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On climate change, Trump disavows his own scientists, government

When “Axios on HBO” interviewed President Trump last week, one goal was to get him to reckon with his own government’s scientific findings, which unequivocally state that global warming is nearly entirely caused by humans. We thought it might be harder to dismiss the science if we showed him his own administration's most comprehensive report.

Why it matters: We were wrong. Trump disputed that report, said he hadn’t seen it and indicated — while doing a wave motion with his hand — that the climate goes up and down. These comments, the first on this report, are among the most extreme he’s made dismissing a scientific issue nearly all other world leaders take seriously.

The intrigue: Trump was shown a copy of the National Climate Assessment, a federally mandated report the Trump administration released without fanfare, or interference, last November. He dismissed it and said he didn't read it.

“Is there climate change? Yeah. Will it go back like this, I mean will it change back? Probably,” Trump said, making an ocean wave motion with his hand.

Reality check: The report is the most comprehensive and up-to-date assessment published by the entire federal government, from NASA to the Environmental Protection Agency. It concludes that "there is no convincing alternative explanation" for the global warming we've observed, other than human causes.

  • It also concludes that only steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can alter the upward trajectory of air and ocean temperatures and their related impacts.

The president has not repeated his often-cited 2012 Twitter comment that he thinks climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, but he is still far outside the mainstream of scientists and other world leaders.

Let's take a closer look at his most notable comments from the interview:

“Well, I think we’ve contributed, we certainly contribute, I mean, there’s certain pollutants that go up and there’s certain things that happen.”

Reality check: Republican politicians often acknowledge that humans have an impact, but they question how much of an impact. Scientists have actually calculated that figure using multiple lines of evidence, concluding that at least 92% of the warming between 1951 to 2010 was due to human activities.

Uncertainty always exists with science. Scientists continue to debate how much sea level rise will occur and how much extreme weather will change in a warming world, for example. But a clear consensus exists that humans are having a big impact.

“I want everybody to report whatever they want, but ultimately I’m the one that makes that final decision. I can also give you reports where people very much dispute that.”

Reality check: Trump is talking about U.S. government scientists and the National Climate Assessment. No peer-reviewed scientific reports, in the U.S. or elsewhere, dispute the basic consensus that human activities are causing the Earth’s temperature to rise.

While Trump often makes inflammatory comments like this that drive the public debate, his administration doesn’t try to challenge scientific findings, including the National Climate Assessment or a 2009 finding at the EPA.

“I also want jobs, I want viability for the country, I don’t want to give up our natural resources because another country that’s competitive with us — I’ll give you an example, China doesn’t have the energy wealth that we do.”

Reality check: Pitting the economy against action on climate change is a common argument conservatives and some fossil-fuel executives make.

It’s not so black and white. Some parts of the economy would decline over time, like coal because it emits the most carbon dioxide. Others would grow, like renewable energy because they're far cleaner. Costs are inevitable with cutting emissions, but there's also costs associated with not doing anything, like protecting coastal cities from increased flooding.

ExxonMobil and other big energy companies are even lobbying for a tax on carbon emissions, largely because their businesses — such as natural gas and nuclear power —are poised to benefit in a carbon-constrained world.

As for China, it’s leading on several clean-energy technologies, including electric cars and solar panels. It’s also remained committed to its pledges on climate in the absence of U.S. leadership since Trump vowed to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement last year.

The bottom line: Fact-checking Trump on this issue is particularly difficult:

  • Climate change is complicated and less tangible than, say, immigration or health care. That makes it easy to confuse non-experts with inaccurate information.
  • Climate change is a low priority and one of the most polarized issues for the public, multiple polls show. That means scientific inaccuracies may matter less to people whose opinions are driven by leaders like Trump.

What's next: Trump is unlikely to change his tune on climate change while in the White House, but not all Republicans share his position. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican incumbent in Florida, readily acknowledges climate change and has even introduced carbon tax legislation.

  • He's considered an early indicator of how the GOP is evolving, but he may not be in Congress much longer. He's locked in a tight re-election race, and odds are, he'll lose.

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