Opinion: Republicans are still sticking their heads in the tar sands on climate change

A polar bear walks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a habitat at dire risk from global warming.
A polar bear walks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a habitat at dire risk from global warming.
(Subhankar Banerjee / Associated Press)

And so it begins. A dozen Republican attorneys general have filed a legal challenge — apparently the first of many expected group efforts — over President Biden’s executive order restoring an Obama administration directive that federal agencies estimate the social costs of carbon emissions when devising policies.

Taking such costs into account is just common sense when trying to understand the connections between federal actions and climate change, so of course President Trump ended it. Biden brought it back, and now Republican attorneys general want the courts to rule that doing so somehow violates the separation of powers between Congress and the executive branch.

Maybe if they didn’t have their heads so deeply buried in the tar sands they’d recognize that pursuing policies that fail to reduce carbon emissions imperils people in red states just as much as anywhere else.


It’s more balanced, trimming here, adding there. But it will be up to teachers to make the scattered lesson plans work for students.

“Setting the ‘social cost’ of greenhouse gases is an inherently speculative, policy-laden, and indeterminate task, which involves attempting to predict such unknowable contingencies as future human migrations, international conflicts, and global catastrophes for hundreds of years into the future,” the lawsuit argues. “Assigning such values is a quintessentially legislative action that falls within Congress’s exclusive authority under Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution.”

Whether their legal argument has any legs is doubtful.

“My immediate reaction is that these states should have a very hard time convincing a judge that a President asking his agencies to work together, to engage with the public and stakeholders, and then to follow the best available science and economics to evaluate the consequences of their decisions, is somehow illegal,” Jason A. Schwartz, legal director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, told Bloomberg Law.

The gist of their argument, though, is less legal than it is political and economic.

“In theory, the Biden Administration’s calculation of ‘social costs’ would justify imposing trillions of dollars in regulatory costs on the American economy every year to offset these supposed costs,” they argue, describing it as a regulatory overreach. “If the Executive Order stands, it will inflict hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars of damage to the U.S. economy for decades to come. It will destroy jobs, stifle energy production, strangle America’s energy independence, suppress agriculture, deter innovation, and impoverish working families. It undermines the sovereignty of the States and tears at the fabric of liberty.”


The reality is that global warming is happening, and human activity is driving it. We will spend “hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars” whether we abandon fossil fuels and convert the vast majority of the world’s energy production to renewable sources, or if we just shrug our shoulders and forge ahead with emissions that are raising sea levels (which will drown billions of dollars worth of coastal development), increasing both floods and droughts, and feeding bigger, stronger hurricanes and other major storm systems.

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Yes, the transition to renewable energy will cost jobs in the oil-and-gas sector — but it will also create new ones in the renewable energy sector, something some industry leaders recognize as they try (sometimes under government pressure) to position themselves less as oil-and-gas companies than as energy companies.

Also, China already is casting a clearer eye on the future than the U.S., despite Republicans’ oft-expressed concerns about maintaining the vitality of American industry and leading the global transition. If the U.S. doesn’t get its act together, it will cede the turf to a major economic rival, forgoing the chance to forge a stronger and sustainable energy sector, and economy, while clinging Trumpishly to the energy policies that got us into such straits in the first place.

Of course the Republican attorneys general have every right to turn to the courts to challenge policies they believe violate laws and damage their states and constituencies. Blue states did that very thing, with California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra involved in 110 such challenges himself.

But constituents of those Republican attorneys general would be wise to look closely at the risks they are taking, and remember that voters were the ones who elected these would-be saviors in the first place.