Climate Change and Cost Benefit Analysis: Cass Sunstein Is Talking, But Is Anyone Listening?

Posted on November 16, 2012 by Seth Jaffe

Sunday’s New York Times had an op-ed piece by Cass Sunstein, recently departed head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, advocating for sensible measures to address global climate change. Sunstein’s argument is that

"Economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs."

I don’t disagree with anything he says; I only wonder whether anyone is paying attention. On one hand, while Sunstein notes that President Obama supports cost-benefit analysis, Democrats in Congress – and many environmentalists – have long been skeptical, treating environmental questions as moral issues that should not be subject to something as crass as cost-benefit analysis.

Republicans used to support cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, Sunstein opens the op-ed with a discussion of the Reagan administration’s support of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals. However, for the past ten years or so, Republicans have abandoned cost-benefit analysis for something much simpler – cost analysis. Today, if regulations cost too much – whatever that means – then they are “job-killers” and thus bad, even if the benefits exceed costs, sometimes by several multiples.

Maybe four years at MIT brainwashed me into blind acceptance of quantitative analysis, but this stuff doesn’t seem that hard to me. It is profoundly depressing that a significant number of environmentalists look only to the benefits of environmental regulation, while a similar percentage of conservatives now only look at its costs.

Somehow, we’ve got to get the twain to meet.