Fact checking Donald Trump’s ‘instinct for science’ climate change argument

donald trump showing natural instinct for scien

Donald Trump has always proclaimed that he has all the answers, and only he can solve all the problems in America. Tuesday, he went even further to mention that his Uncle Joe was a scientist, but he never talked about climate change with him. Trump just felt we should know that it seems before launching into his “natural instinct for science.” But what he said about hurricanes, clean air and climate doesn’t quite get the science right.

More than a dozen scientists, economists, and climate negotiators pointed out where his comments didn’t fit with the reality of human-caused climate change, hurricanes and air pollution.

Here’s a closer look at his statement from Tuesday:


TRUMP, when asked about a dire United Nations report this month on climate change that said dangerous warming has already happened and that with each degree, the many harms to Earth will get even more treacherous: “No, no. Some say that and some say differently, I mean you have scientists on both sides of it.”

THE FACTS: He’s wrong to suggest the scientific community is substantially split. Scientists from around the world wrote the recent report, and it was unanimously accepted by government representatives around the world, including in the United States, said Cornell University climate scientist Natalie Mahowald, a lead author of the report.

The Trump administration last year also released the National Climate Assessment, which painted a similar picture.

University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles, a lead author of that national report, emailed that “there is no debate AT ALL going on about this within the scientific community.”

“Trump might as well be saying that there are scientists on ‘both sides of the gravity debate,’” Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said in an email. “Dangerous climate change impacts are already apparent. Of course, there are uncertainties. There always are. There are uncertainties in the science of gravity (we have never measured a graviton, the fundamental unit of gravity). That doesn’t make it safe to jump off a cliff.”


TRUMP: “We had worse hurricanes in 1890, we had worse, a worse hurricane 50 years ago. We’ve gone through a period, actually, fairly recently where we have very few. I live in Florida to a large extent and spend a lot of time in Florida, and we had a period of time where we went years without having any major problem. And then you have a problem and it goes in cycles.”

THE FACTS: Trump gets some of this right. While Hurricane Michael was the strongest storm to hit Florida’s Panhandle, there have been two other storms to hit the United States with a lower central pressure, which is a key measure of hurricane strength. One was Camille in 1969, which is about 50 years ago.

The president talked about a period where “we have very few.” That depends on what he’s talking about and when.

If he is talking about major hurricanes with winds exceeding 110 mph hitting the United States, the nation had a respite when no such big storm hit from Oct. 24, 2005, to Aug. 25, 2017 — the longest on record. But in the past two years, three major hurricanes have hit the U.S. mainland — Michael, Harvey, and Irma. And Maria hit Puerto Rico, which is part of the U.S.

But looking at just major hurricanes that hit the United States is not the right way to gauge their activity. That’s because the U.S. coastline is such a small fraction of the overall Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, where hurricanes brew and at times hit other countries, scientists said. Looking at just those hurricanes “is like using how much it rained in your region on a given week as a measure of how much it rained across the entire country,” said Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

A study in 2017 of how many major hurricanes formed found that the past 30 years had 90 major hurricanes, an average of three a year from 1988 to 2017. That’s 48 percent more than during the previous 30 years. Scientists use 30-year time periods to take natural cycles into account.

“Climate science isn’t saying human-caused climate change is affecting the number of storms, but rather the destructiveness of the storms once they form and make landfall,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of environmental science at the University of Michigan. “Warming is supercharging the strength of the storms, the storm surge, the rainfall intensity, and the flooding. This was all predicted and it’s happening, just like sea level rise, which also combines with the big storms to make their impacts more devastating.”


TRUMP: The U.S. “entered certain agreements with other countries, I actually think we’re doing it so they could have an economic advantage. …We would have been at a tremendous economic disadvantage if we entered into certain agreements.”

THE FACTS: Several experts said it didn’t put the United States at an economic disadvantage.

Robert Watson, a climate scientist who has headed international panels, called it “a totally ridiculous statement which is patently untrue. … No other country had a role in deciding the target of another country.”

“The U.S. entered the Paris agreement to make progress on dealing with a rapidly warming planet,” said Rafe Pomerance, a former U.S. government climate negotiator. “In fact due to U.S. diplomacy, developing countries were part of the agreement in order to level the playing field. The commitments in Paris are voluntary.”


TRUMP: “I want the cleanest air on the planet, and our air now is cleaner than it’s ever been.”

THE FACTS: He’s wrong about the air being the cleanest ever, according to his own administration. While the air generally has been getting cleaner since the 1970s, the downward trend in pollution has made a bit of a U-turn since Trump took office.

His Environmental Protection Agency released data that showed traditional air pollution — soot and smog — increased in 2017 and that the air is not the cleanest it has ever been.

The days with an unhealthy number of small pollution particles, often called soot and linked to heart and lung problems and deaths, jumped from 2016 to 2017 in 35 major metropolitan areas. In 2017, there were 179 unhealthy soot days, up 85 percent from 97 in 2016. Last year had the most unhealthy soot days since 2011.

The number of days with unhealthy smog levels was down from 2016, but higher than 2015, 2014 and 2013.

The number of days when the air quality index was unhealthy was 729 in 2017. It’s higher than a year because it counts each city’s unhealthy reading on a certain day as one and there are numerous cities involved. Last year’s level was the highest since 2012 and a 21 percent increase over the cleanest air in 2014.