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Climate Change Drama on the Hill as Lawmakers Tackle Emissions, 'Alarmists'

WASHINGTON – After President Obama promised to move climate change to the front of his agenda, members of Congress have been tackling the same in both chambers with Republicans and Democrats trading barbs over the “theater” of global warming hearings.

A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee recently held a hearing to investigate the changes in the social cost of carbon (SCC) metric, a measurement of the harm caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions used in the cost-benefit analysis of federal regulations.

The Obama administration increased this year the estimated monetary costs of carbon emissions, a change that could raise the projected benefits of regulations that curb emissions. Republicans have criticized the move for its lack of public scrutiny.

Howard Shelanski, head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, reassured lawmakers about the opportunity for public input on the change.

“The current estimates will be used in the economic analysis of rulemakings, and we fully expect comments on the SCC values in the context of future rules. We will consider those comments to ensure that we use the best available information to evaluate the costs and benefits of our regulation,” Shelanski stated.

Shelanski explained that the purpose of the SCC estimate is “to get a measure of what that harm to our society will be, what it will cost us going forward, to keep emitting CO2 into the atmosphere.”

“If there’s going to be harm to our environment and to our economy from carbon emission, many costs will go up. That’s why it is extremely important to have some kind of measure of the social costs of a ton of [CO2] emissions,” he said.

The cost estimate of $38 a metric ton in 2015, raised from $24, reset the calculation the government uses to weigh costs and benefits of proposed regulations. The SCC is meant to be an estimate of factors, such as changes in human health and agricultural productivity, property damage from greater flood risks, and several others. It rose because of changes in the independent models used by the government to estimate these costs.

Lawmakers questioned the magnitude of the changes and the way the analysis was released in May without seeking outside comment and review.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements, expressed his frustration about the lack of transparency in the model’s development process.

“I am very concerned that the [SCC] regulations just increased 50 percent, and the American people have no information about who made this decision, why it was made and what the consequences will be in the future,” said Lankford. “What is worse, the administration made no promises that it would not increase the cost another 50 percent again in three years. This guideline, made in a bureaucratic black box, creates even more uncertainty in our fragile economy.”

Shelanski pointed out that SCC is not in itself a rule, but a component in the cost-benefit analysis to assess the cost of carbon emissions for society.

“Part of a disciplined rulemaking process is using the best information that is out there to come up with a rigorous cost-benefit analysis that is a limiting principle on, for example, ascribing endless benefits to carbon reduction,” Shelanski explained. “But also stops us from making a big mistake by saying that there are not costs to carbon reduction and creating real harm to our economy going forward from environmental damage.”

At another recent hearing, an economist at the Institute for Energy Research told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the SCC was a highly subjective estimate.

“The administration’s calculation of the social cost of carbon is malleable and arbitrary and therefore not appropriate for the federal government to use to justify regulation,” said Robert P. Murphy.

“The [SCC] is not an objective feature of the world that is ‘out there’ waiting for economists to measure. Rather, it is generated within computer simulations that make projections centuries into the future. By tinkering with the discount rate and other parameters, the White House can justify about any estimate the administration wants,” Murphy said.

The Senate panel focused on the science behind man-made climate change, the committee’s first hearing on the issue this Congress.

Republicans used their opening statements to take aim at the Obama administration and climate change “alarmists” for overstating the scientific validity of carbon-reduction policies.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and committee chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) took the opportunity to spar over the issue.

Inhofe criticized the scientific consensus that human activity, such as burning coal that pumps greenhouse gases into the air, contributes to a warming planet.

Inhofe ended his opening statement by saying, “I do applaud for having this hearing, chairman. I think it is a lot of theater here. But it’s going to be fun, and it will be good to start talking about it again.”

“Love the theater,” the California Democrat retorted.

“Is this the second act?” Boxer asked, adding, “I don’t think this is theater. This is deadly serious. I appreciate that you have had the same song all along. I don’t know what it will take to convince you, but I’ll keep trying.”

Inhofe countered by saying that measures to regulate greenhouse gas emissions would not get support of the Democrat-controlled Senate. Passing carbon regulations through the Senate would prove difficult, as a group of centrist Democrats is more aligned with GOP senators on the matter than with liberals.

“It’s not just me — it’s two-thirds of the United States Senate,” Inhofe said.

Boxer and fellow Senate Democrats are hoping to build momentum on Obama’s “Climate Action Plan” released last month. The president’s plan includes new utility regulations, a suite of new steps to cut vulnerability to climate and coastal hazards, and calls for international engagement on climate issues.

Experts from Climate Solutions and Climate Central, two think tanks working in the field of climate research, testified about the devastating effects they say global warning is having on the environment.

Representatives from the conservative Manhattan Institute and the Institute for Energy Research gave opposing testimony, warning the action sought by Democrats in Congress will hurt the economy and have a small effect on the climate.

Environmental studies professor Dr. Roger Pielke told the panel that blaming extreme weather events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, on climate change is flawed.

“It is misleading and just plain incorrect to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally,” Pielke said. “It is further incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases.”

Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist at Climate Central, warned of the hazards of ignoring climate change, noting the increase in intensity and frequency of certain types of extreme weather events in the U.S.

Boxer noted that experts on the panel who testified in favor of a free-market approach were from organizations that had received millions of dollars in funding from large oil companies, including the Koch brothers – billionaire donors to conservative groups.

“Ninety-eight percent of scientists are saying one thing, two percent are saying something else. Yet we have endless money behind the two percent view,” she said. “The tobacco companies tried that. They fought. They took an oath to tell the truth, and they lied and eventually the truth came out. This isn’t a game. We’re playing with the lives of future generations.”