On Wednesday, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing meant to analyze how the Obama administration calculates the total cost to society generated by carbon emissions. Instead, the hearing devolved somewhat into a discussion of the benefits that carbon emissions can provide for the planet.
The Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) is a metric created by a government working group — overseen by the Office of Management and Budget along with the Council of Economic Advisors — meant to calculate the future damage a ton of carbon dioxide presents to society. The SCC takes into account things like health impacts, impacts to agriculture, property damage, and ecosystem impacts. The SCC produces a range of estimates, which are then used by government agencies whenever they are creating new regulations (or updating old ones). Most recent estimates, put out in 2015, set the average SCC around $37 per ton — though some studies have suggested that even that number probably underestimates the costs to society associated with carbon pollution.
But many of the representatives — and witnesses — at the hearing took the opposite stance. Carbon, they claimed, doesn’t necessarily harm the planet, causing rampant global warming that threatens to drive up sea levels, increase the frequency and strength of storms, and completely upend global food security. Instead, they argued, carbon emissions can be — and have proven to be in the past — extremely beneficial to society.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the craziest arguments representatives and witnesses made during the hearing.
The Government Should Subsidize Carbon Emissions, Not Tax Them
Many environmentalists agree that putting a price on carbon emissions might be one of society’s best chances at reducing carbon emissions and mitigating global warming. Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems have proven effective in both reducing carbon emissions and stimulating the economy in the Northeastern United States and Canada.
But instead of taxing carbon emissions, Kevin Dayaratna, senior statistician and research programmer for the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation, told the committee Wednesday that the government should be doing exactly the opposite.
“Under some assumptions, the SCC is negative two-thirds of the time. This would suggest that there are literally no costs, but benefits, to burning carbon dioxide,” Dayaratna said. In that case, he continued, the government should “subsidize, not tax, carbon dioxide emissions.”
Dayaratna arrived that that two-thirds figure by increasing the social discount rate used in calculating the SCC. The discount rate is pretty dense and fairly boring, but it basically boils down to how much we’re willing to invest today in order to avoid damages in the future — how much $100 is worth to us today, for example, compared to a year from now. High discount rates prioritize the present over the future — meaning high discount rates tend to understate how much climate action now is worth. For his analysis, Dayaratna used a discount rate of 7 percent — the normal discount rate in economics is around 3 percent.
The SCC Doesn’t Take Into Account How Carbon Helps Plants Grow
It’s a proven scientific fact that plants use carbon dioxide for survival, to convert CO2 and water to oxygen and sugar through a process called photosynthesis. Climate deniers have often seized upon this fact to prove that even if carbon emissions are causing global warming, it can’t be all that bad because carbon dioxide helps plants grow — it has a fertilization effect on the planet, they reason, bumping up agricultural production and stimulating the global economy.
During the hearing, Patrick Michaels, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for the Study of Science, repeated this idea early and often, citing “thousands of scientific studies that point to the direct fertilization effect shown by an increase in carbon to agriculture.”
Scientific studies have shown that the fertilization effect isn’t completely outlandish — some crops really do perform better in high-carbon scenarios, at least for a time. But what Michaels failed to mention is that numerous studies have shown that while high-carbon scenarios might have some benefits, they also come with serious trade-offs. Some studies have shown that the fertilization effect stimulates the growth of weeds, raising concern about farmers’ ability to manage weed growth in the future.
Severe weather events made more intense by climate change can destroy crops, causing food insecurity for small farmers that rely on subsistence farming. Climate change is also expected to make droughts more common and severe, creating issues with water access and irrigation for farmland. And even if farmers can still grow food — with increased weed production, more intense storms, shifting regional climates (and growing seasons), and a lack of water — that food is still likely to be less nutritious when grown in high-carbon scenarios.
In Cold Weather, We Have The Plague. In Warm Weather, We Build Cathedrals.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) argued that fossil fuels have made life better for mankind — and that the social costs associated with global warming have been shown to benefit humans rather than harm them.
“Fossil fuels have dramatically improved the lives of human beings,” Duncan said. “Man does better when it’s warmer. It got colder, we had the Bubonic plague. [Fossil fuels] ought to be the standard.”
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences directly contradicts this claim. It found that 15 years after temperatures in the northern mountains of Pakistan turned warmer and wetter, fleas carrying the plague were found in European harbors. Mountain-adapted wild rats — the primary host for fleas carrying the plague — had a hard time surviving in the new, warmer climate. That suggests, the researchers said, that as rats in the mountains died out, fleas went looking for new hosts — most likely, humans traveling on trade routes from Asia to Europe.
Still, Duncan couldn’t get away from the idea that mankind simply does better when temperatures are a little warmer.
“Between 900-1300, the earth was a lot warmer than it is today. Man did so well we saw this Renaissance, where cathedrals were built and there was art and man did not have to struggle to survive as much as they do when it’s colder,” Duncan said. “The earth was warm, they had abundant food, they were able to do a lot of things.”
This seems a little at odds with Duncan’s claims about the plague, since the Black Death — the worst of the outbreaks of Bubonic plague throughout Europe — spread across the continent from 1346 to 1353, nearly half a century before warm temperatures supposedly inspired the Renaissance. Also, the warm period that Duncan is referring to is largely thought to have spanned from around 950 to 1220 A.D., while the Renaissance reached its height at the end of the 1400s.