As Good as a Stopped Clock: The House does Transparency

by Frank Ackerman

July 17, 2013

One day in May, climate change got a lot more expensive. The price tag on emissions – the value of the damages done by one more ton of CO2 in the air – used to be a mere $25 or so, in today’s dollars, according to an anonymous government task force that met in secret in 2009-2010. Now it’s $40, according to an anonymous government task force that met in secret in early 2013.

Anyone who cares about combating climate change would have to applaud the result: a higher carbon price means that cost-benefit analyses will place a greater value on policies that reduce emissions.

And anyone who cares about democracy should be appalled at the process: are we entering an era in which major regulatory decisions are made anonymously, in secret, with no opportunity for review?

The work of the anonymous task force is a mixture of sophisticated analysis and really bad, arbitrary choices. Three climate-economic models were each applied to five scenarios (derived from other models), and the 15 results were averaged. No persuasive arguments were presented for the controversial choices of models or scenarios; that’s just how the anonymous task force wanted to do it.

Lots of people had comments and criticisms after the first round – and in response, the anonymous task force redux changed nothing whatsoever in its methodology. The increase in the estimated cost of emissions is entirely due to revisions in the three chosen models. Most of this year’s increase in the U.S. government’s social cost of carbon comes from decisions by one modeler, who recently made particularly large changes in his model.

This state of affairs is disturbing to two groups of people: fans of democracy and openness; and climate change deniers and fossil fuel apologists. Guess which group is holding a hearing on the subject on Capitol Hill.

A bipartisan bill, introduced in the House by Representatives Duncan Hunter (R-science denial) and Nick Rahall (D-coal industry), calls for an opportunity for extensive public comment on the benefits (but not the costs) of any proposed regulation before it is adopted. The very brief text of the bill shows no great familiarity with regulatory language or procedures, but singles out any process involving the phrase “social cost of carbon” as particularly in need of review.

We do need better review of key regulatory decisions, but this bill isn’t even a useful first draft of appropriate, impartial procedures. No surprise: that’s not what it was designed for.

Like a stopped clock that tells the correct time twice a day, members of Congress who are sure that the Obama administration, the EPA, and climate policy are wrong, wrong, wrong will occasionally look like they are onto something. But the clock will continue ticking, and the moment will pass: the House will soon return to its core competencies of voting against Obamacare and taking food away from hungry children.

Someday, somehow, the rest of us will have to figure out how to achieve real regulatory transparency and openness. The system actually is broken, even if we happen to like the direction of change in the latest decision of the anonymous task force.


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The late Frank Ackerman was a Senior Economist at Synapse Energy Economics. He passed away in 2019.

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