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Carly Fiorina did a 4-minute riff on climate change. Everything she said was wrong.

"It's important we bear down and do nothing about this."
"It's important we bear down and do nothing about this."
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Katie Couric recently interviewed Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, and the subject of climate change came up. They discussed it for over four minutes, likely marking the longest any national GOP political figure has spent talking about climate change in the past five years.

Conservatives are delighted with Fiorina's performance. Thrilled. Pumped. They think she crushed Couric and showed how to outwit liberals on climate change.

In fact, Fiorina's comments are a farrago of falsehoods and red herrings, a derp different in character from science-denial derp, but no less derpy.

The tightrope act of finding a moderate Republican message on climate change

The key to a "moderate" Republican position on climate change is that it has to neutralize the science debate, which party leaders have concluded is not favorable terrain. The Tea Party base remains staunchly wedded to science denialism, but everywhere else on the political spectrum (including among other Republicans), majorities now agree that climate change is a problem that warrants serious solutions. Denialism, concentrated in conservative white men, has become a liability among young people, Hispanics, and other demographics Republicans badly need to court.

So the trick for the aspiring Republican moderate is to acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change while maintaining opposition to any policy that might penalize fossil fuels or advantage renewable energy.

Jeb Bush has tried to do this, with little success. But Fiorina seems to have pulled it off, at least in the eyes of conservatives.

There's just one problem. After acknowledging the science at the outset, literally everything Fiorina says subsequently is false or misleading. And yes, I know what "literally" means.

From the dazzling array, I have chosen a representative (but not exhaustive) sample of 10 misleading or false statements to address below.

Here's the video:

1) "One nation, acting alone, can make no difference at all"

This is the argument du jour on the right, pushed most prominently by writers at the Cato Institute. The idea is that climate policy is all pain for no gain. For instance, they note that according to EPA's own model, the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing carbon emissions from power plants, will only avert 0.018°C of warming by 2100. Why bother?

This is a daft argument, for two reasons.

First, it's not true that one nation can make no difference at all (0.018 is not 0.000). It's just that a single policy by a single nation can make only a small difference.

But ... so what? Climate change is a big problem, global in scope, affecting this generation and all future generations. We don't have much experience with problems like that, but we know, via logic and math, that the only way to solve such a problem is for every major country to do its part, in a coordinated effort that is sustained over the remainder of the century. So America is doing its small part and working to coordinate with other countries doing the same, building a framework of trust that may allow for greater ambition down the road.

What's the alternative? Unchecked climate change will lead to immense suffering, concentrated in but not confined to the world's poorer countries. Unless we're willing to accept that suffering — and you never quite hear Republicans own up to that — we have to do our part.

Second, there's a growing body of research showing that an aggressive transition to clean energy pays for itself even aside from its effects on climate. Reducing the use of fossil fuels will have enormous "co-benefits," including better health, cleaner air and water, and a much lower fuel bill. And while renewable energy is still more expensive on average, its costs are rapidly falling, and most analysts expect it to outcompete most fossil fuels in most places within the next few decades. Cleantech industries are booming, offering great advantages to first movers. The transition is inevitable; only the speed is to be decided, and the winners and losers.

So "one nation, acting alone" can make a difference, by doing something that's worth doing anyway. And refusing to do it would be a gross abdication of moral leadership.

2) California "destroys lives and livelihoods with environmental regulations"

California's climate regulations are indeed the most ambitious in the nation, and they just keep getting more ambitious. (A pair of new climate bills has cleared the Senate and is headed to the Assembly.)

If California were its own country, it would be one of the world's top 10 in total renewable energy generation and one of the bottom two in carbon intensity. It is the top state in the nation for venture capital investments in cleantech, cleantech patents, and advanced-energy jobs. In fact, it leads the nation in virtually every cleantech category, from electric vehicles to green buildings to solar capacity to policy to investment, reliably topping the US Cleantech Leadership Index.

Meanwhile, between 1993 and 2013, thanks to energy efficiency, the average residential electricity bill in California declined, on an inflation-adjusted basis, by 4 percent, even as bills rose elsewhere in the country. Between 1990 and 2012, the state cut per-capita carbon emissions by 25 percent even as its GDP increased by 37 percent. Its total carbon emissions are declining, even as its economy continues to grow.

Oh, and California created more jobs than any other state in the nation last year, with the fifth-highest GDP growth rate. And its budget is balanced.

Looks like the state is surviving its environmental regulations so far.

3) "The answer to this problem is innovation, not regulation"

This is another recent Republican favorite — Jeb Bush has been testing it out as well. In practice, it typically means tax breaks for favored industries like natural gas and "clean coal." (If any Republican has a broader plan to spur clean-energy innovation, I haven't seen it.)

Innovation is a big and arguably undervalued piece of the climate policy puzzle, but there is no credible analyst on the planet who thinks that it will be possible to reduce emissions enough, or fast enough, purely through subsidizing R&D. On its own, it simply isn't a credible answer.

In reality, of course, it's not an either-or. The solution will inevitably be a mix of innovation, regulation, and investment, all three of which Obama has supported, not just regulation. The clean energy loans that conservatives now demonize through Solyndra were one attempt to spur innovation. The administration's funding of "regional innovation clusters" is another. But it realizes, as anyone who looks seriously at the issue does, that regulations are needed as well (and that regulations often spur innovation).

The implicit political promise embedded in "innovation, not regulation" is that some industries will gain, but none will suffer. That promise is not commensurate with serious climate policy.

