08/14/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

The Science of Republicanism

In case there was any remaining doubt that mainstream Republicans have abandoned mainstream science, look no further than the House Republicans' recent crusades against their own scientific ideas.

According to The Hill: "Lawmakers voted 234-178 ... to prevent EPA from factoring the "social cost of carbon" into rules unless a federal law is enacted that allows its consideration."

What even is the social cost of carbon and why should you care?

Aptly called "the most important number you've never heard of" by economist Frank Ackerman, it's basically an attempt to put a dollar figure on the environmental damages we are likely to suffer from one additional ton of carbon in the atmosphere.

It matters because in setting regulations, the EPA and other federal agencies will use this number to determine whether or not something is a good idea. For example, if the social cost of carbon is $100 and a regulation will reduce carbon emissions at a cost of $200 per ton reduced, then the proposed regulation fails the cost-benefit test and we should try something else.

Oddly enough, we have Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to thank for this whole thing. As President, Regan issued an Executive Order (#12,291) that, among other things, barred federal agencies from promulgating a regulation "unless the potential benefits to society from the regulation outweigh the potential costs to society."

As Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich pushed and helped pass the "Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act of 1995" which undid some easing of the rule under Clinton and basically assured that the EPA would have to do full-scale risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses on almost every proposed regulation, while Congress (led by Gingrich, naturally) simultaneously fought to cut funding for those very agencies. (See this article at The American Prospect for more).

So what's the problem?

The Republicans' problem is that in 2010 the Obama Administration released an analysis that put the estimate of the social cost of carbon at $21 per ton and recently revised that number upward to $33. It's a substantial increase, for sure, but it's not exactly a radical position to take. The UK government pegged the number at about $105 (adjusted for inflation). The International Energy Agency, known for being blunt (and accurate) but not remotely radical, said in 2008 that a global price of carbon would have to reach $180 to avoid atmospheric concentrations of carbon that many scientists consider disastrous. Ackerman thinks the number might be in the $1000 range.

Yet somehow, 219 of the 222 House Republican who voted think the Administration's lowball estimate is radically high.

Further, one of the main drivers of the Obama estimates is an economic model created and run by Richard Tol. Far from being an environmental radical, Tol is on a list of "International Scientists [who] Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims" and "Continue to Debunk 'Consensus'" on the science of climate change.

Who put together that list? Some radical anti-environmentalist group of climate deniers? No, just Congressional Republicans on the Senate Environment Committee.

Scientifically Selective Republicans

We are left to conclude the obvious: Congressional Republicans are all about the science and all about smart economic decisions based on cost-benefit analysis, unless it leads to a conclusion that they don't like. In which case, the science is clearly wrong, and cost benefit analysis shouldn't be done.

Which leaves us with the question: If Congressional Republicans are unwilling to listen to the results of scientific requirements created by one of their greatest heroes, strengthened by one of their modern revolutionaries, and written by one of their favorite scientists, is there any science they will listen to?

Of course there is. Anything that confirms what they already want to believe is sound science in their book. Science that fails to justify the policies they want to promote is by their definition unsound. It's a convenient definition of science, just not one that actual scientists use.