President Trump threatens to undermine key measure of climate policy success


David Hodgkinson, University of Western Australia

One of the key measures President Barack Obama used to develop climate policy could be under threat under President Donald Trump. The “social cost of carbon”, a dollar measure of how much damage is inflicted by a tonne of carbon dioxide, underpins many US and other energy-related regulations (and in the UK too, for example).

The latest estimates from William Nordhaus, one of the best-known economists dealing with climate change issues (together with Nicholas Stern), put the social cost of carbon in 2015 at a baseline of US$31.20. This rises over time as the impacts of climate change worsen.

Conversely, the social cost of carbon is also the “government’s best estimate of how much society gains over the long haul” by reducing CO₂ emissions.

Nordhaus uses an economic model known as the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (or DICE) model, which he developed in the 1990s. I understand it’s one of the leading models for examining the effects of climate change on the economy. Other researchers have adapted and modified DICE to examine issues associated with the economics of climate change.

Social costs of carbon estimates have been – and remain – helpful for assessing the climate impacts of carbon dioxide emission changes, but perhaps not for the incoming Trump administration in the US.

‘More bad news than good news’

First, though, let’s consider the update to Nordhaus’ DICE model. He finds that the results strengthen earlier ones, which indicate “the high likelihood of rapid warming and major damages if policies continue along the unrestrained path” – his view of current policy settings. He revises upwards his estimate of the social cost of carbon by about 50% on the last modelling.

Further, Nordhaus argues that the 2°C “safe” limit set under the Paris Agreement seems to be “infeasible” even with reasonably accessible technologies. This is because of the inertia of the climate system, rapid projected economic growth in the near term, and revisions to the model.

His view is that a 2.5°C limit is “technically feasible” but that “extreme virtually universal global policy measures” would be required. By implication, such measures could refer to geo-engineering and, in particular, removing CO₂ from the atmosphere.

Nordhaus also notes:

Of the six largest countries or regions, only the EU has implemented national climate policies, and the policies of the EU today are very modest. Moreover, from the perspective of political economy in different countries as of December 2016, the prospects of strong policy measures appear to be dimming rather than brightening.

As a result of the DICE modelling, Nordhaus states that there is more bad news than good news and that the need for effective climate change policies is “more and not less pressing”.

His results relate to a world without climate policies, which, as he says, “is reasonably accurate for virtually the entire globe today. The results show rapidly rising accumulation of CO₂, temperatures changes, and damages.”

An end to the use of the social cost of carbon?

As well as the definition earlier of that cost, it could also be described as a government’s best estimate “of how much society gains over the long haul by cutting each tonne” of CO₂ emissions.

While the Obama administration relied on the DICE model (and others) in arriving at a social cost of carbon – such cost is already important in the formation of 79 federal regulations – it appears that the incoming Trump administration might modify or end this use.

It has been argued – by Harvard’s Cass Sunstein and the University of Chicago’s Michael Greenstone – that such action would defy law, science and economics. It is probably unlikely that use of the social cost of carbon would be done away with completely (lowering the operative number might be more likely), although Greenstone and Sunstein do contemplate it.

Sunstein and Greenstone conclude that, without it, federal regulations would have no quantifiable benefits. And that would have implications for emission reductions and assessing progress on dealing with climate change.

And Nordhaus concludes:

The future is highly uncertain for virtually all variables, particularly economic variables such as future emissions, damages, and the social cost of carbon.

That’s definitely the case for climate change policy and action in the US following the election of Donald Trump. For President Trump’s supporters, it appears that “turning back the clock is the most important thing the president-elect can do to help businesses succeed”.

And the president may well do that. He has argued for an increase in coal use and suggested that, under his administration, the US would withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement.

The Conversation

David Hodgkinson, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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2016 crowned hottest year on record: Australia needs to get heat smart


Liz Hanna, Australian National University; Kathryn Bowen, Australian National University, and Mark Howden, Australian National University

It’s official, 2016 set another record for being the world’s hottest. Three international agencies have confirmed today that last year was the hottest on record.

NASA reported that 2016 was 0.99℃ hotter than the 20th-century average, while the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called it at 0.94℃. NOAA also calculated that global land temperatures were 1.43℃ higher. The UK Met Office, using its own data, also reported that 2016 is one of the two hottest years on record.

