Friday, May 24, 2013

No, Brad Plumer, Fixing the Economy First is not the Best Way to Pass a Climate Bill

When journalists report on the results of scientific studies—from social sciences like economics and psychology to physical sciences like biology—they often overstate the results and draw far more general conclusions that the study results themselves warrant.  At times, such exaggeration stems from the decisions of copy editors who seek attention-grabbing titles.

Earlier this week, in the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Brad Plumer had an article entitled "What’s the best way to pass a climate bill? Fix the economy first."  Thankfully, he took a more measured tone in the article itself; however, the title draws conclusions that the study presented and the current facts on the ground do not fully support.

In it, he cited the work of University of Oregon professor Grant Jacobsen, who analyzed the voting records of 296 senators between 1976 and 2008.  He matched the local unemployment rate in the senators' respective states with the "green scores" they achieved in the annual report card released by the League of Conservation Voters.
The result? “A one point increase in the [state] unemployment rate leads to a statistically significant 0.48 point decline in the LCV score of the average senator.”
This was true for senators in both parties, although conservatives saw a steeper decline. Incumbent Republicans saw their green scores fall by 0.83 percentage points, on average, for every one-point rise in local unemployment. Incumbent Democrats saw their scores fall by an average of 0.29 points.

Jacobsen also tried to figure out what would happen if unemployment hadn't risen throughout this period. He estimated that if each state had stayed at its lowest observed unemployment rate, “then the proportion of [Senate] votes taking the environmentally favorable outcome would have increased from 36% to 41%.”
In other words, even if unemployment hadn't risen, environmentally favorable votes would have still been a minority--and not a close one--of the Senate votes on environmental issues.  Looking more recently, the LCV scorecard for the House in 2012 was 42%; for the Senate, it was 56%.  In both cases, these scores roughly equal the percentage of the respective body in the Democratic caucus, interestingly enough--presumably as the worse Democrats and better Republicans and the good Democrats and awful Republicans cancel each other out. 

The shift in scores discussed by the study, although statistically significant, are still small, considering LCV scores follow a 0-100 scale, and we must also note that the LCV covers a wide array of environmental issues, not just climate change.  Because of regional interests, some senators may vote well on a handful of environmental topics and abysmally on others.

Seeing this study made me curious about the relationship between unemployment and pro-environment votes.  You can look at that data either longitudinally (as the study did) or latitudinally.

For a latitudinal analysis (across states at the same time), you can consider the question of whether the senators of states with lower unemployment rates tend to vote in a more pro-environment way.
Let's look at the LCV ratings for 2012 of the Senators of the states with the lowest unemployment rates and those with the highest unemployment rates.  The unemployment stats below are the average monthly unemployment from 2012 for each state.

Lowest Unemployment
(1) North Dakota ---  Unemployment rate: 3.1%    --- Avg. LCV Score: 50%
(2) Nebraska       ---  Unemployment rate: 3.9% --- Avg. LCV Score: 35.5%
(3) South Dakota ---  Unemployment rate: 4.4% --- Avg. LCV Score: 57%
(4) Vermont        ---  Unemployment rate: 5.0% --- Avg. LCV Score: 100%
(5) Iowa            ---  Unemployment rate: 5.2% --- Avg. LCV Score: 52%
(5) Oklahoma    ---  Unemployment rate: 5.2% --- Avg. LCV Score: 10.5%
(7) Wyoming       ---  Unemployment rate: 5.3% --- Avg. LCV Score: 7%
(8) New Hampshire - Unemployment rate: 5.4% --- Avg. LCV Score: 64.5%
(9) Minnesota   ---   Unemployment rate: 5.6% --- Avg. LCV Score: 93%
(10) Utah            --- Unemployment rate: 5.7% --- Avg. LCV Score: 7%

The average LCV score for the senators in the states with the 10 lowest unemployment rates is 49.55%.

Highest Unemployment
(41) Michigan    ---  Unemployment rate: 8.85% ---   Avg. LCV Score: 93%
(42) Illinois       ---   Unemployment rate: 8.86% ---  Avg. LCV Score: 82%*
(43) Georgia      ---  Unemployment rate: 8.95% ---  Avg. LCV Score: 7.5%
(43) South Carolina - Unemployment rate: 8.95% --- Avg. LCV Score: 14%
(44) Mississippi    --- Unemployment rate: 9.0% ---   Avg. LCV Score: 25%
(45) New Jersey  --- Unemployment rate: 9.4% ---   Avg. LCV Score: 96.5%
(47) North Carolina - Unemployment rate: 9.5% ---   Avg. LCV Score: 46.5%
(48) California      -- Unemployment rate: 10.5% ---  Avg. LCV Score: 100%
(49) Rhode Island  -  Unemployment rate: 10.8% --- Avg. LCV Score: 100%
(50) Nevada    ---    Unemployment rate: 11.5% --- Avg. LCV Score: 53.5%

*I used Kirk's lifetime score because he was out for 2012.

