Reason: The SEC Conscripts Corporate America in Its New Climate Change Fight

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The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has gone rogue. The commission has now finalized a rule that will bully publicly traded companies into reporting environmental information that has no relevance to the financial concerns that matter to investors. As much as environmental activists may want this information to shame companies into embracing their political agenda, it is not the SEC’s role to demand financially irrelevant disclosures—much less to demand companies speak on political and social issues like climate change.

The SEC’s new rule requires companies to give a public accounting of their annual greenhouse gas emissions. Still worse, the rule strong-arms companies into telling the public whether they are taking steps to combat climate change and forces companies to hazard guesses about how climate change might affect their operations far into the future. But none of that has anything to do with the SEC’s statutory mission of helping investors understand the financial risks and rewards of investment.

The SEC was established to regulate public companies in the wake of the financial crisis that triggered the Great Depression. Toward that end, the law requires companies to disclose to investors “material information…as may be necessary to make the required statements, in light of the circumstances under which they are made, not misleading.” For example, companies must provide information about market volatility, pending lawsuits, and significant management changes, because that type of information could affect a company’s financial performance.

Disclosures about whether a company is prioritizing climate change concerns are categorically different from the sort of disclosures the SEC has long required, for at least two reasons. First, the new rule requires disclosures across the board from all large companies. That’s a marked departure from the “facts and circumstances” test the SEC has long employed, which requires information that could affect the financial performance of individual companies, not environmental or social conditions.

With its extraordinary unpredictability, and a time horizon crossing decades, climate change’s impact on any given company is practically impossible to assess. Requiring disclosure of greenhouse gases thus tells investors nothing relevant to a company’s financial situation; it will lead to baseless speculation and reams of information that investors cannot possibly apply to investment decisions now.

Of course, none of this is news to supporters of the rule. Their goal is not to inform investors, but to bludgeon companies into toeing the climate change line. The new rule has nothing to do with financial considerations and everything to do with political considerations. As SEC Commissioner Mark Uyeda declared in dissent, “shareholders will be footing [the] bill” to institutionalize an ESG department in every publicly traded corporation in America.

The SEC’s power grab is unprecedented and dangerous. While some investors may care about greenhouse gas emissions, their desires do not justify compelling companies to make disclosures about whether they are prioritizing climate change concerns. If that low bar could trigger SEC regulation, there would be no end to the subjects the agency could require companies to report, including their positions on abortion, gay marriage, and immigration. But forcing companies to parrot the party line on the environment is not the SEC’s job.

If the SEC is going to be transformed into the environmental and social thought police, that decision must come from Congress. Our Constitution empowers only Congress to make the law—and, importantly, to take responsibility for the consequences. As SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce stated, “Wading into non-economic issues involves tradeoffs that only our nation’s elected representatives have the authority and expertise to make.”

The consequences of the greenhouse gas rule are grave. It will fundamentally alter the SEC’s mission. It will force companies to play a larger role in politics—something that neither the major political parties nor most companies seem to want. By peppering investors with irrelevant information, it will make them less informed about what actually matters. It will divert companies from their core purpose of maximizing shareholder wealth and creating products that increase everyone’s standard of living. And it will violate the First Amendment by compelling companies to disclose information that is not intrinsically linked to their financial performance.

Pacific Legal Foundation, where we work, will file a lawsuit against the SEC in the coming days to block enforcement of this rule and vindicate constitutional principles. Here’s hoping that the courts will not allow this rule to stand.

This op-ed was originally published in Reason on March 8, 2024.