By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis
President Biden on Friday dramatically altered the way the U.S. government calculates the real-world cost of climate change, a move that could reshape a range of consequential decisions, from whether to allow new coal leasing on federal land to what sort of steel is used in taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects.
The administration plans to boost the figure it will use to assess the damage that greenhouse gas pollution inflicts on society to $51 per ton of carbon dioxide — a rate more than seven times higher than that used by Donald Trump’s administration. But the number, known as the “social cost of carbon,” could reach as high as $125 per ton once the administration conducts a more thorough analysis.
The ultimate figure will be incorporated into decisions across the federal government, including what sort of purchases it makes, the kind of pollution controls it imposes on industry and which highways and pipelines are permitted in the years to come. Just as important, the move sends a powerful signal to the private sector and to ordinary Americans that the choices the country makes now could lock in disastrous consequences on both current and future generations — or help to avert the worst impacts.
“A new social cost of carbon can tip the scales for hundreds of policy decisions facing the federal government,” said Tamma Carleton, assistant professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Any policy, project, or regulation that lowers emissions will now have a higher dollar value, reflecting the many benefits future Americans enjoy when emissions fall today.”
“Confronting climate change will cost money,” she said. And putting a higher price on global warming’s damages, she added, “highlights the large hidden costs of doing nothing.”
While this is not a new tax that consumers would have to pay, it would make it harder for fossil fuel projects to win government approval by factoring in their long-term costs to society.
For example, if the Trump administration had applied the Barack Obama-era calculation to its rollback of federal mileage standards, the costs of that rule would have far outweighed the benefits and would have been much harder to justify. And any federal coal leasing in the Powder River Basin would be unlikely to win approval: University of Chicago professor Michael Greenstone noted that the climate damages associated with that mining “are six times larger than the market price of that coal.”