The Fallacy Of Climate Financial Risk

The idea that climate change poses a threat to the financial system is absurd, not least because everyone already knows that global warming is happening and that fossil fuels are being phased out. The new push for climate-related financial regulation is not really about risk; it is about a political agenda.

In the United States, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of the Treasury are gearing up to incorporate climate policy into US financial regulation, following even more audacious steps in Europe. The justification is that “climate risk” poses a danger to the financial system. But that statement is absurd. Financial regulation is being used to smuggle in climate policies that otherwise would be rejected as unpopular or ineffective.

“Climate” means the probability distribution of the weather – the range of potential weather conditions and events, together with their associated probabilities. “Risk” means the unexpected, not changes that everyone knows are underway. And “systemic financial risk” means the possibility that the entire financial system will melt down, as nearly happened in 2008. It does not mean that someone somewhere might lose money because some asset price falls, though central bankers are swiftly enlarging their purview in that direction.

In plain language, then, a “climate risk to the financial system” means a sudden, unexpected, large, and widespread change in the probability distribution of the weather, sufficient to cause losses that blow through equity and long-term debt cushions, provoking a system-wide run on short-term debt. This means the five- or at most ten-year horizon over which regulators can begin to assess the risks on financial institutions’ balance sheets. Loans for 2100 have not been made yet.

Such an event lies outside any climate science. Hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, and fires have never come close to causing systemic financial crises, and there is no scientifically validated possibility that their frequency and severity will change so drastically to alter this fact in the next ten years. Our modern, diversified, industrialized, service-oriented economy is not that affected by weather – even by headline-making events. Businesses and people are still moving from the cold Rust Belt to hot and hurricane-prone Texas and Florida.

If regulators are worried even-handedly about out-of-the-box risks that endanger the financial system, the list should include wars, pandemics, cyberattacks, sovereign-debt crises, political meltdowns, and even asteroid strikes. All but the latter are more likely than climate risk. And if we are worried about flood and fire costs, perhaps we should stop subsidizing building and rebuilding in flood and fire-prone areas.

Climate regulatory risk is slightly more plausible. Environmental regulators could turn out to be so incompetent that they damage the economy to the point of creating a systemic run. But that scenario seems far-fetched even to me. Again though, if the question is regulatory risk, then even-handed regulators should demand a wider recognition of all political and regulatory risks. Between the Biden administration’s novel interpretations of antitrust law, the previous administration’s trade policies, and the pervasive political desire to “break up big tech,” there is no shortage of regulatory danger.

To be sure, it is not impossible that some terrible climate-related event in the next ten years can provoke a systemic run, though nothing in current science or economics describes such an event. But if that is the fear, the only logical way to protect the financial system is by dramatically raising the amount of equity capital, which protects the financial system against any kind of risk. Risk measurement and technocratic regulation of climate investments, by definition, cannot protect against unknown unknowns or un-modeled “tipping points.”