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Acting on Climate = Benefits, not costs

June 30th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Amid many frustrations re the American Climate Energy & Security (ACES) Act (climate legislation), it is like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard when people say “it will only cost X” (”just a postage stamp a day”). There is celebratory discussion of CBO and EPA numbers showing very low costs, seemingly useful to counter R false claims of $3000+ / year costs. Truly, there are others who are more expert than I on framing but but it really seems to me that once you’re discussing costs, then it becomes a ‘wonkish’ battle over details.

Again, putting aside ACES’ weaknesses, this seems a more appropriate framing:

Acting forcefully on the climate will be profitable with most Americans.

The CBO, which is explicit about excluding many of the benefits in the bill such as energy efficiency and improved health from reduced pollution, found the costs to be minimal, something like a postage stamp a day.

Once we start considering the $3000 the average household will save via energy efficiency and the reduction of asthma in our children, those excluded benefits from the bill will be worth far more than a postage stamp:

This seeks to structure the discussion toward the reality that, if one does a full systems-of-systems examination of costs and benefits, the benefits of action far (FAR) outweigh the costs. (Just as the costs of inaction far, Far, FAR outweigh any benefits from failure to act.)

If people are breathlessly saying “cost only a postage stamp a day”, as their lead or headline, then reporters’ stories will be about “cost” (whether that is the Republicans’ distortion of an MIT study to  falsely claim a cost of $3100 a year or the CBO’s very stove-piped  $180 (or so) per year) … guaranteed.  If leaders are standing up saying that this will promote an economic revival and boost the economy, then stories might be “Hmmm, benefit or cost, experts disagree … and, well, as to cost, CBO says that even cost will be very low …”

Most Americans, by the way, don’t have a clue as to the most of the rather serious implications of fossil fuel burning. They hear about Co2 emissions and sort of get the link to polar bears without ice. They might (probably not) have heard about ocean acidification .  How many people living in nice neighborhoods relatively near a highway have any clue how cancer statistics change as your residence gets closer to a major highway?  How many people with asthmatic children know of links between coal-fired electricity particulates and asthma rates? How many people understand that  If “we” don’t talk about this, ALL THE TIME, there is no way that the message that “clean energy = improved health = better life, so WTF are we debating whether or not to do this” will become a major part of the public discussion

Thus, we should be emphasizing the quite truthful  “gains” and  “benefits” of serious climate action rather than getting caught up in debates about the annual level of the almost certain falsehood of “cost”.

David Roberts, over at Grist, has a great discussion (imo), Why we overestimate the costs of climate-change legislation,   of how and why modelers get it wrong in tough domains like this. And, Roberts highlights / underpins a strong case that the models projecting costs are probably overstating the case and getting it wrong.

And, Roberts suggests a framing (implicitly) that turns this argument against those seeking to deceive.

These blind spots are by no means unique to macroeconomic forecasts. Models simply put a sheen of scientific precision on conventional wisdom.

Still, despite their unblemished record of failure, to object to making policy on the basis of cost projections from macroeconomists is to come off as vaguely obscurantist and anti-science. Advocating policy based on historically grounded optimism is seen as ideological.

The real question is: do you believe the American people can figure out innovative, profitable ways to transition to clean energy if they put their shoulders to it? In the end, it’s an expression of faith. But as conservatives like Manzi are eager to point out in other contexts, faith in American entrepreneurialism tends to pay off.

We are seeing some of this type of discussion, such as with this from President Obama to reporters Sunday morning:

The other thing I wanted to emphasize is the fact that as we transition into this clean energy economy we are going to see, I think, an enormous amount of economic activity and job production emerging. I know that opponents of this bill kept on suggesting this was a jobs-killer, but everybody I talk to, when we think about how are we going to drive this economy forward post-bubble, keep on pointing to the opportunities for us to transition to a clean energy economy as a driver of economic growth.

Tags: Global Warming · climate change · climate legislation · environmental · political symbols · politics

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