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The Wall Street Journal anoints the US Congress as a scientific body

Laurie Johnson

Posted June 29, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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The Wall Street Journal anoints the US Congress as a scientific body

“President Obama unveiled his vast new anticarbon-energy agenda this week, which he plans to impose by executive fiat. Crucial to pulling off this exercise is a decision the federal bureaucracy made last month to change the way it accounts for carbon emissions…[But] this is profoundly undemocratic. Congress has never legislated that there are social costs to carbon emissions, much less how to measure them.”

WSJ, June 28, 2013

In an editorial column last Friday, the Wall Street Journal attempted (subscription required, but try googling) to undermine the President’s ambitious plan to reduce the dangerous carbon pollution fueling extreme weather, drought, forest fires asthma, and many other climate impacts harming our children’s health and their future—pollution currently emitted with no limits whatsoever.

The Journal accused the administration of surreptitiously making up a secret climate change damage estimate to use in cost-benefit analyses for regulations restricting carbon pollution—one that inflated damages to justify stronger standards. It also suggested the President was using the Clean Air Act to deny Congress its right to legislate, doing a runaround on the law.

Like many things that show up on the editorial pages of the Journal, these statements are false, dangerous, and nonsensical. The facts:

  • The government did not develop the pollution damage estimates it uses to assess carbon pollution reduction benefits (or, “avoided climate damages”) of proposed rules. It was derived from the most widely used climate economic models published in the economics literature, models developed and heavily peer-reviewed by nerdy economists who have no connection to the administration. Who else could have come up with the term “social cost of carbon” for these damages…
  • Most of the damages from climate change are not in the models; the damages are therefore greatly underestimated, not inflated. For example, nowhere in the administration’s technical support document explaining their estimate do they mention any of the following as being included in the models: forest fires, drought, smog (and associated asthma and other respiratory illnesses), interaction effects from higher sea levels and storm surge (which is what made Superstorm Sandy so devastating), power outages (8.5 million homes and businesses lost power from Sandy), increasing food prices from drought, dried up canals where goods can’t be shipped, water shortages, forest dieback from pest infestations, coral reef disintegration, ocean acidification, socio-economic conflict from shrinking water availability and other resources. The list goes on and on…and on. The sad and very scary truth about the damage estimates being used by the administration is that they exclude most climate impacts, and some of the most important ones. Why? Because the economics literature cannot keep pace with climate disruption impacts, and because it’s much easier to measure the kind of things included in the models, like costs for more air conditioning or the value of property swallowed up by the sea, than these other impacts.
  • The estimate is so much lower than other estimates not for some arbitrary hidden reason, but because of “discounting.” Discounting results in future damages to our children being valued less than damages to us today. That is the only difference between my $266/ton of CO2 estimate the Journal cites and the administration’s former $21/ton value. (With the updated versions of the models, the administration’s revised value is $35/ton. Contrary to the Journal’s claims, the figure went up not because of politics, but because the models updated some of the science in them. Note that my $266/ton figure would correspondingly now be much higher as well, were I to run the updated models). I’ll give the reader an example of how this discounting plays out, and he or she can make up her own mind as to whether even my estimate is too low: a $266/ton value means that future damages of $100 to your kid 50 years from now count as $61; under the administration’s $35/ton value, they’re counted as $23. One hundred years from now, that same $100 in damages are counted as $37 and $5, respectively. (Just to be clear: the $/ton values represent the sum of damages over all future years from one ton of CO2 emitted today, not just a $100 slice of them 50 or 100 years from now). Click here to see how incorporating carbon damages into electricity production costs reveals how much more costly dirty generation is compared to cleaner sources, for both new and existing generation (note: the analysis uses the older versions of the models the administration used, ones that had fewer climate damages in them; with the updated models, still more clean technologies would be cheaper than fossil generation).
  • The administration’s “social cost of carbon” metric is neither new nor hidden. It has been used for over two years to assess carbon pollution reduction benefits from proposed rules, with pages and pages of public comments submitted during open commenting periods regarding its use and estimation. I know because I’ve submitted them. There are, in fact, some things that are not transparent in the administration’s estimate, but so-called fake damages aren’t one of them: the administration doesn’t say what damages are left out of the models (see above for examples). In public comments, NRDC has requested numerous times that it do so, but the government has so far neglected to correct this egregious omission. This benefits polluters, not the “Greens.”
  • The Clean Air Act is a Law Legislated By Congress—just not by certain disgruntled members of this Congress who can’t get their way. In fact, in contrast to today’s Congress, the history of the Act is one of consensus. In 1970, the law was passed with a unanimous Senate vote and by a 375 to 1 majority in the House (who was that lone wolf anyway?)—and signed by Republican President Richard Nixon. In 1990, it was strengthened, again with heavy bi-partisan support: 89 to 11 in the Senate, 401 to 21 in the House, and signed by Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush. Today the Act still enjoys widespread support from Americans across the political spectrum.

What about the Journal’s idea that Congress should legislate and estimate climate damages resulting from carbon pollution?

Last I checked, the US Congress is not a scientific body (in fact, last I checked, many of its members didn’t believe in science). The Wall Street Journal seems to think it is, or doesn’t care that it isn’t. Its position is akin to saying Congress should determine whether smoking causes cancer, and if so then it also should measure the health effects of smoking.

Instead of the supposedly “profoundly undemocratic” process of the Environmental Protection Agency carrying out the law of the land, the Wall Street Journal would have this current dysfunctional Congress determining whether there are economic damages from climate change and, if so, how much they are. Expanding the smoking analogy above, this is akin to having Congress legislate what foods are safe to eat, or what drugs and other products are dangerous. The law just doesn’t work this way, and for good reason. Congress provides broad mandates, executive agencies hire the scientists and other experts needed to carry them out. And that’s exactly how it should be.

We have to fight this nonsense of Obama’s supposedly deceiptful “anticarbon energy agenda” from the Wall Street Journal and call it what it is—a betrayal of our children and all future generations to come. The best way to do this is to help the Environmental Protection Agency carry out the President’s pro-climate plan by urging your senators to support him in taking decisive action. Let’s get busy becoming the world leader of the vibrant clean energy economy that will help get us there.

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Comments

Brian ValentineJul 1 2013 12:38 PM

They are more of a "scientific" organization than your stink outfit will ever be, and you can bank on that.

You people cause me SO MUCH WORK with my MILITANT denialism - I never expected to use my college education for no more reason than to fight stupidity like yours

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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