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Anti-regulation talking point dominates NBC climate change debate

On NBC’s Meet The Press, viewers this past weekend were treated to the spectacle of a climate change “debate” featuring TV personality Bill Nye, who is wonderful at explaining scientific concepts to children (and presumably would do the same to those who willfully ignore or deny that climate change is happening) against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) who is one of the most prominent climate change deniers in Congress.

Leading up to the show, NBC was rightly scolded by environmental activists for ensuring a slanted debate against climate change by picking Bill Nye instead of a forceful climate change hawk in Congress, such as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) — who heads the leading Senate committee on environmental issues — or retiring Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) who has an unparalleled record on the environment and climate change. Any one of those would have been a far more appropriate and obvious selection if NBC wanted an equal debate.

Unfortunately, what the viewing public got were the same old talking points questioning the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening and reinforcing the notion that there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

One talking point that was high on Rep. Blackburn’s list was “cost-benefit analysis.” She repeated it over a half dozen times, far more than any other phrase. This was no surprise – those three words are the regulation critic’s magic words. Used ad nauseam to insinuate that efforts to protect the public must be “balanced” with efforts to protect corporate profits, conservatives and Republicans in Congress deploy the phrase almost as often as “job-killing regulations.” They use it across the board to fight new Wall Street reforms, new pollution controls and water safety measures, new workplace safety standards, new food safety rules, and whatever other regulations they (and the corporate lobbyists who have their ears) reflexively oppose.

This right-wing repetition would be bad enough, but many Democrats are also guilty of parroting the “cost-benefit analysis” talking point. This bipartisan cover legitimizes a tool that regulation opponents, backed by self-interested corporations, then use in bad faith and cynical fashion.

Contrary to Rep. Blackburn’s insinuations, federal agencies routinely produce cost-benefit analyses when developing new regulations. They almost always demonstrate that the benefits of new regulations to the public dramatically outweigh the costs to regulated industries. This is why critics of regulation make such a concerted effort to focus on the costs of new regulations and take such pains to ignore or hide the benefits. The real problem with “cost-benefit analysis” is that opponents of new regulations are simply unwilling to accept any agency analysis that justifies its regulation by showing benefits outweighing costs.

We saw this again play out this past Sunday. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is no doubt that the new greenhouse gas regulations, like so many of the clean air regulations that EPA has enacted over the years, will provide enormous benefits that far outweigh any costs. And yet, Rep. Blackburn continues to claim that “we need a cost-benefit analysis.”

The message is clear: Climate deniers won’t believe any “cost-benefit analysis” that helps make the case for new EPA climate change standards, and anti-regulation Republicans won’t believe in the benefits of any new (fill in the blank) regulatory standard from (fill in the blank) agency that they oppose. According to them, if the analysis doesn’t show that the regulation was a bad idea, then the agency must go back and repeat its cost-benefit analyses until the answer fits the talking point.

The message for supporters of regulation also should be clear: Putting too much stock in cost-benefit analysis has and will continue to backfire. Further legitimizing cost-benefit analysis only makes it easier for opponents of regulation to claim political cover in the future when they’re in a position to water down or toss out new regulations.

One only has to consider the way someone like Rep. Blackburn could use cost-benefit analysis as a weapon against life-saving regulations as a future EPA chief under a Republican Administration. That is a scary prospect for those, like Bill Nye, who care deeply about our country’s commitment to fighting climate change.

Amit Narang is the regulatory policy advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.