Any time a politician makes an argument using a single, simple statistic, it is worth investigating its origins. That is especially true when that politician is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.).
Take, for example, her claim at last week's CNN town hall on climate change that 70 percent of airborne carbon pollution comes from three industries. Warren made this argument in response to a question about whether the government should tell people which lightbulbs they have to use.
"This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we're all talking about," she said. "They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, straws, and cheeseburgers when 70% of the pollution of the carbon that we're throwing into the air comes from three industries." Because this is 2019, Warren also posted the claim on Instagram.
So, which three industries are to blame? The helpful fact-checkers at Politifact looked into this question and found the source of Warren's statistic.
It does not show that three industries are to blame.
Instead, Warren's claim comes from an Environmental Protection Agency's document stating that more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to three sources. The first is "transportation," which accounts for about 29 percent of emissions. The second is "electricity production," which accounts for about 27 percent.
You may have noticed that these are both activities, not industries. Transportation, in particular, encompasses a variety of different economic sectors, from trucking and freight rail to personal air travel and driving—which is to say, the sort of individual consumer economic decisions that Warren says are a distraction.
You may be thinking: This is just quibbling. But then we come to the third category, which accounts for about 22 percent of emissions. And this is where things get weird. The third category is just…"industry." All of it.
"Industry," I think it is fair to say, is not an industry. If just three industries are responsible for all carbon emissions, then "industry"—the catch-all term for the entirety of industrial activity in the country—cannot be one of them.
Warren's campaign has been more careful about characterizing the sources of carbon emissions in other forums. But it's still telling that this was how Warren chose to frame the issue in a major cable news forum and that her team made the decision to re-post the moment on social media. And it is representative of a tendency of Warren's that I explored at length in the latest issue of Reason: It is a framing that, while based in a legitimate source, is presented in a way that seems designed to mislead for political convenience.
In this case, her characterization is presumably intended to leave the impression that the bulk of emissions come from a few powerful bad actors, that the only people who would be affected by her energy plans would be rich industrialists with well-waxed mustaches who own large buildings with menacing smokestacks. In Warren's telling, they are the ones who will be hurt, rather than, say, ordinary people driving cars and heating their homes and buying light bulbs and perhaps even hoping to enjoy hamburgers or tasty beverages with straws that do not crumple into damp napkins when you use them. It was Warren's way of implying, without quite saying so, that this won't really affect you.
As John Reilly, the co-director of MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, told Politifact, Warren's response "may lead to the implication that the cost of reducing these emissions will fall on industry. To the extent that myth is perpetuated, that is a problem. One way or another, we will all bear the cost of doing things differently."
Indeed, it is worth noticing what Warren did not say—whether the government has a role in regulating which light bulbs consumers use. She called this question, and others like it, distractions. But if anything, it is Warren's own response that appears to have been constructed to distract from the issue at hand.
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