An eight-month investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds no flaws in the Obama administration’s interagency process for developing social cost of carbon (SCC) estimates. Remarkably, GAO has “no recommendations” to improve the process.
GAO did not attempt to evaluate the “quality” of the administration’s SCC estimates. Even so, it’s unusual for GAO to review an agency, program, or policy and find no room for improvement.
Not that anyone should expect GAO to confront the inherent flaws of SCC analysis. As previously argued on this blog, carbon’s social cost is an unknown quantity, discernible in neither meteorological nor economic data. SCC estimates are perforce spun out of non-validated climate parameters and made-up social damage functions. Armed with such sophistry, climate campaigners can make renewable energy look like a bargain at any price and fossil fuels look unaffordable no matter how cheap.
But even taking SCC analysis at face value, the administration’s process is biased, and the evidence is right there in GAO’s report.
Before getting down to particulars, let’s recall why this topic matters. The SCC is an estimate of the dollar value of damages allegedly caused by an incremental ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted in a given year. The higher the SCC estimate, the more plausible the claims of Obama administration officials and their allies that the benefits of CO2-reduction policies justify the costs.
The administration’s SCC interagency working group (IWG) has published two reports called technical support documents. SCC estimates in the 2013 TSD are roughly 50% higher than in the 2010 TSD. In just three years, CO2 reductions became 50% more valuable. Amazing!
EPA, the Department of Energy, and/or the Department of Transportation have used SCC estimates in 68 rulemakings since May 2008, according to GAO (Appendix I). Fossil fuel foes now use SCC analysis to sell everything from carbon taxes to renewable energy mandates to regional cap-and-trade programs to EPA greenhouse gas regulations.
GAO says everything is hunky-dory because the administration “used consensus-based decision making” (several agencies participated), “relied on existing academic literature and models,” and “took steps to disclose limitations and incorporate new information.” Well, of course they did. These folks are professionals; they know how to check the requisite boxes.
Nonetheless, the administration’s process is biased in four ways. In both the 2010 and 2013 TSDs, the IWG:
- Inflated the perceived benefit of CO2 reductions to the U.S. economy by providing only higher global SCC values, not lower domestic SCC values, as required by OMB Circular A-4.
- Inflated the estimated benefit of CO2 reductions by using only low discount rates (2.5%, 3%, 5%) to estimate the present value of future CO2-related damages, not a 7% discount rate, as also required by OMB Circular A-4.
- Inflated the estimated benefit of CO2 reductions by including ‘worse than we thought’ climate impact projections but not ‘better than we feared’ projections.
- Inflated the estimated benefit of CO2 reductions by uncritically accepting the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) climate sensitivity estimates despite growing evidence that IPCC models are tuned ‘too hot.’
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