Near the end of her turn on CNN’s climate change town-hall-a-thon, host Chris Cuomo asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren about lightbulbs. Specifically, if the government should be telling people the kind of lightbulbs they can have.
The Democratic presidential candidate cast the issue as a diversion from the real task at hand.
"This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we're all talking about," Warren 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."
After the town hall, Warren repeated the 70% statistic on Instagram.
We wondered which three industries the Democratic presidential candidate had in mind.
Warren’s campaign directed us to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency’s page on the sources of greenhouse gas emissions shows that three sectors —transportation, electricity production and industry — account for 78% of the American total.
But those are activities, not industries in themselves. Transportation, the biggest of the three, includes the cars people drive and the flights they take for business and pleasure.
"It is strange, obviously, to say ‘three industries’ with one of them being ‘industry,’" said the co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change John Reilly.
The focus on industry, Reilly said, shifts attention away from the broader ways that energy consumption is woven into the fabric of American life.
"This may lead to the implication that the cost of reducing these emissions will fall on industry," he said. "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."
The climate researchers we reached said Warren’s term was off the mark. Where they differed was on the significance. In contrast to Reilly, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said he didn’t find it to be a major issue.
As it turns out, Warren has used the 70% figure in a couple of ways that are more accurate, without saying "industries."
Earlier during the town hall, Warren said she wanted to focus on "the three areas where we get the most carbon pollution in America right now."
"They're in our buildings and homes, right? What we're burning. It's our cars and light-duty trucks that we drive. And it's the generation of electricity where we're still using a lot of carbon-based fuel to make that happen."
Eliminating the carbon footprint in all three by 2035 would, she said, "cut 70% of the carbon that we are currently spewing into the air."
That’s a slightly different mix of sources, and based on the EPA numbers, they add up to the reduction Warren claimed.
In her $1 trillion clean energy plan that Warren posted a day before the town hall, she was fully accurate.
"Electricity, transportation, buildings, and related commercial activity are responsible for nearly 70% of all U.S. carbon emissions," she wrote.
Warren said that three industries account for 70% of the carbon that goes into the air. That’s imprecise. It is accurate to say that transportation, producing electricity and industry writ large are the three largest sources of greenhouse gases and represent more than 70% of the problem. But those are activities, not industries. Individual Americans as well as companies contribute to the situation in ways that are often intertwined.
Warren herself has been more accurate in her energy plan and even during the town hall itself. But she pushed the focus on industry on social media, and climate change researchers say that word doesn’t fit with the 70% figure she used.
We rate this claim Half True.
CNN, Climate change town hall, Sept. 4, 2019
Elizabeth Warren, Instagram, Sept. 4, 2019
Elizabeth Warren, My plan for 100% clean energy, Sept. 3, 2019
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, accessed Sept. 5, 2019
Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Global emissions, accessed Sept. 5, 2019
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Global Emissions by Economic Sector, accessed Sept. 5, 2019
Email exchange, John Reilly, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, MIT Sloan School of Management, Sept. 5, 2019
Email exchange, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Sept. 6, 2019
Email exchange, Jennifer Francis, atmospheric research professor, Rutgers University, Sept. 6, 2019
Email exchange, Warren press office, Sept. 5, 2019
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