FRANKFURT — Climate change has already been blamed for deadly bush fires in Australia, dying coral reefs, rising sea levels and ever more cataclysmic storms. Could it also cause the next financial crisis?
A report issued this week by an umbrella organization for the world’s central banks argued that the answer is yes, while warning that central bankers lack tools to deal with what it says could be one of the biggest economic dislocations of all time.
The book-length report, published by the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, signals what could be the overriding theme for central banks in the decade to come.
“Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to human societies, and our community of central banks and supervisors cannot consider itself immune to the risks ahead of us,” François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Banque de France, said in the report.
Central banks spent much of the last 10 years hauling their economies out of a deep financial crisis that began in 2008. They may well spend the next decade coping with the disruptive effects of climate change and technology, the report said.
The European Central Bank, which on Thursday concluded a two-day meeting in Frankfurt focusing on monetary policy, is beginning to grapple with those challenges. The bank did not make any changes in interest rates or its economic stimulus program on Thursday. Instead, other issues are coming to the fore.
Christine Lagarde, the central bank’s president, who took office late last year, has pledged to put climate change on the bank’s agenda, and it was a topic of discussion at the last monetary policy meeting, in December.
Members of the European Central Bank’s governing council argued “that there was a need to step up efforts to understand the economic consequences of climate change,” according to the bank’s official account of the discussion.
Global warming will play a big role in the European Central Bank’s strategic review, a broad reassessment of the way the bank tries to manage inflation. For example, when trying to influence market interest rates, the bank could decide to stop buying bonds of corporations considered big producers of greenhouse gases.
This new awareness of the financial consequences of a hotter earth comes as central banks are contending with another new challenge: technologies that threaten their monopoly on issuing money and their power to combat a financial crisis.
Unofficial digital currencies like Bitcoin or Facebook’s Libra, which is still in the planning stages, bypass central banks and could undermine their control of the monetary system. The obvious solution is for central banks to get into the digital currency business themselves.
On Wednesday, the central banks of Canada, Britain, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland said they were working together with the Bank for International Settlements to figure out what would happen if they did just that.
It’s complicated, though.
Like cash, people can use digital currencies to pay other people directly, without a bank in the middle. Unlike cash, digital currencies allow person-to-person transactions to take place online.
Such a system could be more efficient, but also risky, according to a report issued on Wednesday by the World Economic Forum, the organization that stages the annual conclave in Davos.
Commercial banks might become superfluous, and fail. Central banks would in effect become giant retail banks. But they have no experience dealing with millions of individual customers and could be overwhelmed. If a central bank collapsed, so would the monetary system.
Climate change also takes central banks into uncharted territory. Think the subprime crisis in 2008 was bad? Imagine a real estate crisis caused by rising sea levels and coastal flooding that renders thousands of square miles of land uninhabitable or useless for farming.
By some estimates, global gross domestic product could plunge by 25 percent because of the effects of climate change. Central banks have enough trouble dealing with mild recessions, and would not be powerful enough to combat an economic downturn of that scale.
“In the worst case scenario, central banks may have to intervene as climate rescuers of last resort or as some sort of collective insurer for climate damages,” according to the report, published by the Bank for International Settlements, a clearinghouse for the world’s major central banks.
It suggested some precautionary measures central banks could take.
Central banks, which often function as bank regulators, could require lenders to hold more capital if they hold assets vulnerable to the economic effects of a shift to renewable energy. An example might be a bank that has lent a lot of money to fossil fuel companies, or to the Saudi government.
The auto industry already illustrates how investors are moving their money away from companies seen as polluters and into companies seen as green, with disruptive effects on economies. Tesla’s value on the stock market is more than $100 billion, second only to Toyota among carmakers.
In this way, Tesla is being rewarded for producing emission-free electric vehicles. But the migration of capital away from the established manufacturers makes it difficult for them to invest in new technology, and threatens massive job losses and social and political upheaval.
Central banks need to coordinate their policies to deal with these new challenges, according to the Bank for International Settlements report. Unfortunately, coordination is not something that central banks are very good at right now.
“Climate change is a global problem that demands a global solution,” the paper said. But it added that “monetary policy seems, currently, to be difficult to coordinate between countries.”
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