In late February, the Biden administration made a major announcement that has the potential to affect the health of Americans for generations. Notably, it had nothing directly to do with COVID-19 or even health care reform.
Instead, the news was that the recently reestablished “Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases” had released a preliminary report on the federal government’s best estimate of the cost to society of continuing to burn fossil fuels. A final report is due early next year, but for now, the administration values a metric ton of emitted carbon dioxide at $51, methane at $1,500 and nitrous oxide at $18,000. These are the figures that will be used in calculating the costs and benefits of the administration’s climate policies, including measures to protect Americans from the health effects of the changing environment.
As a physician in Texas and a professor of environmental economics in California, we have seen from our different vantages how people are struggling to respond to the unprecedented threat of climate change. Patients evacuate an oncoming storm in a rush, only to forget critical medications at home. Governments face grueling choices between providing essential services or cutting off the electricity to prevent a wildfire. There is no longer a question that climate change, in the form of warmer temperatures, rising seas, more frequent extreme events and compounding natural disasters is already here and is already affecting the health and well-being of many Americans.
Rather, the question now is how decisively the administration will move to address this threat.
Thankfully, unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration is taking climate change seriously. The IWG calculations are one data point that reflects this.