4) "China could care less" if we try to reduce carbon

Republicans seem convinced that China is sitting back on a mountain of coal, laughing at us for fighting climate change. It is not so.

China clearly cares what the US does; it would not have made the promises it did in its climate pact with the US if Obama had not made policy gestures of good faith. It's true that China, like any country, acts primarily in its own interests, not based on what America does. But that's precisely why it's investing more in clean energy than any other country in the world ($89.5 billion to the US's $51.8 billion in 2014), even as it puts increasingly tight restrictions on coal, leading its coal consumption to decline for the first time in years. It cares very much about reducing its crippling air pollution and dominating 21st-century growth industries.

5) "China is delighted we're not spending any time or energy figuring out clean coal"

This makes no sense.

First, China very much wants affordable "clean coal" technology and would happily buy it from the US if the US developed it, so it has no reason to be delighted by the US's failures in the area.

Second, Fiorina seems to envision a booming market for "clean coal" that the US is in danger of losing out on. But coal power plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) have been behind schedule and over budget in the few cases they've been attempted. The only conceivable way they could compete in power markets is under a high carbon price or with heavy government subsidies.

But with renewable energy prices falling so fast that they're becoming competitive with dirty coal in more and more places, even absent subsidies, who is going to opt for a more expensive low-carbon option that requires billions of dollars of new infrastructure? Lots of people are convinced clean coal will eventually play a role, but at the very least it's a far less certain growth area than renewable energy and cleantech. If China is "delighted" by anything, it's delighted to be kicking our ass in renewable energy.

6) "Coal provides half the energy in this nation still"

No, it doesn't.

Coal provides 20 percent of the total primary energy used in the US.

It could be that Fiorina meant half the electricity in the US (electricity is only 40 percent of total energy consumption), but she would still be wrong. In 2014, coal produced 39 percent of US electricity. That number has been steadily declining.

7) "To say we're basically going to outlaw coal, which is what this administration has done..."

No, it hasn't.

US coal has taken a beating from natural gas, renewables, and efficiency — the market, in other words — but it still provides more than a third of US electricity. And EPA expects that under the Clean Power Plan, that share will be at 27 percent in 2030. That estimate is probably high, given how uncompetitive coal has become, but even if it drops to 20 percent, that's a fifth of US electricity and a long way from outlawed.

8) "Do we tell people the truth, that [wind technology] slaughters millions of birds?"

A recent peer-reviewed survey of bird mortality studies found that wind turbines kill between 214,000 and 368,000 birds a year, compared with 6.8 million that die from colliding with cell and radio towers and between 1.4 and 3.7 billion killed by cats. Wind turbines kill a relatively tiny number of birds.

And it's usually the older, poorly sited wind turbines that kill any. The conservation director for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds wrote of "the large body of science" that supports the contention that "appropriately located windfarms have negligible impacts" on birds. (A roundup of the evidence can be found here.)

Here's a comparison of bird kills by energy source, compiled by US News & World Report:

avian mortality by energy source

(US News & World Report)

Coal degrades and pollutes bird habitats at every stage of its life: extraction, transportation, burning, and ash disposal. ("Clean coal" would solve none of these problems.)

Meanwhile, according to the Audubon Society, hundreds of species of birds, including bald eagles, will be put at "serious risk" by climate change.

So, yes, let's tell people the truth about birds.

9) "Does anybody see how unsightly those huge wind turbines are?"

The poor communities where coal power plants, oil refineries, and other fossil fuel infrastructure tends to be located probably find those polluting facilities unsightly, but the aesthetic preferences of the poor do not get a lot of attention in media or politics. What gets headlines are people like Donald Trump and the Kennedys who don't want their expensive views of the open ocean marred by turbines sited miles out to sea. I wonder which kind of person Fiorina hangs out with more often.

Meanwhile, 71 percent of the American public thinks the country should put "more emphasis" on developing wind energy (many, many other polls find the same). Support is even higher in the states with the most wind turbines installed. There are more than 500 manufacturing facilities across 43 states making equipment for the wind industry.

People seem okay with the huge wind turbines.

10) "Solar is great, but solar takes huge amounts of water"

No, it doesn't.

All of the distributed rooftop solar in the US and 84 percent of utility-scale solar projects use solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which require no water at all save what's needed to keep their surfaces clean.

Only 16 percent of US solar power plants use concentrated solar power (CSP), which does require a lot of water. However, the shift from wet-cooled to dry-cooled systems can cut that consumption by up to 97 percent.

Overall, renewable energy's low water consumption gives it an enormous advantage over thermoelectric power sources:

water use for power plants


CSP = concentrated solar power; CC = combined-cycle; CPV = concentrated solar photovoltaic; PV = photovoltaic panels.

This derp is politically unstable

Fiorina's comments reveal the difficulty facing moderate Republicans on this issue. They want to put the science question behind them, but they don't seem to realize that once you acknowledge the science, you're trapped on a slippery slope. You have to explain how the policies you support produce the kind of carbon reductions the science implies are needed.

If you refuse to offer any credible policies, you end up in a worse place than science denialists like Ted Cruz. You've angered the conservative base with your "climate political correctness," but all everyone else has heard is that there's a huge problem you have no plan to solve.

However smooth Fiorina may be, in the end it's not going to make sense to voters to acknowledge the science of climate change and then say you're against every solution to it except handing out subsidies to the coal industry. That is some unstable derp. If I had to predict, I'd say political pressure will be such that Fiorina will either be forced back into outright denialism or she'll have to offer something less vaporous on the policy front. She won't be able to stay where she is.