President Trump’s fake news about climate change

Posted on 30 Jan 2018 in

President Trump again demonstrated this weekend that he is a major source of fake news about climate change.

During an interview broadcast on 28 January on ITV in the UK, Piers Morgan asked Mr Trump for his views both on the Paris Agreement and on whether he believes in climate change.

The President’s answers revealed the very deep level of his ignorance. Towards the end of the interview (from about 36 minutes), the following exchange occurred:

Piers Morgan: “Quick fire. Climate change. For you is it about the science or is it about the money? The Paris Accord.”

President Trump: “I think it’s about everything, and I’m a believer in clean air and clean water. The Paris Accord for us would have been a disaster.”

Piers Morgan: “Are you completely out of that?”

President Trump: “I’m completely out of it.”

Piers Morgan: “No way back?”

President Trump: “Er, there could be a way back. First of all it was a terrible deal for the United States. If they made a good deal, like if they made a good deal with TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], you know with having to do with trade, there’s always a chance we’d get back. But it was a terrible deal for the United States. It was unfair to the United States.”

This exposed President Trump’s longstanding lack of understanding about the Paris Agreement. The United States Government ratified the Agreement on 3 September 2016. The Agreement came into force on 4 November 2016. Article 28 of the Agreement states that any country that wishes to withdraw could not start the procedure until three years after it came into force, and that the process would take a year. Hence the earliest that the Trump Administration could complete withdrawal would be 4 November 2020, the day after the next election for the President of the United States.

President Trump’s claim that the Paris Agreement is “a terrible deal for” and “unfair to” the United States is also completely false. The Agreement does not commit the United States to any specific actions to tackle climate change. Instead, the Obama Administration submitted a voluntary “nationally determined contribution” to the Agreement. Like other countries, the United States can review this contribution over the next two years, and the Trump Administration could submit in 2020 a new statement that the President considers to be ‘fairer’ for the United States, without having to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

However, it was the next exchange during the interview that showed President Trump does not have a grasp of the science of climate change:

Piers Morgan: “Do you believe in climate change? Do you think it exists?”

President Trump: “Er, there is a cooling, there’s a heating. Look it used to not be climate change, it used to be global warming, right?”

Piers Morgan: “Right.”

President Trump: “That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place. Ah, the ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records, ok, they’re at a record level. There were so many things happening, Piers.”

In this case, Mr Trump appeared to show that he relies on the propaganda of climate change deniers instead of the advice of scientists. His suggestion that the term ‘climate change’ has only been introduced recently because the Earth is “getting too cold all over the place” is hopelessly wrong. ‘Climate change’ and its variants have been used for more than half a century. For instance, the magazine ‘Weather’ published an article called ‘Can Carbon Dioxide Influence Climate?’ by Guy Callendar in October 1949. The opening sentence is: “An interpretation of climatic change in terms of the variable carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was first proposed some sixty years ago by the famous Swedish physicist, Sevante [sic] Arrhenius, who made some of the classic experiments on the absorption of heat radiation by gases”.

In the United States, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences published a report on ‘Understanding Climatic Change’ in 1975. The term ‘global warming’ started to receive increased use during the 1980s, particularly after ‘The New York Times’ reported on its front page the Congressional testimony of James Hansen, under the headline ‘Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate’. But another report published by the National Academy in 2005 noted: “The phrase “climate change” is growing in preferred use to “global warming” because it helps convey that there are changes in addition to rising temperatures”. And as Jason Samenow pointed out in ‘The Washington Post’, it was pollster Frank Luntz who advised Republican activists in a memo in 2002 that “It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming and ‘conservation’ instead of preservation”, pointing out: “While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge”.

Of course, the main reason President Trump was wrong is because the Earth has been warming, not cooling, over almost all of its surface during the past century, as this map produced by NASA clearly illustrates.

President Trump also implied that the polar ice caps are not melting and are at “record levels”. In fact, the opposite is true. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, the Arctic sea ice extent on 28 January was at its lowest ever level for this time of year since satellite measurements began in 1979. Record lows were set in 2016 and 2017 for the annual winter maximum of Arctic sea ice extent.

Similarly, the mass of the Greenland ice sheet has been declining markedly at a rate of about 270 billion tonnes each year, according to the latest ‘Arctic Report Card’ by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And while the situation in Antarctica is more complicated, the most recent study concluded that the ice sheet is losing mass overall despite an increase in snowfall on the eastern side of the continent.

However, this was not the first time since his election that President Trump has demonstrated that he does not understand the science, economics and politics of climate change.

In November 2016, Mr Trump was interviewed at length by staff at ‘The New York Times’ about his views on a wide variety of topics. When asked about climate change, President-Elect Trump said:

“You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind. My uncle was for 35 years a professor at M.I.T. He was a great engineer, scientist. He was a great guy. And he was … a long time ago, he had feelings — this was a long time ago — he had feelings on this subject. It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know. I know we have, they say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists. Where was that, in Geneva or wherever five years ago? Terrible. Where they got caught, you know, so you see that and you say, what’s this all about. I absolutely have an open mind. I will tell you this: Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important. Safety is vitally important.”

Mr Trump’s answer showed how poorly briefed he was about climate change. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the hottest daytime temperature was 56.7°C, recorded in Death Valley, California, in 1913. But this information is irrelevant to the question of whether climate change is happening. It is possible that Mr Trump was trying to remember 1998 which, at the time of the interview, was the warmest year according to one controversial satellite record of the temperature of the lower atmosphere. However, the World Meteorological Organisation had already indicated that 2016 was likely to surpass 2015 as the hottest year based on surface temperature records, and was part of a clear warming trend.

Mr Trump’s reference to “horrible emails” was an apparent attempt to recall propaganda spread by climate change deniers about the hacking of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. In fact, nine independent investigations were conducted into the content of the stolen emails and documents by the Independent Climate Change Email Review, the International Panel set up by the University of East Anglia to examine the research of the Climatic Research Unit, the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, Pennsylvania State University, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Inspector General of the United States Department of Commerce and the United States National Science Foundation. None of these inquiries concluded that the hacked emails showed serious misconduct by any climate scientists.

And President Trump’s speech in June last year in the Rose Garden of the White House, during which he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, contained many false statements both about the Agreement itself and of the potential economic consequences of remaining part of it.

It is time that Mr Trump educated himself about climate change. He should steer clear of sources of laughable propaganda about the issue, such as Fox News, Breitbart and ‘The Wall Street Journal’. Perhaps if the President does visit the United Kingdom this year, he could pop into Clarence House for a chat and pick up a signed copy of the excellent Ladybird book on climate change.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Grantham Research Institute.