The figures vary slightly, depending on the baseline reference period used.

Heat records don’t linger for long any more. 2016 surpassed the 2015 record, which surpassed the 2014 record. Three record hot years in a row sets yet another record in the 137-year history of modern accurate and standardised meteorological observation.

For Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology described 2016 as a “year of extreme events” and the fourth hottest at 0.87℃ above the 1961-1990 average. The warming trend is clear.

Australia is already on average 8℃ hotter than the average global land temperature, so further warming means our heat risk is far greater than for other industrialised countries.

This dangerous warming trend sends a dire warning, as average warming delivers many more extreme heat events, as we’re currently seeing in Queensland and New South Wales. These are the killers.

As Australia lurches from heatwave to heatwave, the message is clear: extreme heat is the new norm – so Australia needs to get “heat smart”.

Rising extremes

In Australia the number of days per year over 35℃ has increased and extreme temperatures have increased on average at 7% per decade.

Very warm monthly maximum temperatures used to occur around 2% of the time during the period 1951–1980. During 2001–2015, these happened more than 11% of the time.

This trajectory of increased temperature extremes raises questions of how much heat can humans tolerate and still go about their daily business of commuting, managing domestic chores, working and keeping fit.

We can’t just get used to the heat

Air-conditioning and acclimatisation are not the answer. Acclimatisation to heat has an upper limit, beyond which humans need to rest or risk overheating and potential death. And air-conditioning, if not powered by renewable electricity, increases greenhouse gas emissions, feeding into further climate changes.

We have two key tasks ahead. The first is to stop the warming by drastically reducing emissions – the 2015 Paris Agreement was a step along this path. Several studies have shown that Australia can achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and live within its recommended carbon budget, using technologies that exist today, while maintaining economic prosperity.

Our second task is to adapt to the trajectory of increasing frequency of dangerous heat events.

A heat-smart nation

We can prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses through public health mechanisms. Australia enjoys a strong international track record of world-leading public health prevention strategies, such as our campaign against smoking.

We can equally embrace the heat challenge, by adopting initiatives such as a National Climate, Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which has the support of Australia’s health sector. Its recommendations outline a pathway to becoming a heat-smart nation.

At a recent heat-health summit in Melbourne, experts declared Australia must adopt four key public health actions to reduce heatwave deaths.

These are:

• Prevent

• Prepare

• Respond

• Educate.

These fundamental public health strategies are interlinked and operate at the government, health sector, industry and community levels.

Prevention includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reducing exposure. The Bureau of Meteorology provides superb heat warnings that allow us to prepare. Global organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provide reports that can underpin greater understanding.

The next challenge is for the populace broadly to act on that knowledge. This requires having options to protect ourselves and avoid hazardous heat exposures while commuting, working and at home.

The health sector must also prepare for demand surges. Tragic outcomes will become increasingly common when, for example, ambulance services cannot meet rising demand from a combination of population growth, urbanisation and forecast heat events.

The health sector will need the capacity to mobilise extra resources, and a workforce trained in identifying and managing heat illness. Such training remains limited.

Individuals and workplaces also need to prepare for heatwaves. In a heat-smart nation, we’ll need to reschedule tasks to avoid or limit exposure, including rest periods, and to ensure adequate hydration with cool fluids.

We’ll need to think about housing. Building houses without eaves or space for trees to provide shade forces residents to rely on air-conditioning. In such houses, power failures expose residents to unnecessary heat risks, and many air-con systems struggle when temperatures exceed 40℃.

Urban planners and architects have solutions. There are many options for safe housing design, and the government should consider supporting such schemes.

We’ll need to think about our own health. Active transport, such as walking and cycling, both reduces emissions and improves fitness. Promoting active transport throughout summer requires the provision of shade, rest zones with seats, and watering stations along commuting routes. High cardio-respiratory fitness also boosts heat resilience: a win-win.

Ultimately, Australia has two options: ignore the risks of increasing heat extremes and suffer the consequences, or step up to the challenge and become a heat-smart nation.


This article was co-authored by Clare de Castella Mackay, ANU.

The Conversation

Liz Hanna, Honorary Senior Fellow, Australian National University; Kathryn Bowen, Senior Research Fellow, Australian National University, and Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.