The man using math to fight for the environment

There is a Reagan-era rule that new environmental regulations must be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis in order to be enacted; regulators must show that the regulation's benefit to the public outweighs its cost to businesses.

But as you can guess, this supposedly objective analysis totally depends on the subjective ways that the benefit to the public, and the cost to business, are measured. So the thumb has always seemed to always be on the side of the scale measuring the cost to business, limiting regulators' ability to put in place measures to help the environment.

I recently did a comic about this, published on Boing Boing, using the freight train industry and the environmental disaster of the derailment in Ohio as an example.

But the Biden administration has an official who has been making real headway in tipping the scales back toward environmental regulation, by successfully arguing a new way to measure regulations' benefit to the public. The New York Times wrote about Richard Revesz, in the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (link here).

But Richard Revesz has begun to change the fundamental math that underpins federal regulations designed to protect human health and the environment. And those calculations could affect American life and the economy for years to come.

In a welcome change reflecting logic and sanity, one of Revesz's arguments is that the benefit to the public shouldn't just be measured in the present, but should take into account the benefits in future years and future generations. The benefits of limiting greenhouse gases may not be much in this year or even this decade, but can be huge for future generations combating "rising seas, more devastating storms, extreme drought, wildfires and displacement."

The change would affect the metric that the federal government uses to calculate the harm caused by one ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution. In the Obama administration, White House economists calculated that number at roughly $50 a ton. In the Trump administration, they lowered it to less than $5 a ton. Applying Mr. Revesz's formula shoots up the cost to nearly $200 a ton.

Plug that number into, say, the E.P.A.'s proposal to tighten tailpipe emissions — a regulation designed to ramp up sales of electric vehicles while ending the use of gasoline-powered cars — and the economic benefit could increase to more than $1 trillion, much greater than the estimated cost to industry.

"It's a very powerful change," Mr. Revesz said.

That one change can be a powerful tool for enacting aggressive regulations to fight global warming.