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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s False ‘Facts’ on the Environment

Just as CNN was beginning its climate town hall event, President Donald Trump tweeted a list of “8 facts” boasting of the nation’s air quality and carbon emissions reductions. Several of his “facts,” however, are inaccurate or misleading.

Contrary to the president’s claims, the United States — not China — is responsible for having released more carbon pollution than any other nation. Trump also erred when he said that no Americans live in regions with air pollution above the World Health Organization’s guideline level.

The president’s counterprogramming arrived minutes after the first Democratic presidential candidate took the stage to talk about climate change. CNN dedicated seven hours to the event, which gave 10 of the top-polling candidates 40 minutes each to explain how they would approach the issue as president.

In his Twitter thread, Trump began with carbon emissions before moving on to some of his favorite topics, including energy production and clean air and water.

Many of Trump’s claims are things we’ve heard before, so we’ll review the repeats here and also explain a few of the new ones. 

On carbon emissions. The president kicked off his list by touting America’s progress on reducing pollution and claiming that China “has dumped the most carbon into the air.” 

As we’ve explained before, since 2000, the United States did make the largest absolute reduction in emissions of any country. But large absolute reductions are only really possible in big countries full of people who pollute a lot per person. 

In terms of a percent decline in emissions, many industrialized nations in Europe have bested America. Denmark slashed its emissions by 34% between 2000 and 2016, while France scored a 20% cut, and the United Kingdom made a 29% cut. In comparison, the U.S. managed only a 14% decline over the same period, and remains the second highest overall polluter and the 10th highest per capita polluter.

Trump’s claim that China “has dumped the most carbon into the air” is false. China is currently the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but historically, the United States has dumped more carbon into the atmosphere. According to the Global Carbon project, the U.S. has released 399 billion tons of carbon dioxide between 1751 and 2017, more than any other nation on Earth. China is second, with 200 billion tons. The U.S. accounts for 25% of global cumulative emissions, while China’s share is 13%.

International Energy Agency data for 2016 also show that China is not one of the biggest per capita polluters. It comes in at number 39 — 29 spots after the U.S.

For more, see:Trump Twists Facts in Environmental Speech,” Nov 28, 2018

On air pollution. The president’s third fact was that 91% of the world’s population is “exposed to air pollution above the World Health Organization’s suggested level.” This is true. The WHO features the statistic on its website, and a nearly identical 90% appeared in a press release when the group announced updates to its ambient air quality database in 2018. But Trump went on to say that “NONE ARE IN THE U.S.A.!” That’s false. 

While most Americans aren’t exposed to air pollution above the WHO’s guidelines, some are. According to a fact sheet prepared by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, as of 2016, about 15% of the country lives in a county that fails to meet the WHO’s standards on particulate pollution. The sheet notes that Fresno, California, for example, has pollution levels that are twice the recommended level, and other places in California and the Midwest are also above the guideline level.

The WHO’s interactive map of air pollution also refutes the president’s categorical claim. While much of the country appears green, indicating the area meets the standard for the smallest and most dangerous form of particulate pollution known as PM2.5, there are patches of the nation that are yellow or orange and exceed those limits. Those places include multiple locales in California, an area outside of Chicago and scattered spots across the Midwest. Readings from individual cities such as Bakersfield, Houston and Steubenville, Ohio, also show places above the 10 micrograms per cubic meter guideline for PM2.5 and the 20 microgram per cubic meter guideline for PM10.

Overall, the WHO data make the case that there is much less air pollution in the United States than in most of the world. But Trump is wrong to say that no Americans suffer from air pollution levels above the WHO guideline.

On energy production. Trump also claimed, as he has before, that the U.S. “now leads the world in energy production.” 

The United States, however, is not the top energy producer, at least according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The most recent global figures from the EIA put the U.S. behind China in 2016 when counting total primary energy, or the total of all fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewables.

Under Trump, energy production has expanded, but not to a degree that eclipses China’s production in 2016. The U.S. produced 96 quadrillion Btus in 2018, which did not exceed China’s 2016 total of 107 quadrillion Btus.

The U.S. has become the largest producer of crude oil — a threshold the nation crossed last summer, although the title was long expected. The U.S. was already No. 1 for natural gas and petroleum production before Trump took office.

For more, see:Trump’s Campaign Kickoff Claims,” June 19 and FactChecking Trump’s Energy Boasts,” June 8, 2018

On clean air and water. The president twice referenced clean air and water in his list of purported facts, first claiming America has the “cleanest and safest air and water” and later implying that he is responsible for the accomplishment.

This is one of Trump’s favorite environmental subjects, but by several metrics, the U.S. does not rank first in the world. And there is little evidence to suggest the administration has made air or water quality better.

As we’ve written previously, the 2018 Environmental Performance Index positions the U.S. 10th overall for best air quality and 29th for water and sanitation. On drinking water, America is ranked No. 1 along with nine other nations. But on water resources, or a measure of effective wastewater management, the U.S. comes in at No. 39, and on air pollution, a middling 83rd.

Before ending his Twitter thread, Trump indicated he should be given credit for the nation’s air and water quality. “I want crystal clean water and the cleanest and the purest air on the planet – we’ve now got that!” he said, listing the sentence as his eighth fact. 

But the U.S.’s only top ranking for drinking water predates Trump. As we’ve said, the ranking used 2016 data, and therefore does not reflect any change under Trump. 

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency also do not document any meaningful improvement on air quality under Trump. Some air quality trends have gotten better between 2016 and 2018, according to the EPA’s latest report. But others, including concentrations of two kinds of particulate matter and the number of days with unhealthy levels of air pollutants for sensitive groups, have worsened.

For more, see:Trump Twists Facts in Environmental Speech,” July 10, Trump Bungles Climate Change in UK,” June 7 and U.S. Not Ranked the ‘Cleanest’ Country,” Aug. 23, 2018