In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, President Donald Trump said he agrees that the climate changes, but that “it goes back and forth, back and forth.” His view of climate change, the phenomenon that scientists predict will inflict irreconcilable havoc by 2040, is similar to his own relationship to the scientific topic: It goes back and forth, back and forth. In 2012 Trump said climate change was a Chinese hoax; in 2016 he said there was “some connectivity” between human activity and the warming of the Earth. Now he agrees that something is going on, but there are scientists on both sides of the issue.
It begs the question: Is he getting any of this right? Trump would likely answer yes. In the same wide-ranging interview, the president said he has “a natural instinct for science,” and “I am truly an environmentalist.” Dominique Bachelet, Ph.D., a senior climate scientist at the Conversational Biology Institute and an associate professor at Oregon State University, however, disagrees.
“Trump saying he is an environmentalist is a joke, and a sad one,” Bachelet tells Inverse.
So let’s break this interview down and compare it to what scientists and scientific research show.
“I agree the climate changes, but it goes back and forth, back and forth.”
Wendy Foden, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and chairs the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission Climate Change Specialist Group. She tells Inverse that the idea that climate change has gone back and forth is true when you consider geological time frames, which span thousands of years. But within the scope of modern civilization, during which there’s been a relatively stable climate, that idea just doesn’t apply.
“The kinds of changes that we’re seeing at present are of an undoubted anthropogenic cause,” Foden tells Inverse. “They are quite extreme, and they are already beginning to undermine the quality of life we have and the likelihood that we can keep this civilization in the long-term.”
The planet’s climate has indeed changed throughout history: According to NASA, in the last 650,000 years, there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat. The abrupt end of the last ice age 7,000 years ago counts as the beginning of the modern climate era and human civilization. What’s happening currently is especially different from what has happened before because human activity induced an unprecedented warming trend. For the past thirty years, there’s been a pattern of increasingly higher temperatures for the whole world. Climate change is something that takes place on a scale of hundreds of years — it’s not like the weather, which varies day to day.
“Back and forth doesn’t mean anything,” Bachelet says. “Our planet is being affected by emissions from our cars, our industries, our crop fields; our animals in a way that has never happened in the history of the planet.
“What we are living through has never happened before in geological records.”
“I want absolutely crystal clear water.”
In the interview, Trump stresses that he wants “crystal clear water” and that “clean is very important — water, air.” But the policies his administration supports don’t match up with his supposed desire. In the United States, we don’t have consistently clean water. Here, there is a nearly one-in-four chance that one’s tap water is either unsafe to drink or has not been monitored for contaminants in accordance with federal law. While water can be transparent, it can still contain chemicals that cities don’t test for. These include hormones, antibiotics, pharmaceutical medications, and agricultural pollutants.
“Our streams don’t burn like they did in the 1970s, but it is more pernicious than that,” Bachelet says. “This administration is removing important regulations that will not only never allow better testing of stream water to protect industry profits, but also disallow current preventative measures that curb the industry from dumping harmful chemicals in our waters.”
In January, the Trump administration formally suspended EPA water regulation rules, known as Waters of the United States, that were put forth by the Obama administration. These rules limited the use of pollutants that could run off into streams and was designed to limit pollution in about 60 percent of the country’s bodies of water. In March, the EPA under Trump also proposed amending rules that made it harder for coal ash to enter into drinking water supplies.
“I want the cleanest air on the planet and our air now is cleaner than it’s ever been.”
Concentrations of air pollutants have dropped significantly since 1990 in the United States because of the Clean Air Act of 1970. But the EPA acknowledges on its site that “despite our successes, many places in the United States still have poor local air quality and there is more to be done.” The agency admits that climate change poses a significant challenge to keeping the air clean.
However, as clean as Trump says he wants the air to be, his administration announced in August its plans to roll back Clean Air Act regulations that curb emissions from coal plants. So while an EPA report released in July announced that there had been a 73 percent reduction in atmospheric sulfur dioxide between 1970 and 2017, the agency is actively working to ease the mandates that helped the air become cleaner.
Meanwhile, if he actively pursued climate change mitigation, Trump could achieve his goal of attaining “the cleanest air on the planet.” Zoë Chafe, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University and served as the chapter scientist for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report. She says that most things we do to prevent or minimize climate change also improve air quality because many of the pollutants that make air unhealthy also contribute to climate change.
“When we produce less pollution, our policies and actions often minimize climate change and improve air quality at the same time,” Chafe tells Inverse. “Cleaning up the air is a great way to prevent climate change and also protect our health.”
Some air pollutants, like organic carbon, don’t contribute to climate change, while other pollutants, like carbon dioxide, do contribute to climate change but aren’t directly harmful to human health. But some do both, like black carbon, or soot. Black carbon emerges when we burn diesel fuel and cook or heat homes with wood and coal. It can make people sick, and it contributes to climate change.
Where does this leave us?
Although Trump says that scientists aren’t in agreement about whether climate change is happening and whether it’s man-made, they actually are. There’s also consensus that things are becoming worse, and if we want future generations to have any semblance of life that’s similar to ours now, we have to make changes. Even if that happens, climate change is, and will continue to, inflict damage.
“Nature will show the world, that prepared or not, our species will have to deal with conditions it has never been exposed to, had a chance to adapt to, let alone prepare for,” Bachelet says. “Personally, I am glad to be old and not be responsible for younger lives — except those of my students.”