The incoming Trump administration would “defy law, science, and economics” if it stopped measuring the social cost of carbon as part of the federal regulatory process, economics professor Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago and Prof. Cass R. Sunstein of Harvard Law School argue in a New York Times op ed.
“The social cost of carbon provides a necessary guidepost in decisions about how to balance costs to our economy today with the coming climate damages. Wishing that we did not face this trade-off will not make it go away,” they write. “Any effort to eliminate the social cost of carbon would reflect a neglect of science and economics—and it would be quickly struck down in court.”
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The issue came to the surface earlier this month, when the Trump transition team issued an alarming memo demanding the names of federal employees who had attended United Nations climate conferences or worked on social cost of carbon analysis. Trump Tower subsequently disavowed the request after the U.S. Department of Energy refused to release the names.
But the dust-up led Greenstone and Sunstein to recount their own work in 2009, on behalf of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors and Office of Management and Budget, to convene the interagency working group whose efforts triggered the transition team attack.
“Our aim was to quantify the social cost of carbon for the United States government by drawing from the latest research in science and economics,” they write. “This comprehensive measure would reflect the monetary cost of the damage caused by the release of an additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accounting for the destruction of property from storms and floods, declining agricultural and labour productivity, elevated mortality rates, and more.”
The working group eventually arrived at a price of US$36 per ton that “plays a central role in the cost-benefit analyses that agencies use in deciding whether to issue regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and how stringent such regulations should be,” they write. “Thus far, it has been used for 79 regulations, including energy efficiency rules for refrigerators and washing machines, fuel economy rules for cars and trucks, and the Clean Power Plan, which requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.
“Without it, such regulations would have no quantifiable benefits. For this reason, the social cost of carbon can be seen as the linchpin of national climate policy.”
Social cost of carbon accounting has been validated by U.S. courts, and “new scientific and economic evidence suggests that climate change probably poses an even greater risk than the $36 figure reflects,” Greenstone and Sunstein write. “To be sure, the exact number is uncertain, and the Trump administration will make its own judgment. But a credible assessment must be based on the best science and economics, not politics. And there is no justification for a chilling investigation of civil servants who are just doing their jobs.”