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Experts aren’t buying the White House’s spin on an authoritative climate report

Experts aren’t buying the White House’s spin on an authoritative climate report


‘Your belief or lack thereof does not affect its reality’

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Rapidly-Spreading Wildfire In California’s Butte County Prompts Evacuations
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After attempting to bury a climate change report during a long holiday weekend, the White House has pivoted to calling it “not based in facts.” Unfortunately for the White House, the report is filled with years’ worth of facts gathered by scientists, which paint a clear and alarming picture: climate change is already affecting Americans, and it’s going to get worse.

The report came after the Camp Fire, the worst wildfire in California’s history, which was preceded by what was previously the worst wildfire in California’s history. The Camp Fire killed at least 85 people and displaced roughly 50,000, the Los Angeles Times reports. The fires forced evacuees out of their homes, away from their jobs, and into hotels, shelters, and tents in a Walmart parking lot. Now, rains are threatening to pour onto the scorched ground which could easily turn into mudslides like the ones that killed at least 15 people in Santa Barbara last year.

“You harm the health, the welfare, the economy, and the future of hundreds of millions of people.”

Worsening wildfires, more intense droughts, downpours, and floods are all described in the latest National Climate Assessment. The congressionally mandated report is the work of 13 federal agencies and more than 300 scientists, and it spells out how climate change is hurting people already. President Donald Trump’s reaction to the findings? “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,” Trump told The Washington Post.

It’s a reaction that climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech and an author on the National Climate Assessment, hears a lot. “I have people telling me every day almost that they don’t believe in climate change,” she tells The Verge.

The White House’s response frames the heavily researched, meticulously referenced National Climate Assessment as something one could choose to disbelieve, rather than the experts’ best understanding of reality. “And of course the reality is you can certainly choose your own reaction to it. But your perspective, your reaction, your belief or lack thereof does not affect its reality,” Hayhoe says. If you’re the president and you’re making decisions that aren’t based on reality, she says, “you harm the health, the welfare, the economy, and the future of hundreds of millions of people.” Just ask the newly minted Californian climate refugees.

“She is breathing molecules of the people who died because the smoke has reached Washington.”

Even as 50,000 people were displaced by wildfires that neatly matched climate scientists’ predictions from decades ago, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on Trump’s disbelief during a press conference on Tuesday. Her false evaluation — that the National Climate Assessment is “not based in facts” and “not data driven” — is bad news for Americans who are already facing the effects of climate change.

The timing of these claims is particularly appalling after the recent devastation in California. “She is breathing molecules of the people who died because the smoke has reached Washington,” says Gary Yohe, a professor of economics and environmental studies at Wesleyan University who reviewed the National Climate Assessment before it was published.

In fact, data and facts inform the models that Sanders dismissed at the briefing as “the most extreme model scenario which contradicts long established trends.” That’s just not true, Hayhoe points out on Twitter.

The report assesses multiple paths to possible futures: paths where we burn a lot of fossil fuels or a little. That’s the point, Yohe says. “To show that the mitigation path that you choose matters,” he says. “But the high path isn’t an extreme, and the low path isn’t extreme either.”

Don Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, agrees that looking at a range of futures is a key element of the report. It gives us an idea of what we can prevent by reducing emissions, and what we’ll have to adapt to. “It tells you a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of following one pathway or another,” he says. So, for the White House, he says, “It’s very important that they represent the science properly in their discussions of it, rather than these simplistic statements that are not based on fact at all.”   

Sanders does say something that’s almost true, according to Robert Kopp, director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University and an author on the first volume of the latest National Climate Assessment. “She’s correct in that modeling the climate is an extremely complicated science, and it’s not exact,” he says. But it’s the details that are complex, he says, not the big picture. “The fact that when you put greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, you’re going to warm the planet, that’s not complex,” he says. “It’s been known since the 19th century.”

“It’s very important that they represent the science properly.”

Those details are getting clearer, too, Hayhoe says. “We’re starting to be able to put numbers on the extent to which human-induced changes exacerbated natural disasters, like hurricanes and wildfires, instead of the standard mantra,” she says. (The standard mantra is some permutation of “We cannot attribute any single event to the effects of climate change.”) The report cites findings that Hurricane Harvey, for example, which dropped more than five feet of rain in Houston and killed at least 68 people, was three times more likely because of human-driven climate change.

But the myth that climate science is up for debate isn’t the biggest or most dangerous falsehood that people buy into, Hayhoe says. “It’s the myth that it doesn’t matter to me.” That’s the myth that Sanders perpetuates when she separates climate change from impacts, as she did in Tuesday’s briefing. “Our focus is on making sure we have the safest, cleanest air and water, and the president is going to do exactly that,” Sanders said. (The Trump administration, in fact, has moved to scrap Obama-era clean water and air regulations.)

Fossil fuel emissions and climate change are already affecting our water and air. The report puts it bluntly: “Water security in the United States is increasingly in jeopardy.” There are large-scale impacts, like more severe droughts and bigger downpours. But there are also local impacts on water quality, like the growing scourge of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, which thrive in warmer waters tainted by nutrient-rich runoff. Due to a harmful algal bloom in 2014, 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, were told to not drink from their taps, the report says.

“This is a legacy that we’re leaving to them that we ought to be very concerned about.”

As for the air we breathe, climate change is lengthening the fire seasons and making massive fires more frequent, the report says. And in addition to the people they kill, homes they destroy, and lives they uproot, wildfires in the West are also a major source of the microscopic droplets and tiny solid particles known as particulate matter. Particulate matter is bad for air quality and bad for health. “So ignoring climate change doesn’t really contribute to other aspects of clean air and clean water,” Kopp says.

The point of the report is to help inform decision-makers about how to prevent emissions from worsening the climate changes of the future and how to prepare for what we can no longer avoid. That’s why more than 300 scientists devoted their time and effort to write it. And when representatives of the White House sow doubt about it, experts say they’re doing a disservice to the American people. “Just making up falsehoods about the National Climate Assessments has the potential to really deprive the states and communities that are least resourced of a trustworthy source of information,” Kopp says.

That’s a problem for our present and our future. “I don’t know how anyone could look at this and not be concerned about what it means not only to themselves — perhaps they want to ignore that,” Wuebbles says, “but they shouldn’t be ignoring what it means for our children and our grandchildren. This is a legacy that we’re leaving to them that we ought to be very concerned about.”