A brawl over numbers breaks out in cap-and-trade debate

Fuzzy math is back, with a climate twist.

From the halls of Congress to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, experts and politicians are hoisting conflicting numbers describing the cost of a cap on greenhouse gases, with amounts from $3,100 to $324 to zero being touted as the annual hit on households. As Congress returns this week, it will find a cloud of numerical discrepancies hovering over climate change legislation.

Republicans are claiming that the average family's wallet will get hit hard with global-warming regulation. Democrats are countering that the GOP is grossly exaggerating data from prominent universities for political gain. And interest groups are spatting about the mathematical meaning of the same studies.

"The battle rages on about numbers," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for utilities and wind developers. "It's yet another distraction from the hard questions that need to be answered."

Fights over figures are not new with global warming, but the stakes are high this time with a bill on the table and Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress. Many Republicans are trying to paint cap and trade as a painful tax, a tactic that some say will work and some say could make them even more of a minority.


Meanwhile, interest groups and industries are hiring more number crunchers to analyze everything from the likely price of emission allowances to the amount of carbon stored in trees.

Unlike the war in Iraq or pirate abductions, global warming inevitably is a topic defined by estimates and computer models. That distinction makes it vulnerable to attacks and creative interpretations from both sides of the political aisle, many analysts say.

'Wrong in so many ways'

The brawl that occurred over the past two weeks provides a case in point.

It started adding up with a 2007 study from MIT reporting that an old cap-and-trade bill from then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) would generate $366 billion in 2015. Republican congressional staffers divided that figure by the estimated number of U.S. households to conclude that the typical family would get hit with a $3,100 charge annually under a greenhouse gas cap.

"Anyone who has the audacity to flip on a light switch will be forced to pay higher energy bills thanks to this new tax increase," wrote House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) in one of a flurry of releases. The $3,100 figure then was echoed by several Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Democrats had their own data burst with a multi-page report stating that the costs to families would be one-fortieth of what Boehner claimed. They also trotted out their own number list with arguments that energy efficiency and renewable ramp-ups would save billions on electricity prices.

"Rep. Boehner and others don't mention that revenues from a carbon pollution control program could be returned to consumers, or used to invest in clean energy jobs," wrote Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee.

Then an MIT professor, John Reilly, plunged into the fray and said Boehner's conclusion "was wrong in so many ways." He said that the actual annual cost to families was roughly $340, although he later changed the amount to $800 in a second letter to the Republican leader.

Republicans proclaimed that Reilly was "factually inaccurate" in his response. Current Democratic proposals for cap-and-trade don't ensure yet that rebate money will be sent back to people, said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.

In an ensuing echo chamber, everyone from Ivy League professors to environmental groups chimed in about the price, or non-price, of cap and trade.

Robert Stavins, an economist at Harvard University, said there is widespread agreement among academics that the average cost to families of a carbon cap would be "affordable" and much less than $3,100. Many models put the price at about $1,000, and that's before rebates to consumers are considered, he noted.

But Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado political scientist, wrote in a blog posting last week that "emissions math is not complicated" and C02 reductions like those called for by Democrats would compromise economic growth.

Where are Harry and Louise when the Republicans need them?

Political analysts watching the data bits fly were divided on whether the rhetorical jabs would sum up to political traction or simply soar over most people's heads.

"It's always effective to claim that something is going to cost money, particularly in a recession," said Dane Strother, a Democratic political consultant.

He said the Boehner-Markey kerfuffle reminded him of the health care debate in 1993, when two characters in television advertisements, "Harry and Louise," complained about the numbers in then-President Clinton's health care bill. Many analysts credit those spots with helping sink health care reform in the minds of the American public.

Yet Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said that, unlike the Clinton health care plan, most Americans know little about the cap-and-trade bill introduced in the House. He added that many moderate Republicans are not engaging in the fight over numbers.

"When John Boehner speaks, his audience is people like [conservative talk show host] Rush Limbaugh," Ornstein said.

Emphasizing the cost to businesses rather than to families would be a more effective strategy for the GOP, considering the lobbying power of industries, said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

For Democrats, the best way to counterpunch is to focus on the cost of inaction on climate change, said Pitney. That would mean emphasizing that damage from things like floods and hurricanes -- which many scientific models say will become more prevalent with warming temperatures -- could cost millions to clean up.

There has been little outside research on the policy implications of number-wrangling, although a report from the RAND Corp. last week noted that climate "legislation that relies exclusively on cost-effectivness as a criterion is probably not going to survive the give-and-take of the political process."

Who will analyze the analysts?

Regardless, the numbers brawl will likely get louder and wider, considering that draft climate legislation introduced by Markey and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) this month postponed contentious decisions.

For example, the bill did not say how the money raised under a carbon cap would be divided up. There also are many empirical considerations in the weeks ahead, with congressional hearings examining the verification and measurement of greenhouse gas emissions, among other things.

U.S. EPA is preparing a new analysis of the economic impact of the Waxman-Markey legislation, which is sure to spark its own round of commentary. And more interest groups and business associations than ever before are drafting studies about the costs and financial benefits of a cap on greenhouse gases.

In the last two years, for example, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists created new positions solely for climate economists.

In some cases, organizations are spatting about the same set of data. On a conference call last week, Robert Pollin, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, slammed the conclusions of a report on cap and trade from the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Council for Capital Formation.

Part of the challenge for lawmakers is how this will play out with the American public. Already, many pollsters have documented that voters are confused about climate science, and the new swirl of contradictory price tags probably won't help.

Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied public opinion about climate change, thinks it may not make much difference. "Americans draw their conclusions about issues based on their values, not in terms of numbers the way social scientists and journalists do."

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