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Financial Risk of Climate Change Has Economists, Ratings Agencies Worried

The potentially devastating economic and financial impact of unrestrained climate change has been coming into focus in several recent news stories, with global GDP on track to fall as much as 7.2% by 2100, accountants and ratings agencies taking note, and an economic historian warning the United States Federal Reserve to take action against a risk that could trigger the next global economic crash.

This week, a new working paper from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that continued annual increases in average global temperature of 0.04°C/0.072°F per year would reduce GDP by 7.2% world-wide and 10.5% in the United States by 2100, the Washington Post reports. That’s compared to a loss of 1.1% world-wide if countries keep their promises under the Paris Agreement.

“The hardest-hit countries will be poorer, tropical nations, but in contrast to previous studies, the new paper finds that no country will be spared and none will see a net benefit economically from global warming,” the Post states.

“What our study suggests is that climate change is costly for all countries under the business as usual scenario (no matter whether they are hot or cold, rich or poor), and the United States will be one of the countries that will suffer the most (reflecting sharp increases in U.S. average temperatures by 2100),” wrote co-author and Cambridge University economist Kamiar Mohaddes in an email.

“It is not only the level of temperature that affects economic activity, but also its persistent above-norm changes,” he added. “For example, while the level of temperature in Canada is low, the country is warming up twice as fast as rest of the world and therefore is affected by climate change (including from damage to its physical infrastructure, coastal and northern communities, human health and wellness, ecosystems and fisheries).”

The Post casts the study as “the latest in a string of reports from the United Nations and global financial institutions and others showing that climate change constitutes a looming financial risk.” And in early August, The Atlantic cited an article in which Columbia University Adam Tooze “called for central banks to act aggressively and immediately to reduce the risk of climate-related catastrophe, taking the warming planet as seriously as they would a cooling economy”—just as the Federal Reserve did in 2008, when it confronted the prospect of a second global economic depression.

“If the world is to cope with climate change, policy-makers will need to pull every lever at their disposal,” Tooze wrote in the journal Foreign Policy. “Faced with this threat, to indulge in the idea that central banks, as key agencies of the state, can limit themselves to worrying about financial stability…is its own form of denial.”

So far, Trump-appointed Fed Chair Jerome Powell has acknowledged the reality of climate change, but taken the position that “addressing climate change is a responsibility that Congress has entrusted to other agencies,” leaving his own institution to “prepare financial institutions for severe weather.”

In his Atlantic post, author Robinson Meyer questions Tooze’s analogy to the depth and suddenness of the 2008 crash, and Tooze says the skepticism is “perfectly warranted”. What he finds interesting, though, is that the question is very much in play among central bankers, since the moment in 2015 when Bank of England Governor Mark Carney brought it to the surface.

So could climate change trigger the equivalent of the last economic crash? “I think that is a reasonable question mark,” Tooze tells Meyer. “We would need [fossil assets] to be on the balance sheet of actors who were under huge pressure in a fire sale situation, and who couldn’t deal with a sudden revaluation. We would need an entire network of causation to be there, which is what produced the unique crisis of 2007 to 2008.”

To make that happen, he plays out the kind of scenario that bankers like Carney are paying attention to. “Imagine that we stay on our current path, and we’re headed toward 3.0 to 4.0°C temperature change. And then imagine some of the nonlinearities kick in, which the climate scientists tell us about, and we face a Fukushima-style event,” Tooze says.

“What happens next? You then get nervous democratic politicians—and not necessarily those who are known for their populism, but just nervous democratic politicians—suddenly deciding that we have to stop doing one or another part of our carbon-based economy. It has to stop, and it has to stop immediately. And then you get big shocks. Then you get sudden revaluations.”

While Tooze’s focus is on the rarified world of central banks, concern about climate change and its impacts is quickly spreading through the more front-line, operational side of the finance industry. Last week, National Observer reports, the influential Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada warned that the federal tax system is “not up to the job” of confronting the crisis.

“If Canada’s economy is to become cleaner and low-carbon, digital and data-driven, and more globally integrated and competitive, Canada’s tax system is not up to the job,” CPA Canada said in a release. In a pre-budget submission to the federal government, the organization cautioned that “failure to adequately transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy—by either political or business leaders—will further erode public trust in the institutions that underpin our society.”

The Moody’s credit ratings agency, meanwhile, is addressing its own concerns by buying a major stake in Four Twenty Seven, which InsideClimate News describes as a firm that “analyzes the risks to corporations and governments from climate extremes such as sea level rise, heat stress, and storms.”

“More and more, issuers and investors want to know how they are exposed to climate events,” said Moody’s communications executive Michael Mulvagh, adding that the relationship with Four Twenty Seven “will help us go deeper into and refine how we assess physical risks caused by environmental factors.”

InsideClimate sees the move as “a signal that rating agencies are paying more attention to global warming and its impact in the financial markets.” That’s after a year in which the U.S. saw at least US$91 billion in damage from the costliest storms, droughts, and wildfires, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Translating those costs into risk assessments is what ratings agencies do. “Credit ratings, much like individual credit scores, assess how likely it is that a borrower will repay debt,” InsideClimate explains. “Those ratings can affect how much governments and companies are able to borrow and how much it will cost them. Just the threat of a lower credit rating can pressure cities and companies to be more proactive in taking steps to mitigate risks, and now those risks are starting to include climate change.”

“For [Moody’s] to come and buy this company that’s very focused and has some expertise in climate risks, it looks like they’re making this a very big priority,” said Kathy Hipple, a financial analyst with the Institute for Energy, Economics and Financial Analysis. “I think it’s very positive and should be noted by the industry.”Other points the financial industry is noting: Bloomberg reported last month that ratings agencies like Moody’s and Fitch Ratings are beginning to ask U.S. coastal cities about their preparations for sea level rise. And the New York Times says insurance companies in states like California, Washington, Montana, and Colorado “are quietly reducing their exposure to fire-prone regions across the Western United States, putting new pressure on homeowners and raising concerns that climate change could eventually make insurance unaffordable in some areas.”