Recently Vox posted an article about Carly Fiorina, in rebuttal to her recent interview with Katie Couric. In this interview, she made a few classical conservative arguments criticizing Obama’s actions on Climate Change, and was lauded by conservatives for her performance in the interview. I am someone who objects to many of the assertions she makes, as does the author of the piece, David Roberts. However, I did stumble across some puzzling data when reading his refutation of Fiorina’s talking points. In his article, I believe Roberts tries to mislead his readers, as well as uses incorrect economic data to support his points.

My Objections to the Vox article

When Roberts criticizes Fiorina’s assertion that “[California] destroys lives and livelihoods with environmental regulations”, he says “Between 1990 and 2012, the state cut per-capita carbon emissions by 25 percent even as its GDP increased by 37 percent”. Wait a second. 37 percent over 22 years? That doesn’t sound so great - less than two percent a year without even taking compounding into account (with compounding, its closer to 1 percent). Off hand, I just happen to know that 2 percent a year is on the low-end for national GDP growth, so what does this below-average growth imply? What is the point Roberts is trying to make?

  • Fiorina says that these regulations have hurt people in the industries that they affected. The claim that somehow overall GDP growth would mean that this wasn’t the case is not cogent. The fact that California’s economy is growing has really nothing to do with how some subset of it’s population has fared in the meantime.
  • Now, let’s put the validity of his implication aside here and just consider his use of this statistic on its face. Merely stating that California’s economy has grown at a rate of 1.44% really doesn’t say anything on it’s own. How does that compare to the U.S. growth rate? What about per capita growth? When someone uses a statistic in such a careless way, it’s hard to believe that they studied that facts and then came to their conclusions as a result of their findings. It seems more likely that Roberts knew what he wanted to say, and went lazily looking for some numbers which might ostensibly support it. Using the growth rate like this, without comparing it to a baseline (either historical or geographical) seems negligent at best, and at worst deceitful.
  • These first two issues I have are not saying Roberts is wrong, but just that his statements are misleading. The thing is, he also is wrong. If you, like me, thought it was weird that the 8th largest economy in the world was growing at what is a snails pace (1.44%) compared to other state and world economies, it’s because it’s not true. If you look at data from the Federal Reserve, it shows a total growth from 1997 to 2012 of 49.6%, which translates to a compound annual growth rate of 2.72%. This actually compares favorably to the U.S. growth rate over this time of 2.06%. So yes, economic growth in California did fare quite well as the state slashed it’s carbon emissions. However, why (or in the case of negligence, how) Roberts misstated these figures is confounding.

The real issue with Fiorina’s comments

I mentioned earlier that I am actually not sympathetic to Fiorina’s arguments against addressing climate change. Fiorina’s statement that regulations “destroy lives and livelihoods” is problematic, but not because California’s economy has grown. It is just the most hyperbolic way to describe the way that the energy sector has changed over the past 25 years. Even without government intervention, industries change and evolve over time. Sure, California’s policies may have accelerated job loss in the the coal industry, but it’s not like they reduced aggregate demand for energy. There is no direct causal link between the regulation in California and the explosions of it’s clean energy sector, but it would be naive to think that they weren’t related. The energy sector in California has changed, but to say “lives and livelihoods [were destroyed]” just isn’t an honest description of what seems to be a normal market shift, whether it was motivated by market or regulatory forces.

Friends like these

It is possible that I misinterpreted the counterpoints Roberts presents. So I put together a spreadsheet of GDP data for the US and California from 1990 to today. No matter how I slice it, I can’t figure out a way to get the 37 percent number that Roberts quotes. If I have somehow misinterpreted his statements, it is not for lack of trying to understand them.

I’m not sure what it will take to change the minds of climate-change skeptics like Fiorina. Articles like this squander the one thing that “climate hawks” like myself and Roberts have on our side - the facts. I often find it frustrating to hear conservative arguments against climate change - how could people not see how bad the effects of climate change could be? However, with allies like Roberts, it’s not hard to see why I encounter so many enemies.