Selected category: Social Cost of Carbon

Trump Moves to Cook the Books, Undercutting Common Sense Climate Protections

This blog was co-authored with Martha Roberts

It’s reported that the Trump Administration is poised to continue its barrage of attacks on some of our most vital health and environmental protections, following last week’s assault on broadly supported fuel economy and greenhouse gas safeguards for cars and light trucks. Here’s one attack that they may try to sneak under the radar—a move that would undercut common sense climate protection all across the federal government: directing federal agencies to abandon the use of social cost of carbon estimates in their evaluation of new policy.

The social cost of carbon is a measure of the economic harm from the impacts of climate change. Specifically, it’s the dollar value of the total damages from emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Weakening or eliminating the use of the social cost of carbon would result in skewed and biased policy-making that ignores the benefits of crucial safeguards and stacks the deck against actions to protect communities from the mounting costs of climate change.

The devastating impacts of climate change on health and the environment – such as extreme weather events, the spread of disease, sea level rise, and increased food insecurity – can cost American businesses, families, governments and taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars through rising health care costs, destruction of property, increased food prices, and more. Many of these impacts are already being felt by communities across the country, as the government’s leading scientific agencies have found.

When the federal government develops policy affecting the carbon pollution causing climate change, it is both reasonable and essential that it takes these costs into account. The social cost of carbon is a tool that allows policy-makers to do just that.

Currently, the federal government uses a social cost of carbon estimate—roughly $40 per ton of carbon pollution—that was developed through a transparent and rigorous interagency process, relied on the latest peer-reviewed science and economics available, and allowed for repeated public comment as well as input from the National Academy of Sciences.

But that may not last much longer. As we’ve seen, the Trump Administration is waging war against an array of our most crucial health and environmental protections, ignoring the urgent threat of climate change while prioritizing fossil fuel interests. President Trump’s new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, denies that carbon pollution is a primary contributor to climate change, and built his political career by suing EPA 14 times as Oklahoma Attorney General to block protections from mercury, arsenic and smog pollution, hand in hand with the worst elements of the fossil fuel industry. Meanwhile the Administration is proposing devastating cuts to the budgets for EPA and climate research, and is moving towards revoking the Clean Power Plan, America’s first-ever nationwide limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

All of this points to a clear disregard for basic science, economic principles, and our nation’s clean air laws. Eliminating or weakening the social cost of carbon is another pernicious tactic by the Administration to undermine the development of crucial climate safeguards – by erroneously making it appear as though reducing carbon pollution has little or no benefit to society and the economy. Even the current figure is very likely a conservative lower bound since it does not yet include all of the widely recognized and accepted impacts of climate change.

The details of the upcoming attack are still unclear. It’s possible that the Administration may end use of the uniform social cost of carbon estimate at the federal level—despite its rigorous basis and judicial precedent. Other indications suggest that the Administration may choose to artificially and arbitrarily discount the costs of climate change for the health and economic well-being of our kids, grandkids, and future generations—ignoring the growing consensus among economists that supports valuing these impacts more, as does a recent report from the Council of Economic Advisors. Or the Administration may decide to disregard the fact that our greenhouse gas pollution has harmful impacts outside U.S. borders that can have costly repercussions for Americans.

Throwing out the social cost of carbon may play well with President Trump’s supporters in the fossil fuel industry. But the importance and appropriateness of accounting for these costs is a matter of both economics and law. We also know that nearly two thirds of Americans are concerned about climate change. Undermining limits on pollution—protections that are rooted in rigorous scientific research, reflecting long-standing bipartisan economic principles—will ultimately harm the health and environmental safety of all Americans, including Trump’s supporters.

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In Win for Environment, Court Recognizes Social Cost of Carbon

Co-authored with Martha Roberts

If someone was tallying up all the benefits of energy efficiency programs, you’d want them to include reducing climate pollution, right? That’s just common sense.

Thankfully, that’s what our government does when it designs energy efficiency programs—as well as other policies that impact greenhouse gas emissions. And just this month, this approach got an important seal of approval: For the first time, a federal court upheld using the social cost of carbon to inform vital protections against the harmful impacts of climate change.

So what is the social cost of carbon and why does it matter? It’s a crucial part of the development of climate safeguards and essential to our understanding of the full costs of climate pollution. We know that climate change is a clear and present danger now and for future generations—one that will result in enormous costs to our economy, human health and the environment. And yet, these “social” costs are not accounted for in our markets, and therefore in decision making. It is a classic Economics 101 market failure. Every ton of carbon dioxide pollution that is emitted when we burn fossil fuels to light our homes or drive our cars has a cost associated with it, a hidden one that is additional to what we pay on our utility bills or at the gas pump. These costs affect us all – and future generations – and are a result of the negative impacts of climate change. If we don’t recognize these hidden costs—we aren’t properly protecting ourselves against the dangers of climate pollution.

The social cost of carbon (or SCC) is an estimate of the total economic harm associated with emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide pollution into the atmosphere. To reach the current estimate, several federal agencies came together to determine the range and central price point – roughly $40 per ton – through a transparent and rigorous interagency process that was based on the latest peer-reviewed science and economics available, and which allowed for repeated public comments.

It’s critical that we protect against the damages and costs caused by climate pollution. So it’s a no-brainer that when considering the costs and benefits of climate safeguards, we must take into account all benefits and costs – and that means including the social cost of carbon.

In their court opinion, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed wholeheartedly. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein noted that their decision “upholds a foundation” of “countless” climate protections. In particular, their opinion made two important findings:

  • First, the court affirmed that the DOE was correct to include a value for the social cost of carbon in its analysis. The judges concluded that “[w]e have no doubt” that Congress intended for DOE to have authority to consider the social cost of carbon. Importantly, this conclusion reinforces the appropriateness of including the SCC in future carbon-related rule-makings.
  • Second, the court upheld key choices about how the SCC estimate was calculated. The court agreed that DOE properly considered all impacts of climate change, even those years from now, or outside our borders. These choices, the court concluded, were reasonable and appropriate given the nature of the climate crisis we face.

DOE itself acknowledged “limitations in the SCC estimates.” We couldn’t agree more. As new and better information about the impacts of climate change becomes available and as our ability to translate this science into economic impacts improves, regulators must update the current social cost of carbon estimate. There is still much we do not know about the full magnitude of climate impacts and much that cannot be quantified (as is true of all economic impact analysis) – which means that SCC estimates are likely far lower than the true impact of climate change. But as the Seventh Circuit recognized, their inclusion is a vital step in the right direction for sensible policy-making.

This decision already has positive implications more broadly—in particular, for the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s historic program to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Just last week, EPA submitted a letter in the Clean Power Plan litigation noting that the Seventh Circuit’s decision further demonstrates the error of challenges to the treatment of costs and benefits in the Clean Power Plan rulemaking. It’s just another affirmation of the rock-solid legal and technical foundation for the Clean Power Plan.

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