The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan was conceived as the starting point in a global effort to slow climate change whose direct impact on worldwide CO2 emissions was expected to be quite modest; then-EPA administrator Gina McCarthy acknowledged that the plan would "in and of itself ... not make all the difference we need to address climate action."
McCarthy did not say the plan would have no effect on man-made CO2 emissions or global warming.
During a March 2017 appearance on the HBO television show Real Time with Bill Maher, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) was asked to defend the Trump administration's announced rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan (CPP), an EPA initiative seeking to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants:
Bill Maher: "I just never understand what Republicans don't get about you have to breathe too! You do realize that when there's more coal burned, more people get cancer? That's one of many things that is a result of global warming. Cancer. Cancer!"
Rick Santorum: "You do know that the EPA director under Obama said the Clean Power initiative would have no effect on man-made CO2 emissions. That's what she said. Go look it up."
Santorum's claim wasn't uttered in a vacuum. Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) made a similar statement during his run for the presidency in September 2015:
This is an issue where, we're talking about my state, it's thousands of manufacturing jobs. Thousands of manufacturing jobs for a rule the Obama administration['s] own EPA has said will have a marginal impact on climate change.
Did the Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President Obama, Gina McCarthy, ever actually make such statements? Not that we could find. We did encounter instances in which her reluctance to disagree with such remarks under questioning were misrepresented as affirmative statements, however.
For example, a July 2014 article posted by the Institute for Energy Research purported to quote McCarthy admitting the proposed plan would have "no impact on climate":
At a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week, McCarthy admitted that the rule would have no impact on climate, but that it would instead “impact the tone and tenor of [climate] discussions.” [emphasis added]
Here’s the exchange between McCarthy and Senator Barrasso:
Barrasso: "So the question is: can you guarantee success in Paris [on climate change], and, if not, are these climate change policies all pain for America and the citizens of this country, and little gain globally?"
McCarthy: "Sir, what I know about this rule is that it will leave the United States in 2030 with a more efficient and a cleaner energy supply system and more jobs in clean energy, which are the jobs of the future. So, no matter what happens internationally, this is of significant benefit to the United States in terms of those kids in the audience who want to breathe healthy air and don’t want [to get] sick."
Barrasso: "So you admit that it has no impact on global climate."
McCarthy: "No, it will have a significant impact on the tone and tenor of the discussions."
McCarthy, when given the chance, did not claim the regulation would impact the actual climate in any way, but only “discussions” about the climate.
What we learned upon reviewing the video and transcript of the exchange, however, is that McCarthy's so-called "admission" would be more accurately described as a refusal to accept Barrasso's narrow framing of the question (via C-SPAN):
Barrasso: “So the question is, can you guarantee success in Paris? And if not, aren’t these climate change policies all pain for America and the citizens of this Country and little gain globally?”
McCarthy: “Sir, what I know about this rule is that it will leave the United States in 2030 with a more efficient and a cleaner energy supply system, and more jobs in clean energy, which are the jobs of the future. So no matter what happens internationally, this is of significant benefit to the United States in terms of those kids in the audience who want to breathe healthy air and don’t want their kids to get sick.”
Barrasso: "So you admit that it has no impact at all on global climate."
McCarthy: "No, it will have a significant impact in the tone and tenor of the discussion."
Barrasso: "Well, no impact on global climate, though, you admit that. You do. You never said anything about how this will impact global climate."
Chairman Boxer: "Just a moment. Could you freeze for a moment? Freeze the clock. I don’t think we should be putting words in anybody’s mouth. She never said what you said she said. So can you just refine what you said? In other words, you take from her response something that she didn’t say what you said. It is just not right."
Barrasso: "Thank you, Madam Chairman. I take from your response and from the Secretary of State’s comments that no matter, that these proposals that you are putting forth will have no impact on global climate as a result of the failure of others to cooperate as the Secretary of State has stated."
As we have seen, excerpts from the exchange were subsequently used precisely to put words in McCarthy's mouth.
Another version appears to have originated from testimony McCarthy gave before the U.S. House Science Committee in July 2015. This is how she responded when chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) challenged her to defend the CPP against criticisms that it would barely reduce global warming at all:
Smith: "On the Clean Power Plan, former Obama Administration Assistant Secretary Charles McConnell said at best it will reduce global temperature by only one one-hundredth of a degree Celsius. At the same time it’s going to increase the cost of electricity. That’s going to hurt the lowest income Americans the most. How do you justify such an expensive, burdensome, onerous rule that’s really not going to do much good and isn’t this all pain and no gain."
McCarthy: "No sir, I don’t agree with you. If you look at the RIA we did, the Regulatory Impact Analysis, you would see it’s enormously beneficial."
Smith: "Do you consider one one-hundredth of a degree to be enormously beneficial?"
McCarthy: "The value of this rule is not measured in that way. It is measured in showing strong domestic action which can actually trigger global action to address what’s a necessary action to protect…"
Smith: "Do you disagree with my one one-hundredth of a degree figure? Do you disagree with the one one-hundredth of a degree?"
McCarthy: "I’m not disagreeing that this action in and of itself will not make all the difference we need to address climate action, but what I’m saying is that if we don’t take action domestically we will never get started and we’ll never…"
Smith: "But if you are looking at the results, the results can’t justify the cost and the burden that you’re imposing on the American people, in my judgment."
Clearly, McCarthy did not say, nor did she want to be taken as saying, that the Clean Power Plan would have little or no impact. She neither agreed nor disagreed with the specific claim that global temperatures would be reduced by only one one-hundredth of a degree. Instead, she (again) expressed the view that the plan was designed to be a starting point for wider global action, not an immediate, one-off remedy for global warming.
Where did the "one one-hundredth of a degree" figure come from? Smith correctly attributed it to another ex-Obama official, former assistant secretary of energy Charles McConnell (2011-2013), who became a vocal critic of the Clean Power Plan. In 2014, he wrote:
This Clean Carbon Plan does not — let me repeat — this plan does not impact CO2 levels or climate change in any relevant or impactful way. Discussion about implementation and policy and economic impact abounds, but the fundamental truth is that this rule-making does not reduce CO2 or greenhouse gas to affect the climate. So how disingenuous is it to talk about climate change, jobs, our future, implementation, etc.? We're acting as if it is meaningful discussion for our citizens, and it masks the facts.
These are the facts for EPA 111(d), if fully implemented:
- A 0.18 percent reduction in global CO2 output for the period up until 2030.
- A resulting 0.01 degree Celsius impact to global temperature.
- A resulting impact of the lessening of global sea rise by an amount equal to one-third the thickness of a dime.
McConnell didn't say how these estimates were generated, but they are in the same ballpark as others calculated with a climate modeling tool used by the EPA itself called Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse-Induced Climate Change (MAGICC).
Immediate reductions in global CO2 emissions and temperatures were not among the benefits touted in a fact sheet on the plan published by the EPA in August 2015.