Trump Admin Devalues Climate Crisis Costs to Justify Deregulation, GAO Finds
A report scheduled for release later Tuesday by Congress' non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the Trump administration undervalues the costs of the climate crisis in order to push deregulation and rollbacks of environmental protections, according to The New York Times.
In one example, the administration estimated the cost of global heating for future generations seven times lower than previous federal estimates. By drastically lowering that number, which is known as the "social cost of the carbon," the administration could manipulate its cost-benefit analyses for deregulating carbon emissions, as The New York Times reported.
Every ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere imposes a cost on the economy, since it increases the likelihood from damage to infrastructure from sea level rise, heat waves or storms. Or, it imposes a health care cost as increased pollution harms public health. However, calculating the cost of those effects is both politically contentious and economically challenging, according to The New York Times.
Under estimates from the Obama administration, the social cost of carbon would be approximately $82 per ton of carbon by the year 2050, according to the forthcoming report. The Trump administration, upon entering office in 2017, quickly undid those numbers and changed the math of how the social cost of carbon was calculated. Under their revised system, the damages by 2050 are estimated to cost around $11 per ton of carbon.
One of the ways the math changed was keeping in line with Trump's narrow worldview. The report found that the administration brought the cost of carbon down by only looking at the effects on the U.S. rather than the global cost.
Another way it brought down the cost of carbon was by using something called the discount rate, which, according to The New York Times, assumes society should not pay much now to prevent harm from climate change to future generations.
"As a result, the current federal estimates, based on domestic climate damages, are about seven times lower than the prior federal estimates that were based on global damages," the report found.
The economic costs were supposed to be revised by the National Academy of Sciences, but the White House disbanded the working group and has no intention of restarting them or revising the economic calculation, as The New York Times reported.
That refusal to update their calculations means future incarnations of the federal government "may not be well positioned to ensure agencies' future regulatory analyses are using the best available science," according to the GAO report.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island and one of eight senators who requested the review, said, "Climate change is a massive threat to our economy. That threat will only grow in years to come, even if we take the action necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change," as The New York Times reported.
Michael Greenstone, an economist at the University of Chicago, said the Trump administration's calculations were not done in good faith.
"It was entirely a political act. I don't think anyone pretended that those moves were justified," he said.
Others see similarities between the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus and its approach to the climate crisis: deny its reality and then leave the country unprepared for its effects.
"This really parallels the mismanagement of coronavirus," said Michael K. Dorsey, a limited partner with IberSun, a renewable energy company, and a climate expert, to The New York Times. "There's this belief that by doing this you will have some effect of helping the fossil fuel industry. The only thing it does, unfortunately, is undermine the ability of the government to make prudent decisions about moving critical resources to communities that are experiencing the unfolding climate crisis."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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