How President Trump's War on Science Undermines Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Policies

Date01 December 2020
by Carolina Arlota
This Article discusses the Trump Administratio n’s main actions to undermine the role of science in public policy
and the consequences for cost-benef‌it analysis involving climate change policies. It analyzes the specif‌ic
attacks on science and their impact on relevant policies, namely, the rollbacks of the Clean Water Rule, the
pesticides ban, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Power Plan, as well as modif‌ication of the National Environ-
mental Policy Act and regulations promoting fuel eff‌iciency, and the f‌lexibilization of environmental enforce-
ment during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these deregulatory cases were also illustrative of at least one
modality of an attack on science. It concludes by examining the negative impact of the war on science and
related unreasoned policymaking that transcends domestic borders.
Carolina Arlota is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
The Donald Trump Administration’s disregard for
science is unprecedented in comparison with previ-
ous administrations,¹ which has resulted in climate
policies that experts deem unsafe.² is is relevant because
scientic knowledge is essential for reasoned public poli-
cymaking. at said, the Trump Administration has also
neglected basic rules of administrative law, displaying
rigged reasoning³ with politic al preferences consistently
prevail ing over sound cost-benet a nalysi s. e actual
consideration of costs and benets, however, is indicative
1. Emily Berman & Jacob Carter, Scientic Integrity in Federal Policymaking
Under Past and Present Administrations, 13 J. S. P’  G 1,
2 (2018).
2. Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international aairs
at Princeton, criticized the current Administration’s approach to climate sci-
ence, saying: “Nobody in the world does climate science like that. It would
be like designing cars without seatbelts or airbags.” See Coral Davenport &
Mark Landler, Trump Administration Hardens Its Attack on Climate Science,
N.Y. T, May 27, 2019,
3. Lisa Heinzerling, Unreasonable Delays: e Legal Problems (So Far) of Trump’s
Deregulatory Binge, 12 H. L.  P’ R. 13 (2018).
4. Stuart Shapiro, OIRA and the Future of Cost-Benet Analysis, R. R.,
May 19, 2020.
of reasoned administrative action (i.e., action that is justi-
ed and not arbitrary). Assuming that cost-benet analy-
sis is a neutral check on administ rative action, deregulatory
policies should be restricted by such analyses in the same
manner as regulatory ones.
is Article reviews particula r initiatives of the Trump
Administration in light of the literature on attacks on sci-
ence and their consequences for climate policies. It also
discusses specic i nstances in which the cost-benet analy-
sis methodology of climate change policies was imperiled,
focusing upon deregulatory eorts implemented through
suspicious and/or nontechnical cost-benet analysis that
departs from scientic evidence. In aggregate, the cases
considered show how the deregulatory policy choices of
the Administration underm ine reasoned admi nistrative
action (including sound cost-benet analysis) and fail to
maximize the well-being of the U.S. population. ese
policy choices also jeopardize the aim of the Paris Agree-
ment on Climate Change to limit the global increase in
mean temperature to well below 2°C (3.6°F) compared to
pre-industrial levels.
5. See, e.g., Michigan v. Environmental Prot. Agency, 135 S. Ct. 2699, 45 ELR
20124 (2015) (determining that consideration of costs is mandatory for
executive agencies).
6. Daniel A. Farber, Regulatory Review in Anti-Regulatory Times, 94 C.-K
L. R. 383 (2019).
7. e Paris Agreement states:
is Agreement, in enhancing the implementation of the Conven-
tion, including its objective, aims to strengthen the global response
to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable devel-
Author’s Note: The author is grateful to the participants of
the 2019 International Conference of the Society for Ben-
ef‌it-Cost Analysis for their helpful comments. The author is
also grateful to Jay Austin and Hunter L. Jones for their out-
standing editorial work. The views presented here are those
exclusively of the author.
Copyright © 2020 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.
e comprehensive analysis developed in this Ar ticle
oers relevant insights for the literature on climate cha nge.
It demonstrates that the United States’ attacks on science,
as well as its current disrega rd for cost-benet analysis, h ave
been detrimental to the United States and may jeopardi ze
climate governance, owing to the fact that reductions in
carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
lie at the core of the Paris Agreement.¹ is reduct ion of
GHGs was informed by science.¹¹
e scientic data outlining the broad principles of cli-
mate change are u ndisputed.¹² is, of course, does not
deny the existence of uncertainty, as in any eld of sci-
entic knowledge.¹³ is uncertainty may actua lly mean
that the changes that can be brought about by climate
change have few precedents in the history of the Earth.¹
In this vein, regulatory e orts on climate change face addi-
tional hurdles, because the connection between the risks
of climate change (storms, rising sea levels, res, oods)
and climate change itself i s not immediately obvious to the
public.¹ Unsurprisingly, the current climate crisis was the
focus of the recent World Economic Forum,¹ and world-
renowned economists are advocating for governments to
become enablers in an economic policy that prioritizes
overall well-being and sustainability.¹
opment and eorts to eradicate poverty, including by: (a)Hold-
ing the increase in the global average temperature to well below
2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing eorts to limit the
temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recog-
nizing that this would signicantly reduce the risks and impacts
of climate change.
Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change, Dec. 12, 2015, art. 2, T.I.A.S. No. 16-1104, 54113 U.N.R.N. 88
[hereinafter Paris Agreement].
8. e costs involved are signicant. According to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA), natural disasters in 2017 (e.g., wildres, oods,
earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, winter storms) caused $306.2 billion in
cumulative damages, making the year the most expensive on record. e
report also emphasized that climate change is expected to increase the
frequency and intensity of such events. U.S. EPA, P  N-
 D D 1 (2019),
9. e United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, for instance, con-
tradicts the scientic ndings of the panel of U.S. experts representing 13
agencies. U.S. G C R P, F N
C A 35-72 (2018),
10. Paris Agreement, supra note 7, art. 2.
11. e scientic community overwhelmingly acknowledges the existence of
climate change, and that GHG emissions are a primary cause. Richard S.J.
Tol, Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Lit-
erature: A Re-Analysis, 73 E P’ 701 (2014). See also R S.J.
T, T E C  C C 8 (Univ. of Sussex
Business School, Working Paper No. 319, 2019) (emphasizing that 97%
of scientic studies point to human activity as the most important factor in
climate change after 1950).
12. A M  ., A  C P 3 (National
Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 16050, 2010) (high-
lighting that empirical predictions based on sophisticated models may lead
to dierent forecasts).
13. A E. D  E A. P, T S  P 
G C C 1 (2020).
14. Id. at 2.
15. Cary Coglianese, Climate Change Necessitates Normative Change, R. R.,
Jan. 27, 2020.
16. Larry Elliott, Climate Crisis Fills Top Five Places of World Economic Forum’s
Risks Report, G, Jan. 15, 2020,
17. Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato, for instance, contends
that modern economies reward behavior that extracts value instead of creat-
If such a policy is to be achieved, the need for science
and sound cost-benet analysis i s para mount. Withi n
this framework, this Article conceptualizes science as “the
knowledge produced in accordance with the scientic
method, idea lly involvi ng controlling experimentation
(hard science).¹ e Article does not distinguish between
President Trump’s war on science and his war on regulatory
science,¹ despite the more exible standards applicable to
the latter.² As the arguments advanced here show, both
wars are intertwined, as the war aga inst science fosters the
antiregulatory agenda on climate change issues promoted
by the Trump Administration.
Sound scientic evidence, dened in this A rticle as that
based on the best evidence and science avai lable,²¹ is pa rtic-
ularly relevant to policymaking. It facilitates the process of
setting an agenda for issues to be discussed, based on tech-
nical assessments; it also reduces the potential asymmetry
of information among parties, because the government’s
proposal is made public and available to public scrutiny.
is, in turn, fosters policy debates while generally avoid-
ing bias. Science, after all, is grounded in objective assess-
ments.²² Such assessments have signi cant consequences
domestically as well as internationally; sound science
is crucial for domestic regulations, as it fosters reasoned
action (with cost-benet analysis being essential for pro-
moting re asoned re gulations).²³
It is also of paramount importance in t he international
arena, as it promotes a common denominator with regard
to the relevant causes of climate change, which itself
advances cooperation among countries. It has long been
observed that the relationship between law and science
should foster cooperation among countries to protect the
common good.² Accordingly, sound scientic evidence
reduces transaction costs for domestic regulatory actions,
as well as for international initiatives on climate policies.
e Article turns next to the necessity of cost-benet
analysis being properly reasoned (i.e., informed by scientic
ing it, and this valuation needs to change. M M, T V-
  E: M  T  G E 8 (2018).
18. Deborah M. Hussey Freeland, Speaking Science to Law, 25 G. I’ E-
. L. R. 289 (2013).
19. Albert C. Lin, President Trump’s War on Regulatory Science, 43 H. E-
. L. R. 247 (2019) (distinguishing regulatory science from research
science based on the model of inquiry, i.e., research science seeks truth for
its own sake, whereas regulatory science has to answer, within a specic
time frame, the questions posed by administrative agencies and delimitated
by legal standards).
20. Id. at 253 (noting that regulatory science has a more exible standard, be-
cause it can inform regulation within considerable margins of uncertainty).
21. P P, I L  E   E
11 (2013).
22. Freeland, supra note 18, at , explaining: “science proceeds under a posi-
tivistic supposition that the scientist is studying a phenomenon that has an
objective reality (that is independent of the scientist’s ideas about it)—and
the scientist’s boundary work can be understood in terms of her professional
commitment to sorting the objectively real from the subject-dependent.”
is is not to say that science is not subject to uncertainty or to some level
of subjectivity. Id. at 301-10.
23. R L. R  M A. L, R R:
H C-B A C B P  E
 O H 13 (2008) (specically mentioning the importance of
cost-benet analysis in ensuring that “decisions are based on reasoned analy-
sis and not ... on the unaccountable whim of an ocial”).
24. David F. Cavers, Science and the Law Symposium: Introduction, 63 M. L.
R. 1325 (1965).
Copyright © 2020 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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