Plan for the Future: Use the Social Cost of Carbon

04/23/2015 11:20 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

While scientists resoundingly agree that climate change is occurring, and that we should be taking action to address greenhouse-gas emissions now, opinion in Congress on the topic is dismayingly split.

Recently, the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee reviewed legislation that contained a provision that took me aback: Bar government agencies from considering the social cost of increasing levels of carbon in their analyses and rules. That approach is dangerous to our environment, economy, and security.

The social cost of carbon is the monetary estimate of how much small increases in carbon dioxide emissions would harm the economy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that damage can come in a decline in net agricultural productivity, human health, and property damages from increased flood risk.

Scientists estimate that for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted, the economic damage could be worth as much as $220.

As Duke University Professor Drew Shindell noted recently:

[D]amages from a typical mid-range gasoline-powered vehicle total nearly $2,000 a year. In comparison, annual damages associated with an electric vehicle are around $1,000 if the power comes exclusively from coal, about $300 if the power is generated using natural gas, and minimal if the electricity is from renewable sources.

The World Health Organization estimates that around 7 million people die per year as a result of air pollution exposure, and, as organizations across the board are noting, ocean acidification that hurts fisheries is a threat to both local economies and the people who rely on the ocean as a food source.

While we are planning for the economic future we must also be considering how our economic growth will impact our public health and the sustainability of our communities. Including the social cost of carbon in policy and rule making is the smart, and responsible, thing to do.

As our mothers taught us, we should pray for the best but prepare for the worst. That is why businesses and the military are leading the way in preparedness and resiliency efforts while pairing with the White House to reduce emissions from super pollutants like hydroflourocarbons (HFCs) and methane.

Business leaders, insurance groups, and corporations are including the social cost of carbon and the changing climate in their business plans not for moral reasons but because it makes financial sense to plan ahead.

The "Risky Business" report, published last year by a bipartisan group of business and government leaders, laid out the risks to American businesses should we not act to address the root causes of climate change while simultaneously preparing for the pending damage from increasingly extreme weather.

As the report notes, and as Americans have witnessed first-hand, "extremes will become the 'new normal.'" Rising temperatures in California could reduce snowmelt into the Colorado River basin by 10 percent in the next 50 years and increase the number of extreme wildfires that have damaged communities across the West in recent years. Rising sea levels will threaten ports across the country, including in California, where 45 percent of all containers arrive in the U.S.

It also states that if we continue on our current path, by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide.

Eighty-seven percent of all Californians, including coastal communities that I represent in San Diego, live in coastal counties, and 80 percent of the state's GDP is derived from those counties.

The military, including Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, has also focused on climate change in their planning for the future security of our country. That doesn't arise from an environmental mission but because climate change will challenge our national security in new ways that require us to get to work preparing now.

Let's take a cue from the Pentagon and the private sector -- enterprises that already account for the costs of carbon. The idea that we have to choose between economic growth and environmental sustainability is a false one and should be rejected.

Barring agencies from including the social cost of carbon is not just a backward approach but one that threatens our country's ability to create high-quality jobs and to ensure our nation's future security. Congress should embrace the use of the social cost of carbon as a way to increase informed policy making.