This week’s unprecedented winter storm in Texas this is the latest reminder of intensifying weather events across the globe, and the damage left in its wake opens up important questions about whether our financial systems are prepared to withstand the impacts of climate change. One of the most important functions of regulatory bodies like the SEC is to protect the market from systemic risks, and there is a widening consensus that climate change is one systemic risk for which the SEC must prepare.
As defined by SEC Commissioner Allison Lee during her keynote speech at the PLI’s Annual Institute on Securities Regulation in November 2020, a systemic risk is “characterized by the following features: (1) ‘shock amplification’ or the notion that a given shock to the financial system may be magnified by certain forces and propagate widely throughout; (2) that propagation causes an impairment to all or major parts of the financial system; and (3) that impairment in turn causes spillover affects to the real economy.” 
Put more simply, a systemic risk is one with the potential to result in the downturn, or even collapse, of an entire market system. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is one recent example of such a risk, as we continue to see its economic impacts across every sector of the market. During her speech, Lee noted that although the SEC is not in a position to regulate and slow the actual drivers of climate change, it can – and should – address climate risks through standardization of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) disclosures that financial institutions make.