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FactChecking Biden’s CNN Town Hall

In a televised town hall, former Vice President Joe Biden made several false or misleading statements while commenting on climate change, veterans and health care:

  • Before describing the effects of climate change on his home state of Delaware, Biden incorrectly said the state was “only 3 feet above sea level.” Parts of the state are at that elevation or lower, but the average across the state is 60 feet above sea level.
  • Biden also said two-thirds of his state is “in jeopardy” and that there are “close to a trillion dollars of loss up and down the coast.” While sea level rise is a real problem for Delaware, the coastal loss estimate is unsupported, and only 8% to 11% of the state is projected to lose land mass by 2100, not two-thirds of the state.
  • Asked about expanding a veterans benefit program, Biden said that “only 1% of our population serves” in the military. Less than 1% of Americans actively serve in the military, but veterans make up 7.1% of the civilian population 18 years and older.
  • Biden falsely claimed that a $30 trillion to $40 trillion price tag over 10 years for Medicare for All would be more than the “entire federal budget on a yearly basis.” Government estimates for spending under current law are higher than that.
  • He also boasted that his health care plan would “immediately cover everybody,” but his campaign website doesn’t go that far, saying the plan would reach “more than an estimated 97% of Americans.”

The presidential town hall was held in Iowa, which will be the first state to hold a primary for the 2020 election, and aired on CNN on Veterans Day.

Sea Level Rise

Biden’s comments on sea level rise came in response to a college student’s question about what he would do to protect Iowans from the effects of climate change. He started his reply by referencing the dangers to his state of Delaware.

Biden, Nov. 11: It’s not just you. I live in a state that’s only 3 feet above sea level. No, no, I mean it sincerely. And my entire two-thirds of my state are in jeopardy, OK? And there are close to a trillion dollars of loss up and down the coast, OK?

Biden went on to say that if elected president, he would rejoin the Paris climate accord, which President Donald Trump has begun to exit, and work to make those commitments stronger, along with reducing transportation emissions by building better rail systems and creating half a million new electric vehicle charging stations.

There is no question that Delaware is a low-lying state that is especially at-risk from climate change-related sea level rise, which is happening on a global scale as warmer temperatures melt land ice and increase the volume of oceans through thermal expansion. But each of the former vice president’s statements about Delaware is either incorrect, requires more context or is unsupported.

Delaware has the lowest average elevation of any state, but it’s not “only 3 feet above sea level,” as Biden claimed. Instead, the statewide average is 60 feet above sea level. A recent elevation map from the Delaware Geological Survey shows that while a thin strip of much of the coast is 5 feet or less above sea level, the bulk of the state stands at higher elevation.

John Callahan, an associate scientist at the Delaware Geological Survey, noted that Biden owns a beach house in a region known for flooding due to high tides and storms. He said the house, which is just north of Rehoboth Beach, would be around 3 to 5 feet above sea level, with nearby Cape Henlopen State Park at an even lower elevation.

Biden also said “two-thirds of my state are in jeopardy” and that “there are close to a trillion dollars of loss up and down the coast.” These statements are somewhat vague, but if interpreted to mean the impact of sea level rise on Delaware, they are misleading or unsupported. Biden’s campaign did not respond to our requests for clarification or for sources backing these loose statistics.

According to a 2017 report by scientists at the University of Delaware and the Delaware Geological Survey, relative to 2000, sea level rise in Delaware is projected to increase by 0.52 to 1.53 meters, or approximately 1.7 to 5 feet, by the end of the century. Delaware’s Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee previously estimated that a very similar level of rise would inundate approximately 8% of the state’s land area at the low end, and 11% at the high end. That’s an incredible amount of lost land, but it is significantly less than what might be inferred when Biden said an “entire two-thirds” of the state is “in jeopardy.”

At the same time, Callahan said he suspected that Biden was thinking of sea level rise in terms of counties rather than land area, and in that regard, Biden is correct. Delaware has only three counties: the more densely populated northern county of New Castle, the central county of Kent and the southern county of Sussex. The coastal areas of the two southern counties are and will be most significantly impacted by sea level rise, Callahan said, although the northern county will also see some effects. “Focusing on the bottom 2 counties re: coastal issues is not that uncommon,” he said, adding that it’s typical for people to use thirds to refer to portions of the state, and that often when thinking about coastal topics, people use the same fractions. Still, he acknowledged that only a portion of the counties would be impacted. When considering all the effects of climate change, such as increased temperatures and heavy rains, he said, “much of the state is in trouble.”

