The US government’s price on carbon doesn’t value the future much

FROM OUR OBSESSION

Climate Consciousness

Every decision counts.

The “social cost of carbon” is a concept virtually unknown outside of academia and federal agencies. But this shadow metric—which estimates the dollar cost of putting one more ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—touches virtually everything the government does. It informs decisions about everything from vehicle fuel mileage standards to buildings to oil leases to the climate itself.

Right now, though, its value in the United States is in limbo, as a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (pdf) lays out. Calculating an accurate social cost of carbon (SCC) is one of the more important, if least-watched, political battles over climate change.

Until recently, the SCC had been set by a group of scientists and economists working across the federal government. An interagency working group, established in 2009, estimated the net economic damages of climate impacts, from agriculture and human health to property damage and energy costs. Their figures put the social cost of carbon between $50 and $75 per ton in 2020, with a catastrophic “high-impact” scenario figure at $150 per ton.

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