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'Violence by Number Tampering': Trump Manipulated Government Estimates of Climate Costs, Says GAO Report

"The Trump administration's recklessness will hurt our nation and our planet for decades to come," said Sen. Tom Udall.

Port Arthur, Texas underwater in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. (Photo: SC National Guard / Flickr)

A nonpartisan congressional report released Tuesday reveals how the Trump administration manipulated data to justify deregulating carbon emissions by drastically understating the costs of allowing fossil fuel extraction—and the resulting climate crisis—to continue.

The Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan investigative office of the U.S. Congress, shows in the report that the Trump administration revised former President Barack Obama's estimates regarding the "social cost of the carbon" to create a cost-benefit analysis that would be favorable to deregulating environmental rules.

Upon entering office in 2017, President Donald Trump and his administration officials revised the government's calculation system to come up with an estimate that damages caused by carbon emissions would cost the U.S. about $11 per ton of carbon by 2050. 

The Obama administration had estimated the cost would be $82 per ton of carbon, taking into account infrastructure damages caused by sea level rise, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires, and the loss of people's livelihoods to extreme heatwaves. Trump's predecessor also estimated the social cost of carbon would be $50 per ton by 2020.

The administration came up with an estimate seven times lower than Trump's predecessor by counting only the damages done within the U.S., not globally. 

Officials also used the economic calculation used by both administrations to determine the cost of the crisis—known as the "discount rate"—differently than the Obama White House. 

According to the GA report, Trump officials made their calculations "using a higher range of discount rates—3 to 7%—rather than 2.5 to 5% used for the prior estimates, which [resulting] in lower present values."

This manipulation, noted the New York Times, "assumes society should not pay much now to prevent harm from climate change to future generations."

Ben Silverman, a climate and buildings manager in Boston's Environment Department, called Trump's methods "violence by number tampering."

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Since taking office, the Trump administration has unveiled dozens of regulatory rollbacks, including canceling a rule requiring oil and gas companies to report methane emissions; allowing states to set their own rules regarding carbon emissions rather than following the Clean Power Plan; and repealing a rule under which California could set its own tailpipe emissions standards. 

Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) took to social media on Tuesday to denounce the president's "undermining" of climate science for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry. 

"Want to ignore/accelerate climate change?" tweeted John Larson, a correspondent for PBS Newshour. "Manipulate the numbers, discount the future, and lie about the costs." 

Trump has a well-documented history of manipulating how the federal government measures statistics in order to push his own policy agenda. Last year, the administration moved to alter the government's definition of "poverty" in order to reduce the number of Americans who are eligible for food, housing, and other government assistance. 

In recent week's Trump's desire to manipulate numbers in his own favor has been on full display as he's publicly called for medical professionals to stop testing people for Covid-19 and complained that a widespread testing strategy will inevitably increase the number of known cases of the disease.

University of Chicago economist Michael Greenstone called the president's method of calculating the social cost of carbon "entirely a political act."

"I don't think anyone pretended that those moves were justified," Greenstone told the Times.

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