As for coastal losses, we found no evidence that there have been or will be nearly $1 trillion in losses due to sea level rise in Delaware. Callahan also said he didn’t know of any studies that estimated losses that high. 

A 2019 report from Columbia University and the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit that does flood risk modeling, found that between 2005 and 2017, Delaware lost nearly $300 million in property value from increased tidal flooding due to sea level rise. For the entire Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast, the collective total was $15.8 billion in losses over the same time period.

In 2018, the nonprofit advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists also estimated that by 2100, around 24,000 properties in Delaware, currently valued at $1.3 billion, would be at risk from flooding at least 26 times per year, assuming a high level of warming. For the entire contiguous U.S., properties valued at $1 trillion are at risk. The analysis does not assume any adaptation measures and does not factor in population growth. 

Other reports also suggest Biden’s figure is too high. In a 2017 technical report for the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the Environmental Protection Agency projected approximately $31 billion in cumulative costs between 2000 and 2100 for coastal properties in New Jersey and Delaware, assuming moderate or high degrees of warming (see page 117). This includes some $19 billion from abandoned property, as well nearly $10 billion to armor the shoreline.

The general point Biden was making is correct: Delaware is especially vulnerable to climate change via sea level rise. Callahan said that the Delaware region has experienced approximately twice the amount of sea level rise as the global average. That’s partly because the land in Delaware is sinking and because of changes in ocean circulation patterns and reduced gravitational attraction as ice sheets melt, which bumps up the local water level.

Military Service

Asked about his support for expanding a veterans benefit program, Biden said, “The fact of the matter is, only 1% of our population serves.” While a little less than 1% of Americans currently are on active duty in the military or serving in the reserves, veterans make up 7.1% of the civilian population 18 years and older.

Biden’s statement came in response to a question from Dave Degner, a veteran of the Army Reserve who is running for the state Senate in Iowa. Degner asked if Biden would extend lifetime GI Bill benefits to all veterans.

Biden said he “would attempt to do that.” Biden said the government has a “sacred obligation” to protect its veterans, and added, “The fact of the matter is, only 1% of our population serves.”

That’s not accurate for U.S. military veterans, the subject of the question. According to the U.S. Census, there are nearly 18 million U.S. veterans, constituting 7.1% of the civilian population 18 years and older.

In late 2017, there were a total of 1.3 million active duty military members, about 0.5% of the adult civilian population, according to Department of Defense personnel data reported in Governing magazine. And there were another 800,000 reserve forces. Together, that comes to a little less than 1% of the adult civilian population.

Health Care Repeats

Biden also repeated two false claims he has made before about Medicare for All and his own health care plan.

He claimed that Medicare for All, the health care plan backed by some of his Democratic rivals, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, would cost more than the entire federal budget. That’s not accurate.

Biden: This is going to cost between $30 trillion and $40 trillion over 10 years. The entire federal budget on a yearly basis is less than it will cost on a yearly basis to provide for Medicare for All, number one.

As we wrote during the October Democratic debate, Medicare for All — which would cover everyone by transitioning to a government Medicare-like universal health care plan — could cost at least $30 trillion over 10 years, according to estimates by the Urban Institute and another by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. We don’t know a precise cost, because many of the details of the plan have yet to be determined, but those two groups estimated the federal government cost would be $32 trillion or $32.6 trillion over 10 years.

Biden is wrong, however, that those estimates are more than the “entire federal budget.” In August, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that federal spending, or outlays, for 2019 would total $4.4 trillion, and over 10 years, from 2020 to 2029, spending would total $57.8 trillion.

Plus, Biden leaves out the fact that while federal government spending would increase substantially under Medicare for All, health spending by everyone else — individuals, employers, local governments and insurers — would be eliminated or reduced substantially. Total national health expenditures were $3.5 trillion in 2017 and are projected to be $47 trillion over 10 years, from 2018 to 2027, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Biden also claimed that his health care plan would “immediately cover everybody,” while Medicare for All would take at least four years to transition to universal health care coverage.

Biden: Number two, it, in fact — in my view, they all acknowledge and support it — it will take somewhere between four and 10 years for it to come into being. … My plan costs $750 billion, would immediately cover everybody — everybody in America, allow you to keep your private plan if you wanted it, if you wanted it.

Biden’s own website says his plan would “insure more than an estimated 97% of Americans,” indicating that not everyone would be covered. His plan would build on the Affordable Care Act, expanding tax credits for individuals purchasing insurance on the ACA’s exchanges, offering a Medicare-style public health insurance option as a choice, and providing “premium-free access to the public option” for those who qualify for the ACA’s Medicaid expansion but live in states that chose not to expand the program.