Rising Sea Levels: Who Should Stop it and How can Accountants Help?

Climate change is not theoretical anymore. The latest research will show us that rising sea-levels could leave cities underwater within the next century. When we accept the news of the impending doom of high sea-level rise, all of us can react differently. Government officials may label the incoming flooding as propaganda for their political benefit. Others feel motivated to find ways to fight future flooding. The rest may ignore it because the latter is just too overwhelming to imagine.

Like management at the top of a company, the United States government influences the country from the top down. Politicians at the top encourage corporations to grow the economy short term, but this destroys it in the long term. They are shutting down potential proactive choices people could be making to combat this climate change and feeding false hope to those in denial. Policy-makers who are letting companies build on the coast fully know the future of these infrastructures. I believe the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), an independent nonprofit that helps companies disclose financially material information for their investors, can help.

I recently came across a book review that describes human’s different reactions to rising sea levels and introduces government power effects. In “Besides, I’ll be dead,” published in the London Review of Books, Meehan Crist reviews a book called “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World,” by Jeff Goodell.

Crist begins the review by describing her own experience with the rising seas after Hurricane Sandy. Even she did not understand what lied ahead, but now believes it will not be the last of the rising seas. Crist explains in 2015, during the Paris agreement, reports showed that ice sheets were immovable. Although, in 2017, scientists found evidence they are giving way in Antarctica and Greenland. This could significantly increase sea levels and leave some parts or even entire cities underwater.

She explains that Goodwell travels worldwide for four years to understand the water rising on the world’s coastlines. He learns how flooding is affecting people’s lives today and finds that the water is increasing everywhere. Depending on how much it grows by 2100, cities could be underwater. He compares humans living on the coast to the first Ice Age, except millions of people cannot just leave everything behind in today’s modern world.

Crist states that Goodwell often thinks of Miami’s modernized city through his travels. With no money to develop somewhere else, Miami is continuing to build on the rising coastline, and people in power are doing nothing to stop it. They hope the sea levels will rise slow enough to give someone enough time to fix it.

Crist talks about the plans Goodwell finds to fight this crisis. They involve leaving infrastructures behind, raising cities, and initiating large engineering projects. Although, the expensive cost, time, maintenance, and scared politicians stop these initiatives from happening. Some inhabitants are not even willing to leave. Yet, others across the country are begging for a government buyout.

Crist states that Goodwell uses Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief to explain human’s reaction to how much time we have. Although, she believes Pauline Boss’ study of loss more adequately matches our circumstances. She uses this idea to explain how overwhelmingly difficult it is for humans to accept their home’s loss if it is still there.

Crist says Goodwell believes not everyone will be saved but applauds those who are finding creative ways to adjust. He suggests that average citizens must learn to fend for themselves because the government will not save them. However, there have been communities to adapt well to water rise. There is hope that this disaster will cause a reworking of the governmental structure and its people.

Scientists have found significant differences in predicted sea levels since the Paris Agreement in 2015. Crist directly concludes her review, stating, “If humans stopped using fossil fuels entirely by 2050, we might face two to three feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century. Instead of 4.9 feet. Or 11 feet. But the water will come. The future depends on how humans rise to meet it,” (Crist 8).

Throughout this review, we find the federal government to be the core issue in how people are responding to and dealing with the sea level crisis. Crist mentions how Goodwell looks at Miami’s booming business, despite the rising sea levels where infrastructures are being built. According to City-Data.com, their easily accessible shorelines made it a hub for international trade to start around 1,200 multinational corporations in 2003.

If you have an accounting background, you may wonder, what would happen if the SASB enforced environmental disclosures that could significantly affect investor decisions? The SASB has five dimensions of sustainability for disclosure, and the first standard listed is environmental. At the moment, they only influence how to disclose, and as long as it meets legal requirements, those companies decide how much they would like to disclose.

SASB states that financially material issues are most important to investors because they are reasonably likely to impact a company’s financial condition or operations. As it is reasonably likely the water will flood over our coastlines, companies should be required to disclose the risk for investing in their stock. The SASB is not funded nor affiliated with the government, and so they cannot enforce this. Jurisdictions may not even enforce some disclosures regarding location, format, or content, so there are many gray areas. Although, the SASB can heavily influence the government, which affects companies in both private and public sectors, and then on the people.

I do not believe the SASB should ever be rule-based such as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). The SASB wants companies to use standards that are the most relevant to their industry so that investors are given clear information. But if organizations are being transparent, there must be a specific standard set for all industries to disclose future effects to their company from rising sea levels.

It is an accountant’s job to communicate financial information effectively and have an ethical responsibility to do so. The SASB’s influence could be a very impactful measure to create a ripple effect across all people reacting to the rising sea levels. If enough people want to make a difference, we can fight the inevitable. As Goodwell stated in his book, citizens can not expect the government to save them with how our infrastructure is set up today. Politicians must act now in reworking their role in the fight against climate change. This will be much less economically devastating than when whole cities are underwater.

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