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AP FACT CHECK: Trump and Democrats mangle science

September 7, 2019
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In this Sept. 4, 2019, photo, President Donald Trump holds a chart as he talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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In this Sept. 4, 2019, photo, President Donald Trump holds a chart as he talks with reporters after receiving a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Science took a beating in the political arena this past week as President Donald Trump sowed confusion about Hurricane Dorian’s path and Democratic presidential candidates rang false alarms about the air we breathe.

Trump found himself contradicted by his government’s own meteorologists when he warned of danger to Alabama, then spent days defending his outlier forecast. By week’s end, curiosity over who had drawn a loop on a weather map played out alongside life-shaping questions about who should, and shouldn’t, flee the storm.

On broader questions about climate, and air quality in particular, neither Trump nor some Democrats seem to be able to get it right.

A sampling from a week of statements from Trump and the Democratic campaign on weather, war, climate, the economy and more:

WAR

JOE BIDEN, Democratic presidential candidate, on the Iraq war: “Immediately, that moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.” — interview Tuesday with NPR.

THE FACTS: Not so. As a senator in 2002, Biden had voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq, which he did in March 2003 as part of a “shock and awe” bombing campaign with some coalition allies. Four months later, in July, Biden was still expressing strong support for the military engagement.

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“Nine months ago, I voted with my colleagues to give the president of the United States of America the authority to use force, and I would vote that way again today,” Biden told the Brookings Institution.

It wasn’t until 2005 that he came around to calling the war a mistake, blaming Bush because “we went too soon. We went without sufficient force. And we went without a plan.”

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STORMY WEATHER

TRUMP: “In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5.” — tweet Sunday, 7:51 a.m.

NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE, Birmingham: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.” — tweet Sunday, 8:11 a.m.

THE FACTS: The episode showed what has been learned from other destructive storms: Trump can’t be counted on to provide reliable information as a potential natural disaster takes shape, even as his agencies try to do so. It was never “most likely” that Alabama would be hit hard, never mind by “one of the largest hurricanes ever.”

Within a half hour of Trump’s tweet, the weather service’s office in Birmingham, Alabama, had tamped down any expectations of a hit on Alabama with its “no impacts” tweet. A meteorologist in the Birmingham office said the tweet was in response to residents’ concerns.

And Christopher Vaccaro, speaking for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather service, said that day: “The current forecast path of Dorian does not include Alabama.” The official forecast at 8 a.m. Sunday, closest to Trump’s warning tweet, showed a large zone of possible strikes, but Alabama was outside that zone by at least 180 miles.

At the time, several graphics issued by the National Hurricane Center showed that parts of Alabama had a small chance — 5% to 10% — of getting tropical storm force winds. Graphics from the previous week had suggested much more of Alabama could see an impact, though the odds even then were against it. But those graphics, which are not official forecasts in any event, were outdated by Sunday.

Meantime, Alabama was not mentioned in any of the 75 forecast advisories the hurricane center issued between Aug. 27 and Sept. 2, a period covered by Trump’s tweet.

Digging in his heels, Trump on Wednesday displayed a map of the hurricane forecast from the previous week. It had been altered to include what appeared to be a hand-drawn half-circle that extended the cone of uncertainty over a swath of Alabama. He had no explanation for the alteration.

Then late Friday, NOAA issued a statement walking back its position from the previous weekend, and now lending a measure of support to the president. It said the tweet from the Birmingham weather office about no impact to Alabama had been “inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

This time, the “spokesperson” was anonymous.

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HOT AIR

PETE BUTTIGIEG: “For me and everybody I know, for the children that we hope to have, for the people who will be alive at the turn of the century, when if we don’t change what we’re doing, we could lose half the world’s oxygen because of what’s going on in the oceans. That is unthinkable.” — CNN town hall with Democratic presidential candidates Wednesday.

THE FACTS: This is not sound science. You and your descendants can breathe easy about the planet’s oxygen levels. There are other things to worry about from climate change, fossil fuel combustion and Amazon fires.

Climate scientists told The Associated Press that Buttigieg’s claim that half of Earth’s oxygen is at risk is false.

—“That one is indeed a howler,” said Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State. Global oxygen concentrations “are maintained by long-term geological cycles and nothing here is going to alter that in any significant way.”

—“If climate change is left unchecked, the atmosphere could lose about a tenth of one percent of its oxygen content by the end of the century,” said Jonathan Overpeck, professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. “There is no science behind the idea that we could lose half the world’s oxygen. Instead, it’s only a tiny amount. ... One thing we don’t have to worry about is oxygen levels in the atmosphere.”

—While burning fossil fuels does use up oxygen, it’s a far smaller amount than Buttigieg suggests, said Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler. He calculated the figures and came up with at most a reduction of oxygen of about 2%, adding “this is an absolute upper limit. More reasonable estimates would be much, much smaller, probably less than a few tenths a percent. And this is if we burn everything.”

—Atmospheric scientist Scott Denning of Colorado State University has estimated that if oxygen production were to stop now, Earth would have 1 million years of oxygen left.

Such scientists see an urgent need to do more to address the emissions that are warming the climate and bringing profound change to life as billions know it. Depletion of atmospheric oxygen is not one of those changes.

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BETO O’ROURKE, proposing U.S. leadership on climate change: “Convene those other top wealthy economies to make sure that this is our focus, to save the lungs of the planet that produce 6 percent of the oxygen that we breathe and to ensure that we do not trigger a crisis in the Amazon. Once it is set, we will never be able to roll back. ” — Candidates’ town hall on CNN.

THE FACTS: Lands of the Amazon are not “the lungs of the planet.” That’s a familiar phrase but not an accurate one.

