The re-election of President Obama, preceded by the extraordinary damage done by Hurricane Sandy, raises a critical question: In the coming years, might it be possible for the United States to take significant steps to reduce the risks associated with climate change?
A crucial decision during Ronald Reagan’s second term suggests that the answer may well be yes. The Reagan administration was generally skeptical about costly environmental rules, but with respect to protection of the ozone layer, Reagan was an environmentalist hero. Under his leadership, the United States became the prime mover behind the Montreal Protocol, which required the phasing out of ozone-depleting chemicals.
There is a real irony here. Republicans and conservatives had ridiculed scientists who expressed concern about the destruction of the ozone layer. How did Ronald Reagan, of all people, come to favor aggressive regulatory steps and lead the world toward a strong and historic international agreement?
A large part of the answer lies in a tool disliked by many progressives but embraced by Reagan (and Mr. Obama): cost-benefit analysis. Reagan’s economists found that the costs of phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals were a lot lower than the costs of not doing so — largely measured in terms of avoiding cancers that would otherwise occur. Presented with that analysis, Reagan decided that the issue was pretty clear.
Much the same can be said about climate change. Recent reports suggest that the economic cost of Hurricane Sandy could reach $50 billion and that in the current quarter, the hurricane could remove as much as half a percentage point from the nation’s economic growth. The cost of that single hurricane may well be more than five times greater than that of a usual full year’s worth of the most expensive regulations, which ordinarily cost well under $10 billion annually. True, scientists cannot attribute any particular hurricane to greenhouse gas emissions, but climate change is increasing the risk of costly harm from hurricanes and other natural disasters. Economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs…
The electricity sector is responsible for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In this domain, any regulations must be carefully devised, as they were in the case of fuel economy, to ensure that they do not impose unjustified costs, especially in an economically difficult period. But just as in that case, it should be possible to work with affected companies to identify flexible and cost-conscious approaches, producing reductions while minimizing regulatory burdens…
For those who seek to reduce the risks associated with climate change, it is ironic but true that the best precedent comes from a conservative icon. The big question now is whether today’s Republicans will follow Reagan’s example.
Of course, the good professor has his pointy head up his butt when it comes to characterizing progressives – especially enviros – as refusing cost-benefit analysis. It’s one of the most boring areas of expertise often over-utilized by today’s activists. The only time it gets problematical is when the folks I fondly refer to as the “New Age Left” get carried away, applying great quantities of ersatz maths to condemn cuckoo farts as critical to reducing carbon emissions.
You know what I mean.
Still, if Professor Sunstein thinks he can convince, say, Darrell Issa or Mitch McConnell to peek at the reams of spreadsheets and computerized projection that scientists have been offering for the last dozen years and more – more power to him. I’m only interested in future generations being able to enjoy life on this planet as much as I have. Perhaps more.