“America First” Doesn’t Cut It When Fighting Global Warming

In quantifying carbon pollution’s damage to society, Trump sees America as an island unto itself—and we all know what climate change does to islands.

April 07, 2017

The pollution from this U.S. steel plant on an island in the Detroit River blows into Canada

Neil Cornwall/Flickr

As we’ve all seen, “America First” can be highly effective as a campaign slogan when your primary goal is to stoke resentment of globalism among the economically disaffected.

But when it comes to setting our nation’s climate policy, ignoring the “global” part of the phrase “global climate change” isn’t just wrong. It’s reckless. Which, unsurprisingly, isn’t enough to dissuade President Trump, who seems perfectly happy to mess up the means by which we calculate the social costs of carbon pollution.

One of the very first things President Ronald Reagan did when he took office in 1981 was issue an executive order requiring that all new federal regulations be subjected to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. The idea was rooted in conservatives’ concern that the bureaucratic state was expanding too rapidly and weakening American business. Basically, Reagan’s logic went, if a regulation’s potential costs to society could be shown to outweigh the potential benefits, it should be scrapped—or at the very least rethought.

Since Reagan, presidents of both parties have hewed to the cost-benefit requirement; President Bill Clinton, in fact, confirmed and strengthened the rule via an executive order of his own in 1993. The need to subject new regulations to such a test has resulted in the creation of a discrete branch of regulatory macro-economics. Nowadays, Washington, D.C., is positively awash in very serious-looking people, all armed with pencils and pads and clipboards, whose job is to weigh the pros and cons of federal rules by monetizing the effects of (a) doing something versus (b) doing nothing.

One of the trickiest of these calculations involves carbon emissions. Putting aside the entrenched politicization of U.S. climate policy, it’s just not that easy to represent, in dollars, the damage to the economy, environment, and public health—direct and indirect, immediate and long-term, domestic and global—that gets unleashed by a particular unit of CO2 emissions.

Nevertheless, an Interagency Working Group convened by President Obama in 2009 was tasked with doing just that—and the figure it eventually came up with, the so-called social cost of carbon, soon entered the regulatory lexicon. The SCC, put simply, represents the sum of economic damages inflicted as a result of emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Conversely, it also represents the amount of economic damage avoided through the prevention of that same ton of emissions. Though there’s some debate about whether the figure is too high or too low, as a matter of federal policy, the generally agreed-upon social cost of carbon at this point in time is about $36 per ton.

In the years since its establishment, the SCC has become an essential metric, used across different agencies and in varying contexts, for shaping our regulatory policy—not just climate regulations per se, but also regulations pertaining to energy, business, and the environment. It is, in the words of University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone, “the most important number you’ve never heard of.”

With 97 percent of climate scientists agreeing not only that climate change poses a real and imminent threat but that our emissions are behind it, it’s no wonder that the federal government has seen the wisdom of maintaining this tool that allows agencies to develop the smartest policies and to make the best decisions regarding climate and carbon.

Until now, that is. (C’mon, admit it: You knew an “until now” moment was coming all along, didn’t you?) As part of the sweeping executive order signed by President Trump last week―billed by the White House as “promoting energy independence and economic growth” but lambasted by environmental groups as little more than a “polluter wish list”―the SCC has been significantly weakened. Suddenly, the most important number you’ve never heard of is the number that we all need to be talking about.

So what is Trump proposing we do to the SCC? Not eliminate it, exactly; agencies still would be authorized to attach a dollar figure to each ton of carbon emitted, for the purposes of crafting any new regulation. But the order does call for the disbanding of the Interagency Working Group that came up with the SCC in the first place. Instead of using the $36-a-ton figure, individual agencies would be free to come up with their own figures for how much a ton of carbon costs society. And that’s a recipe for discord, to put it lightly. Some might even say it’s an invitation for agencies to stall action on emissions reduction, under the pretense of reconciling the differences among conflicting numbers.

But perhaps most disturbingly, Trump’s executive order would encourage these same agencies to deemphasize the global impacts of our national carbon footprint and to emphasize instead the domestic impacts—a shift that would serve to bring the $36 figure down considerably. As Cass Sunstein, the noted legal scholar (who also had a hand in crafting the SCC as an Obama-appointed member of the original Interagency Working Group) has observed: “The upshot is that the social cost of carbon could be cut way down, possibly below $5—which would mean that on cost-benefit grounds, restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions would be much harder to justify.”

The “America First” slogan that worked so well for Donald Trump during his campaign for the presidency isn’t just simplistic and jingoistic. In the context of our climate policy, it’s dangerously wrongheaded. Climate change is a global phenomenon. It requires a global solution. Recalibrating the social costs of our carbon footprint to ignore its effects on other countries isn’t just irresponsible. It’s practically pathological in its solipsism. If other major countries were to follow suit, it would spell an end to the international cooperation that’s absolutely necessary for the human race to reduce emissions and lower temperatures.

Is that really the example we want to set?

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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