Nature | Editorial

Base the social cost of carbon on the science

The potential economic damage from global warming should not be influenced by politics.

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Take a step back. Earth is an orb reeling through the emptiness of space, warmed from the inside by molten rock and from the outside by the Sun. Thanks to the wonders of physics, a magnetic shield protects us from the most damaging cosmic radiation, and our exceedingly thin atmosphere forms a protective blanket that keeps the surface temperature at more or less acceptable levels for a wild variety of life. Humans have no control over the former, but it’s now crystal clear that maintenance of the latter is on us.

One of the many innovations that enabled humanity’s rise to global dominance is the development of money, which is a measure of relative value. Humans put a price on almost everything, from tomatoes and houses to entertainment and information. Scientists and economists have even sought to put a value on services rendered by the global climate. More specifically, the ‘social cost of carbon’ (SCC) represents the hidden costs from climate impacts such as extreme weather, declining crop yields and rising sea levels. At present, the US government’s central estimate of this is US$36 per tonne of carbon dioxide.

It might seem arcane, but the administration of US President Barack Obama has used this metric to estimate the costs and the benefits of a wide variety of government decisions that affect greenhouse-gas emissions, including climate regulations targeted at the fossil-fuel industry. Despite obvious challenges in settling on a single number, this figure is a way of accounting for the far-reaching impacts of decisions. The social cost of carbon is also a target for the incoming administration of president-elect Donald Trump, and his operatives have hardly hidden their animosity towards the idea. In its notorious, and eventually disavowed, memorandum to the US Department of Energy, the Trump transition team sought the names of employees who attended meetings related to the social cost of carbon. And in a memo last November, issued before former industry lobbyist Thomas Pyle was selected to lead Trump’s transition team for the same department, Pyle said that Trump could seek to limit the use of the social cost of carbon in federal rule-making.

That could be difficult given that US courts have both ordered and upheld the metric’s use in the past, but Pyle also said that the Trump administration will push for a review of the underlying science. “If the SCC were subjected to the latest science, it would certainly be much lower than what the Obama administration has been using,” Pyle wrote.

This is simply not true. Some have indeed argued that it is too high, but numerous studies have concluded that the price tag for damages is too low — perhaps much too low. Indeed, a 2014 meta-analysis suggested a floor of $125 (J. C. J. M. van den Bergh and W. J. W. Botzen Nature Clim. Change 4, 253–258; 2014).

Last week, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine weighed in with a lengthy report. It did not name a specific price, but it did outline a series of technical recommendations intended to tap the latest research to bolster the underlying science and to increase transparency. The panel also recommended establishing a process for updating the carbon price every five years.

The recommendations are timely. Most important of all, given the disregard for science that Trump and his political appointees have shown so far, is the call for transparency. There is, of course, plenty of room for debate. But any useful assessment of the carbon price must take into account the full range of scientific and economic research, and not bend to the political proclivities of those in charge.

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