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The Science Trump Got Wrong in the Post Interview


In a Nov. 27 interview with the Washington Post, President Donald Trump made a series of inaccurate statements. He questioned the cause of climate change, praised a nonexistent method for wildfire prevention and even recycled a long-debunked news story from the 1970s.

The president explained, among other things, why he does not accept the findings of the National Climate Assessment — a government report released on Black Friday that details the current and potential impact of climate change on the United States.

We’ve heard most of these ideas before, and have written about them already, so we’re doing a roundup of what the facts are in each case, with links to our past stories.

On why he was skeptical of the recently released Climate Assessment Report: “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean.”

Trump’s response conflates the impact of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on global warming and climate change with the impact of air and water pollution on the environment.

Traditional pollutants and carbon dioxide emissions can come from the same sources, such as motor vehicles and power plants. But the pollutants are regulated differently, and technologies that remove traditional air pollutants are widespread — whereas technologies to do the same for carbon dioxide are still being developed or are in limited use. As a result, air and water quality say little about a nation’s overall carbon footprint.

In fact, when it comes to greenhouse gases, the U.S. is one of the worst offenders. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2016 the U.S. produced more CO2 than any other country except for China.

Moreover, while air and water quality have generally improved over time, the U.S. is not the “cleanest” country — something Trump has claimed in the past.

America Not ‘Cleanest We’ve Ever Been’” Nov. 27, 2018

U.S. Not Ranked the ‘Cleanest’ Country” Aug. 23, 2018

Continuing his explanation of why he does not accept the findings of the Climate Assessment report: “If you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion.”

Trump appears to be referring to news articles from the 1970s that suggested the Earth might soon undergo a dramatic cooling. Other politicians in the past, including Sen. Ted Cruz, have made the same argument to rebut scientists’ concerns today about a warming world. (Cruz begins talking about climate change 14:24 into the video.)

In particular, a 1975 Newsweek story by journalist Peter Gwynne warned of cooler temperatures and reduced crop yields. But Gwynne later admitted he erred in his reporting, and critically, there was never a consensus among scientists at the time that global cooling was coming in the future. Even then, more scientists were worried about warming.

Cruz on the Global Cooling Myth and Galileo” March 27, 2015

On the causes of climate change: “As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.”

As another part of his response to the Climate Assessment Report, Trump rehashed the idea that climate change might not be due to human activity.

But climate scientists are not in doubt about this. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent assessment concluded that it is “extremely likely” — between a 95 and 100 percent probability — that the majority of the increase in global surface temperature between 1951 and 2010 was due to humans. This conclusion is even more confident than in previous reports.

Indeed, the National Climate Assessment unequivocally states, “Global average temperature has increased by about 1.8°F from 1901 to 2016, and observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations for this amount of warming; instead, the evidence consistently points to human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, as the dominant cause.”

Trump Wrong on Climate Change, Again” Oct. 18, 2018

On wildfires and forest management in California: “I was watching the firemen, and they’re raking brush — you know the tumbleweed and brush, and all this stuff that’s growing underneath. It’s on fire, and they’re raking it, working so hard, and they’re raking all this stuff. If that was raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire. It’s very interesting to see. A lot of the trees, they took tremendous burn at the bottom, but they didn’t catch on fire. The bottom is all burned but they didn’t catch on fire because they sucked the water, they’re wet. You need forest management, and they don’t have it.”

Here, Trump repeats the notion that if California had done forest raking, the state could have avoided two recent catastrophic fires.

Forest raking, however, is not a fire management technique. Timo Kuuluvainen, a forest scientist at the University of Helsinki, told us in an email, “Raking is not done in forests!!!”

And University of Arizona disturbance ecologist Erica Newman explained that while forest management is an important tool for limiting the severity of wildfires in certain types of ecosystems, it wouldn’t have helped in either of California’s latest fires. The Woolsey Fire burning in Southern California wasn’t consuming trees, but rather a type of woody shrubbery called chaparral — and management can make fire risk go up. And the Camp Fire in Northern California was driven by wind, meaning that removal of trees or other flammable material wouldn’t have prevented its spread.

Trump Repeatedly Errs on California Wildfires” Nov. 20, 2018

Warming to Blame for Western Wildfires?” Oct. 10, 2017

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"If you go back and if you look at articles [in the 1970s], they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion.”
Washington Post Interview
Tuesday, November 27, 2018