WASHINGTON — It’s elemental. President Trump got his facts about earth, water, air, and fire wrong as he and his aides spent a week attacking the White House climate report.
In interviews and off-the-cuff remarks, public statements and briefings, the president and the White House made a dozen discernible claims about the National Climate Assessment that the White House quietly issued on the day after Thanksgiving. Only one was supported by facts.
Here are 11 ways that the president bungled the basics of climate change, the Earth, and of science itself. At the end of this list, you can read what the White House got right.
TRUMP: ‘‘I don’t believe it,’’ he said Monday. Then on Tuesday he told The Washington Post: ‘‘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.’’
THE FACTS: The president implies that belief is essential to the climate change issue. What to do about it is a matter of debate. But science, unlike faith, works regardless of whether someone believes it.
‘‘Science is not a belief system,’’ said University of Georgia meteorology professor Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society. He added that if someone doesn’t believe in gravity, ‘‘guess what happens if you fall off a ladder.’’
TRUMP: ‘‘And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small,’’ he told The Washington Post.
THE FACTS: Oceans are plainly huge. About two-thirds of Earth’s surface is ocean. The overall atmosphere that circles the globe is bigger and deeper, but the oceans are much weightier. Also, 90 percent of the heat added in recent decades to the climate system from global warming has gone into the oceans, said Stanford University climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh.
Added Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer: ‘‘The oceans’ mass is about 300,000 times more than the atmosphere.’’
TRUMP: ‘‘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.’’ — Post interview.
THE FACTS: The president is referring to the 1970s when some mainstream media articles were speculating that the planet was cooling because of increasing air pollution blocking the sun, said Oregon State University climate scientist Phil Mote.
Even then, when much less was known about climate change, 44 peer-reviewed scientific papers published between 1965 and 1979 said the world was warming and only seven talked of cooling, according to a 2008 study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
TRUMP: ‘‘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.’’ — Post interview.
THE FACTS: The climate assessment from his White House said more than 90 percent of the warming is from humans. The climate report said ‘‘there are no credible explanations’’ for the changing climate other than human causes. Other international and national science reports say the same thing.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Trump press secretary: The report is ‘‘not based on facts. ... it’s not data driven.’’
THE FACTS: That’s not so. Data, including observations of temperature, sea level rise and numerous other indicators, are throughout the report.
‘‘The report is deeply grounded in facts,’’ Stanford’s Diffenbaugh said. ‘‘In fact, much of the evidence in the report arises from historical climate changes that have already been observed through direct measurements, making the report deeply data driven.’’
SANDERS: ‘‘Modeling the climate is an extremely complicated science that is never exact’’ and the report is ‘‘based on modeling, which is extremely hard to do when you’re talking about the climate.’’
THE FACTS: ‘‘It may not be exact but the modeling is good enough to know we have a serious problem,’’ said University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Donald Wuebbles, one of the authors of the climate assessment. ‘‘We design airplanes and cars with inexact models so being exact is not a necessity.’’
LINDSAY WALTERS, deputy press secretary: ‘‘The report is largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that, despite strong economic growth that would increase greenhouse gas emissions, there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population.’’
THE FACTS: The report addresses different scenarios. The worst scenario, used by scientists for more than a decade, is often thought of as business as usual and for years was the trajectory Earth was on. Another scenario is based on moderate cuts globally in emissions, which are more than have been achieved or even pledged in the 2015 Paris agreement. The Earth is now somewhere between those two scenarios. The report also includes a ‘‘very low scenario,’’ which is far from what’s happening now.
For example, when addressing how warm the globe will get, the report gives three scenarios and three ranges of temperatures.
WALTERS: ‘‘To better assess the potential future effects of climate change, we need to focus on improving the transparency and accuracy of our modeling and projections.’’
THE FACTS: ‘‘No one has hidden anything,’’ said University of Oklahoma meteorology professor Jason Furtado. ‘‘All studies referred to in the report are available in published journals and accessible to all who want them. All studies funded with federal monies are public domain, including all coding and data/model output produced.’’
TRUMP: ‘‘You look at our air and water and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including just many other places, the air is incredibly dirty.’’ __ Post interview.
THE FACTS: He’s wrong about record clean air. Trump’s own Environmental Protection Agency’s data show that in 2017, among 35 major U.S. cities, there were 729 cases of ‘‘unhealthy days for ozone and fine particle pollution.’’ That’s up 22 percent from 2014 and the worst year since 2012. Data for 2018 is not complete, but this month in California people were wearing breathing masks to filter out the wildfire-caused pollution in Northern California.
When it comes to smog, in 2016 the United States averaged 66 parts of ozone per billion parts of air, when weighted by population density, according to the State of Global Air 2018 report by the Health Effects Institute. That’s worse than Russia, Japan and Brazil. When averaged out for population, China’s smog level was the same as the U.S. But America was far cleaner than all those countries for another air pollutant: soot.
TRUMP: ‘‘I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from?’’ __ Post interview.
THE FACTS: Singling out Asia for America’s dirty Pacific beaches is an evasion.
Pacific currents do bring some trash from Asia, most noticeably during the 2011 tsunami, but it is rare that scientists can trace trash to a specific geographic location, said oceanographer Kara Lavender Law at the Sea Education Association, who said Trump’s ‘‘statement is not supported by the data.’’
Americans dirty their own coastlines because ‘‘we produce double more trash per person than most of the people living in Southeast Asia,’’ said Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia environmental engineering expert who studies marine debris.
TRUMP: ‘‘The fire in California, where I was, if you looked at the floor, the floor of the fire they have trees that were fallen, they did no forest management, no forest maintenance, and you can light — you can take a match like this and light a tree trunk when that thing is laying there for more than 14 or 15 months. And it’s a massive problem in California.’’ __Post interview.
THE FACTS: Good luck lighting a dead tree with a match. More broadly, the lack of forest management — by which he means clearing dead trees and brush — is not the main cause of the worst California wildfires. A severe, years-long drought and rising temperatures are at the core of the problem.
‘‘Both the US Forest Service and the CalFire have fuel reduction programs, so it’s incorrect to say that there’s ‘no forest management’,’’ said Phillip Dennison, a fire science professor at the University of Utah. ‘‘In the specific cases of the Camp and Woolsey Fires, forest management practices were not a primary factor in determining the size of the fires or the destruction that they wrought.’’
‘‘As anyone who has built a campfire knows, you don’t use a match to ignite a log, not matter how dry it is,’’ Dennison said. ‘‘Instead you use kindling to get the fire hot enough to burn the log. For fire danger, we’re much more concerned about the fine fuels — the small stuff — than we are tree trunks. Fine fuels carry fires forward.’’
WALTERS: The United States is ‘‘leading the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.’’
THE FACTS: ‘‘This is actually true,’’ said Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway. Whether calculating from 2005 or 2010, the U.S. has cut more carbon dioxide emissions than Europe, while China and India’s emissions have gone up. China’s emissions are slowing and close to peaking.