Toying with Climate Information

Media last week rife with stories of misdirection

The news media and blogs were rife with stories last week about politicians and journalists alike manipulating information related to climate change.

The most significant was Friday’s New York Times front-page story by Andrew Revkin, “Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate.” The piece is about the Global Climate Coalition, a trade group representing fossil fuel interests. “For over a decade … [the coalition] led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.” But court documents obtained by Revkin reveal that:

[E]ven as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

Somebody should tell John Boehner. On the April 19 edition of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Boehner, the House minority leader, told his host, “George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical.”

The blogosphere, of course, wasted no time in peeling back the many layers of misunderstanding in Boehner’s comment. As Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm asked with fitting incredulity:

One of the GOP’s senior leaders thinks this debate is about whether carbon dioxide is a carcinogen? And thinks carcinogens harm the environment, rather than people? And thinks that cows are of concern because they produce carbon dioxide, rather than methane?

As Revkin’s article revealed, even the Global Climate Coalition’s science and technology advisory committee understood (in 1995 no less) that “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”

ABC’s Stephanopoulos repeatedly pressed Boehner on the point about carbon dioxide, but to little avail. The congressman stuck to the “humans-role-is-uncertain” line, but said greenhouse gas emissions are “an issue” and that he “thinks” the Republicans will produce a plan for addressing them.

We’ll see. ABC isn’t the only place where Boehner has been playing loose with information. Late last month, the St. Petersburg Times’s rebuked House Republicans for repeatedly claiming that a cap-and-trade scheme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would cost every American household $3,128 a year. To support their argument, Republican leaders have been citing a 2007 study (pdf) by M.I.T.’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, which found that a cap-and-trade system would generate an average of $366 billion per year. Republicans divided that figure by 117 million American households to come up with the $3,128.

That calculation is “just wrong,” M.I.T. energy economist John Reilly, one of the report’s authors, told PolitiFact. Furthermore, he had explained as much to “someone” from the House Republicans when they’d called a few days earlier. The GOP continued to tout the $3,128 figure, however. On April 1, Reilly sent an official letter (pdf) to Boehner reiterating his explanation that one cannot simply divide the revenues that would be generated from auctioning emissions permits under a cap-and-trade scheme and apply that to families:

The tax revenue collected through such an auction, the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the average impact on a household are very different concepts. Thus, there are several things wrong with this calculation.

Of utmost importance is the fact that Reilly and his colleagues assumed that the $366 billion per year in auction revenues would be returned to households in the form of direct rebates, public benefits, or federal deficit reduction. In the PolitiFact article, Reilly estimated that the average annual cost for a 2.5-member family would be about $215; in his letter to Boehner, he estimated that for a 4-member family it would be about $340.

Either way, the PolitiFact article and Reilly’s letter set off a media frenzy in which journalists and bloggers chided the GOP for deceiving the public. That, in turn, rankled The Weekly Standard, which complained last week that:

The falsity of the $3,100 per household cap-and-trade estimate became a well-established fact among members of the press. News outlets that reported Reilly’s criticism of the GOP’s figure included not only liberal outlets like The New Republic and The Washington Independent, but mainstream publications like Congressional Quarterly, The Hill, Politico, McClatchy, and The Wall Street Journal.

During the course of “a lengthy email exchange,” Reilly told The Weekly Standard that because of a mathematical error, the average annual cost of a cap-and-trade scheme for a 2.5-member family would be $800 rather than $215, as he’d told PolitiFact. As for the auction revenue, however, Reilly repeated the explanation he’d made to House Republicans that the money would be returned to households. Without that assumption, Reilly wrote to the Standard, “the cost would then be the Republican estimate [$3,128] plus the cost I estimate [$800].”

Apparently, however, the magazine wasn’t buying the returns thesis, and, mashing those two numbers together, ran with the headline, “Fuzzy Math: According to an MIT study, cap and trade could cost the average household more than $3,900 per year.”

The study said nothing of the sort, and neither has Reilly. In fact, The Weekly Standard quoted one e-mail in which the economist wrote that:

[N]o matter what happens this revenue gets recycled into the economy some way. In that regard, whether the money is specifically returned to households with a check that says “your share of GHG auction revenue”, used to cut someone’s taxes, used to pay for some government services that provide benefit to the public, or simply used to offset the deficit (therefore meaning lower Government debt and lower taxes sometime in the future when that debt comes due) is largely irrelevant in the calculation of the “average” household. Each of those ways of using the revenue has different implications for specific households but the “average” affect [sic] is still the same.

Of course, the “different implications for specific households” might be even more important to the viability of climate legislation than its “average effect” spread over the entire economy. The Weekly Standard’s article did make one valid point:

Most Americans probably care a great deal whether they would get to spend that $3,128 themselves or the government spends it on programs to put a chicken in every pot and a Prius in every garage.

Underneath that cynical language lays an important truth. Instituting a cap-and-trade system would be one of the most dramatic changes ever to the United States economy, and every detail must be considered carefully. But that is further reason why it is unfair to use the M.I.T. study, which is generalized, to draw conclusions about a specific piece of legislation such as the Waxman-Markey bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives in March. In an interview responding to The Weekly Standard’s article, Reilly explained as much to Romm at Climate Progress (who also took the opportunity to highlight an Environmental Protection Agency analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill which foresaw “a relatively modest impact on U.S. consumers”). Or, as Reilly put it in his April 1 letter to Boehner:

Many of the proposals currently being considered by Congress and as proposed by the Administration have been designed to offset the energy cost impacts on middle and lower income households and so it is simplistic and misleading to only look at the impact on energy prices of these proposals as a measure of their impact on the average household. Concern about the cost impacts on middle and low income families needs to be focused on making sure allowance or tax revenue is used to offset cost impacts on these households rather than as an excuse for not proceeding with measures that would help avert dangerous climate change.

It’s a monumental challenge, to be sure, especially with so many conservative politicians and journalists twisting scientific and economic research to their own ends.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.