Oxygen production comes primarily from ocean sediments, not forests, which indeed generate oxygen but also consume it.

“Even if all plants in the Amazon stopped doing photosynthesis, we would not notice,” Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, a global climate solutions, told the AP. “It would take millions of years for the atmosphere to run out of oxygen.”

The Amazon is key in draining heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists also see grave consequences to nature and communities from fires in the rainforest. But Earth is not losing its lungs.

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TRUMP: “Who’s got the world’s cleanest and safest air and water? AMERICA!” — tweet Wednesday.

TRUMP: “I want crystal clean water and the cleanest and the purest air on the planet - we’ve now got that!” — tweet Wednesday.

THE FACTS: False. Air quality hasn’t improved under the Trump administration and dozens of nations have less smoggy air than the U.S.

As to water, Trump is correct that one measure, Yale University’s global Environmental Performance Index, found the U.S. tied with nine other countries as having the cleanest drinking water.

But after decades of improvement, progress in air quality has stalled. Over the past two years the U.S. had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier, federal data show.

There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when the U.S had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980.

The Obama administration set records for the fewest air-polluted days.

The nonprofit Health Effects Institute’s State of Global Air 2019 report ranked the United States 37th dirtiest out of 195 countries for ozone, also known as smog. The U.S. ranks eighth cleanest on the more deadly category of fine particles in the air.

On environmental quality overall, the Yale index put the U.S. 27th, behind a variety of European countries, Canada, Japan, Australia and more. Switzerland was No. 1.

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ECONOMY AND TRADE

TRUMP: “China has now had the worst year that they’ve had in 57 years. This is the worst year they’ve had in 57 years. And they want to make a deal.” — speaking to reporters Wednesday in Hurricane Dorian briefing.

TRUMP: “China wants very much to make a deal. We’ll see. They had the worst year in over 50.” — remarks Wednesday at announcement of state opioid response grants.

THE FACTS: Not even close.

It’s true that China’s economy is decelerating, slowed by Trump’s taxes on Chinese imports and by Beijing’s deliberate campaign to combat runaway debts. The International Monetary Fund expects the Chinese economy to grow 6.2% this year. Though much faster than the U.S., that’s the slowest in a long time for China — since 1990, or 29 years, in fact.

But it’s a fantasy to suggest the Chinese economy is the worst in a half century or more. In 1962, 57 years ago, the country was an impoverished wasteland recovering from the massive famine caused by Mao Zedong’s radical economic policies.

The economy would also plummet during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Since adopting economic reforms in the late 1970s, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, established a growing middle class and vaulted over Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy.

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TRUMP: “We haven’t taken 10 cents in from China. If you look back over the years, it’s been the other way around. They’ve taken from us; we never take from them. Now we’re taking from them.” — remarks Wednesday in briefing on Hurricane Dorian.

THE FACTS: It’s false to say the U.S. never collected a dime in tariffs on Chinese goods before Trump took action; they are simply higher in some cases than they were before. He’s also wrong to suggest that Americans aren’t paying in any way for the tariffs.

As he escalates a trade war with China, Trump refuses to recognize a reality that his own chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, has acknowledged. Tariffs are mainly, if not entirely, paid by companies and consumers in the country that imposes them.

In a study in May, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, with Princeton and Columbia universities, estimated that tariffs from Trump’s trade dispute with China were costing $831 per U.S. household on an annual basis, before tariffs were recently escalated. Analysts also found that the burden of Trump’s tariffs falls entirely on U.S. consumers and businesses that buy imported products.

A report last month by JPMorgan Chase estimated that tariffs would cost the average American household $1,000 per year if tariffs on an additional $300 billion of U.S. imports from China proceed in September and December. Trump has since bumped up the scheduled levies even higher, probably adding to the U.S. burden. To be sure, China is feeling the economic hit, too.

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TRUMP: “Germany, and so many other countries, have negative interest rates, ‘they get paid for loaning money,’ and our Federal Reserve fails to act! Remember, these are also our weak currency competitors!” — tweet Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Trump once again misrepresents the impact of Federal Reserve policies and is mistaken about Germany’s economy, suggesting that it enjoys some kind of advantage. In fact, negative yields are a sign of that economy’s weakness.

The German economy shrank in the previous quarter and there are expectations from investment banks that it could soon fall into a recession. Nor is the phenomenon isolated to Germany. Japan and much of Europe are also struggling with interest rates on government debt that are negative or close to negative.

Investors are betting that stimulus efforts by the European Central Bank will keep rates persistently low. But the negative interest rates on German bonds also reflect that government’s aversion to issuing debt, even though the borrowing would allow it to spend more on roads and bridges to spur stronger economic growth.

By having even slightly positive interest rates compared with the rest of the world, the United States is in a better position to attract global investment.

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JAMES COMEY

TRUMP: “Based on the IG Report, the whole Witch Hunt against me and my administration was a giant and illegal SCAM. The House of Representatives should now get back to work on drug prices, healthcare, infrastructure and all else. The Mueller Report showed No Collusion, No Obstruction!” — tweet Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Trump is presumably referring to a recent Justice Department inspector general report that criticized former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of memos about his interactions with the president. But the report passed zero judgment on the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia, a probe Comey that led until his May 2017 firing and that Trump has repeatedly derided as a “witch hunt.” It did not criticize the FBI for opening the investigation or suggest in any way that it was a “giant and illegal SCAM.”

The president’s also wrong about the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. It did not find evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but that’s not the same thing as “No Collusion.” The report also found instances in which the president sought to obstruct the investigation but said that Justice Department legal protocol prohibits the indictment of a sitting president.

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Associated Press writers Paul Wiseman, Josh Boak and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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