Apocalypse Not: Climate Change Touting Mayors Stay Mum When Selling Bonds

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

How seriously do America’s big-city mayors take the risk of climate change?

It depends on when you ask them.

On most days, climate change is an “existential threat” requiring federal regulation, international accords, and–of course–a flood tide of federal funds into their city. But if you ask them on a day when their city is selling municipal bonds to investors, the forecast is suddenly much sunnier.

In a new report from the Government Accountability Institute, Peter Schweizer lays bare the climate change apocalypse hypocrisy that has city officials decrying global warming out of one side of their mouth while downplaying it in bond disclosures.

Here’s how Schweizer put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed about the report:

The study compiled 100 bond issuances for 20 cities at risk of climate-induced sea-level rises such as New York and New Orleans, as well as 100 issuances for 20 low-risk, inland cities such as Chicago and Kansas City. Greater risk to investors should produce a higher bond interest rate, or “coupon rate.” But the average rate for at-risk cities was 4.21% versus 3.99% for low-risk cities, and our analysis found that this difference of 22 basis points was not statistically significant. The study controlled for factors like type of bond, maturity and purpose, which also affect interest-rate variation.

The study also found scant mention of climate change in bond disclosure documents. The disclosure statements of the 20 at-risk cities totaled 4,361 pages. Phrases like “climate change” and “sea-level rise” appeared fewer than 100 times across all 20 at-risk cities in the context of the issues addressed in this study. Further, 12 out of the 20 disclosures for at-risk cities did not mention climate language in the same context.

The contrast between what mayors say in public and what cities disclose in bond language is often stark. New York’s Bill de Blasio has called climate change an “existential threat” and a “dagger aimed straight at the heart” of the city. Yet New York and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey barely mentioned climate change or rising sea levels in their risk statements to investors.

Corporations are currently under fire from trial lawyers for allegedly not disclosing enough about the risk to their businesses from climate change and litigation over climate change lawsuits. (The latter is mind-blowing: trial lawyers are damages from corporations not disclosing enough to shareholders over the risk of trial lawyers suing them.) It seems likely that muni issuers will also find themselves in the cross-hairs.

The interest rates are the real tell here: investors apparently do not believe climate change to be that big of a risk. If they believed the hype, they’d likely demand more than a 22 basis point premium. Another way of putting it: climate change is not an existential risk, it is a 22 basis point risk on a 4.21 percent return. That is, it’s a 5.25 percent risk.

That’s not nothing but its also not quite ‘cancel all your vacation plans because that chick from Scandanavia hates when people fly’ situation.

 

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