacts—including flooding, wildfires, and crop failures—are destroying ecosystems, homes, infrastructure, farms, and businesses. Regulators around the globe are paying increasing attention to what these events mean for banks and the financial system, with several attending not only to bank impacts from, but also bank contributions to, climate change. The European Central Bank, for example, is signaling to banks that they must plan and make their transition away from financing of fossil fuels—to respond not only to their own risks but also to the science pointing to the necessity of this transition for the planet and financial system. Yet in the US, the primary regulators of national and community banks are narrowly zeroing in on risks posed to the largest banks—those with over $100 billion in total consolidated assets—without attention to these banks’ role in financing greenhouse gas–emitting activities and what they mean for other important financial actors. Such a “trickle-down” approach to regulation—assuming that protecting big banks will protect other, smaller financial entities and the financial system more broadly—obscures the financial crisis that is already underway and inadequately responds to scientific evidence on distinctive features of climate risk and impacts.
Big banks should be worried about climate risks. Loans for fossil fuel–related activities are at risk of rapidly losing value, causing banks that hold them to suffer major losses. Bank balance sheets will also suffer when property damage creates loan defaults. Still, despite promises by most to reach “net-zero” emissions by 2050, big US banks remain the world’s largest fossil fuel financiers, apparently believing they can ditch their fossil assets before the energy transition torpedoes their value and that physical impacts to investments in one location can be offset by safe investments elsewhere.
By focusing on threats to big banks, draft climate risk guidance by the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) is treating climate risks like the financial risks that spurred the last global financial crisis. Yet science shows that climate change poses new and substantial risks, requiring greater attention to the interconnectedness of financial and environmental systems and what those relationships imply for other financial actors and risk management measures. As climate change simultaneously, repeatedly, and often permanently affects natural and human systems across geographic areas—and as borrowers and taxpayers struggle to pay their bills in response—many community banks and municipalities, ignored by the trickle-down approach, could fail. A report to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission suggests that such repeated “subsystemic” shocks are initiating “a systemic crisis in slow motion.”
This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of the AAAS for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Science VOL 337, (September 1, 2022), DOI: 10.1126/science.ade2017