Will a market crash get the action we need on climate change?

Will a market crash get the action we need on climate change?
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There’s a lot of news on the climate front. The bad news: A weak agreement among nations at the most recent UN conference on climate change — COP24 — in Poland, grim reports from the National Climate Assessment that the Trump administration released in November, and the most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Climate change is more severe and happening sooner than scientists had originally predicted. Droughts. Sea level rise. Floods. Fires.

So, what’s the good news? The end of denial by financial markets and government leaders is nearly at hand. For most investors, the risks of climate change loom beyond their investment horizon. It’s been easy for investors to operate in a speculative carbon bubble, acting as though there are no impending costs to earnings-per-share or to liabilities in their portfolios from the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere. But these costs may increasingly look real, and when investors start taking these costs into account, markets will revalue: not just oil and gas stock, but all stocks.

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Companies have facilities that will be flooded or be without needed water for production; supply chains will need to be rebuilt; costs of transportation will increase. What about the costs to financial institutions as communities need to be abandoned because of flood or drought? What are the fiscal consequences to governments of rebuilding airports, roads and other critical infrastructure? What will happen to consumer spending?

There will be winners and losers in this revaluation, but as past speculative bubbles have shown us, when they burst, markets move very quickly. 

Government leaders have likewise largely operated in a bubble. It is the rare leader who can spend political (or taxpayer) capital on addressing an over-the-horizon problem. When the bubble bursts, government leaders will need to address the real concerns of rebuilding infrastructure, food and water security, and public health threats that will be seen by voters as imminent.

Before the 1987 Crash, the internet bust, the 2008 mortgage crisis and Great Recession, there were plenty of people warning of risk. They were hiding in plain sight. When there was finally an event that burst the bubble, these warnings were seen clearly in retrospect.

With the carbon bubble, the UN report gives us one possible event that will bring about the bust: a major climate catastrophe. It could be only a few years away.

One final bit of news to consider: The good part is that the sooner the bubble bursts, the more time societies and economies have to adjust and the more market-based solutions that can be employed. The bad news? If the bubble bursts late, governments will need to take on war and national emergency footing. This could mean government control over industry, restrictions of individual consumption, even military mobilization to protect and seize resources. Economic inefficiency. Less freedom. Lost asset value.

Almost as bad as the impacts of climate change. Climate avoiders can keep trying denying, but sometime soon there will be no place to hide. Is 2019 the year when we all will wake up to these realities?

Richard Kauffman is the chairman of Energy and Finance for New York, or energy czar, and leads the state’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV). REV’s work includes regulatory reform to modernize the energy and utility industry, a 10-year commitment to support renewable energy and efficiency markets and a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 40 percent by 2030. As the state’s most senior energy official, Kauffman was New York’s lead delegate in Paris at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.