The average LCV score for the senators of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates is 61.8%.

In other words, across states at the same time, low unemployment rates don't necessarily translate to more environmentally-friendly voting behaviors. (It is possible, however, that a more comprehensive analysis, listing each variable on a separate axis and determining the line of regression, could prove a correlation; however, it does not appear to be a strong one.)

We can also consider the relationship between unemployment and pro-environment votes within a state over time.  If my tallies are correct, 65 Senators had a "green score" for 2012 greater than or equal to their historical average, and 34 Senators had a "green score" less than their historical average.  This occurred during an economic recession.  One year does not a trend make, and they very well might veer from the overall line of regression developed in Jacobsen's study.  However, that fact still challenges the logic of the "just fix the economy to get environmental votes"  recommendation. And considering the gridlock that we currently see in Congress, economic stimulus seems to be about as little of a priority to them as climate.

The "fix the economy first" claim downplays the employment dynamics in the various states that end up affecting how Senators vote, even though Plumer briefly addresses this fact.  Take, for instance, North Dakota, which is currently near full employment.  North Dakota's low unemployment rate is in large part a result of the state's oil boom.

According to Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States data, North Dakota's economy has outpaced every state since the "technical" end of the recession in 2009, with the fastest growth in personal income, tax revenue, job creation, and home prices.  That job growth has likely made North Dakota's senators less likely to support climate action because the key industry for their state's growth is one of the main drivers of climate change. It should come as no surprise that John Hoeven (R-ND) is one of the most vocal advocates for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Do you think that the fracking boom in Pennsylvania is going to make Senator Bob Casey, let alone Club for Growth-er Pat Toomey, more likely to vote for a climate bill that shifts us off fossil fuels?
Would the jobs created by Obama's expansion of offshore drilling make Gulf state senators like Mary Landrieu more likely to vote for a climate bill?

Of course not.

We must abandon the cliched "economy vs. environment" frame if we are to address the problem of climate change with the requisite urgency.  For one, it is not borne out by the facts:  the economic benefits of EPA regulations greatly outweigh their costs.   A far-reaching, comprehensive climate plan would also have to entail considerable public investment in labor re-training, infrastructure, energy, etc, and infrastructure spending has a more significant return on investment than other forms of government spending, such as defense, and would bring economic benefits.

As I noted earlier, even if we were at full employment, many senators--because of powerful state industries or their own ideology--would be hesitant to back a climate bill.  The climate bill from 2009/2010 failed back when the Democrats had a stronger majority in the Senate, and it only passed the House because a handful of Republicans crossed party lines to support it.  An improved economy would facilitate the passage of a climate bill only if the economy rebounded so much that it helped the Democrats have a landslide victory in 2014 elections; that's a great wish, but not a likely reality.
Climate change action in the near future will have to come from the White House, not the Senate or the House.  Last week, the NYT Editorial Board made the same assertion and laid out some of the executive actions the President could take to address climate change.  The Times highlighted three in particular:
As this page has noted, it is possible to adopt a robust climate strategy based largely on executive actions. The most important of these is to invoke the E.P.A.’s authority under the Clean Air Act to limit pollution from stationary industrial sources, chiefly the power plants that account for almost 40 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. The agency is reworking a proposed rule to limit emissions from new power plants. A more complex but no less necessary task is to devise rules for existing power plants, which cannot be quickly shuttered without endangering the country’s power supply, but which can be made more efficient or phased out over time.

Mr. Obama can also order the E.P.A. to curb the enormous leakage of methane, a potent global warming agent, from gas wells and the pipes that bring natural gas to consumers. .....
He can hasten the development of less-polluting alternatives to older-generation refrigerants and other chemicals. He can order the Energy Department to embark on a major program to improve the efficiency of appliances and commercial and residential buildings, which consume a huge chunk of the country’s energy supply. And he can ramp up investment in basic research.
If Obama were to take these actions, he'd be more likely to forge a positive legacy in the eyes of future generations than he would by continuing his misguided attempt for a "Grand Bargain" that would end up harming the economy.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the environmental movement is its abandonment of the working class and its ofttimes repeated hostility to working class interests.

    Do you not find it odd that loggers who were once the most radical of Wobblies are in the pocket of logging companies today? That miners who once fought armed battles against the corporations are nodding in agreement with the energy giants nowadays.

    And you should not be surprised that it is most often the alienated working class who make up the bulk of support for right-wing populist movements like the Tea Party in the U.S., the B.N.P. in Britain, the National Front in France, and the NPD in Germany. All are strongest in deindustrialized regions of the respective countries.

    When Greens begin to get a little Red in their program - they might be able to move beyond the margins politically.