Monday, September 22nd, 2014

A look back at our climate-change fact-checks

An iceberg off the coast of Ammasalik, Greenland, steadily melts.
An iceberg off the coast of Ammasalik, Greenland, steadily melts.

On June 25, President Barack Obama is unveiling a series of executive actions aimed at curbing climate change. According to advance accounts of Obama’s Georgetown University speech, the plan includes limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, higher efficiency standards for appliances and efforts to promote renewable energy on public lands.

Obama tried but -- even with legislation passed by a Democratic House -- failed to win enough Senate votes to enact the centerpiece of his climate change agenda, a "cap-and-trade" plan. (For this, we gave Obama a Promise Broken back in 2010.)  Under cap-and-trade, the government caps how much carbon can be emitted by utilities and manufacturers, then lets the companies buy and sell emissions permits.

The policy is designed to use free-market flexibility to cut the types of emissions that scientists say are contributing to climate change. But critics said it would raise energy costs for consumers for an uncertain long-term gain. For instance, we gave former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a True for saying that Obama admitted that a cap-and-trade plan would cause electricity bills to "skyrocket."

First, we’ll look at some of the claims we’ve analyzed in the contentious debate between those who believe climate change is a clear and present danger, and those who say the threat is, to one degree or another, overblown. Then, we’ll look at Obama’s own record on climate-change promises so far.

Fact-checking climate change

Is there a lack of scientific consensus about global warming? The views of global warming critics have attracted a fair amount of attention from politicians and the media, but we found little dispute in the scientific community, especially among climate specialists, on whether climate change is primarily caused by natural or man-made forces. We found a significant scientific consensus that human beings are contributing to global warming. So we rated the suggestion that there’s no scientific consensus False.

Along the same lines, PolitiFact Texas gave a Pants on Fire to a claim by Texas state Rep. Wayne Smith that "science has not shown greenhouse gases to be a problem."

Have we recently experienced the hottest years on record? Obama said "the 12 hottest years on record have come in the last 15 years." We found data from NASA showing 13 of the hottest years on record coming in the last 15. By a different data set produced by NOAA, we found 14 of the hottest years on record coming in the last 15. Obama was actually over-cautious in his statement, so we rated his statement True.

Is climate change causing wildfires? During a 2011 fundraising dinner, Obama took a swipe at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, saying Texans have "a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change." We found that scientists have long drawn clear distinctions between specific weather events and longer-range changes in climate. However, we also found peer-reviewed evidence linking broader climate change in the American southwest to the incidence of wildfires in the region. Texas’ own state climatologist even wrote that he believes climate change has had an effect in encouraging wildfires in his state, though only a modest one. We rated Obama’s claim Half True.

Are greenhouse emissions in the U.S. at 20-year lows? Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said that the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions "are at 20-year lows." PolitiFact Texas found that the statement was cherry-picked. It depended on a comparison of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions — not all greenhouse gases -- over three unusually warm winter months of 2012 to such emissions in the same months of 1992. The latest information available at the time the claim was made indicated that total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were higher in 2010 than they were 20 years earlier, though they were also lower than they were 13 years earlier. We rated the claim Mostly False.

Is the government spending 30 times as much on climate change research as on weather forecasting? Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said Obama "spends 30 times as much money on global warming research as he does on weather forecasting and warning." We thought the most obvious way to read his words was to compare climate-change research funding with dollars spent on "weather forecasting and warning," which produced a 2.7-to-1 ratio. However, even if you were to accept Bridenstine’s argument that he meant to compare it to "weather forecasting and warning research," the ratio was still not near 30 to 1. Bridenstine had a point that climate change research does exceed weather forecasting expenditures, but he overstated the discrepancy. We rated his statement Mostly False.

How fast are water temperatures rising? Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said that in his home state, "Narragansett Bay waters are getting warmer -- 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the winter since the 1960s." PolitiFact Rhode Island found that Whitehouse was citing a University of Rhode Island study that examined temperatures through 2006. But data that goes through 2010 revealed that the increase since the 1960s is less extreme -- a little more than half of what he said. We rated his statement Half True.

Obama’s promises on climate change

Here, we’ll look at some of the other promises related to climate change that Obama made during the 2008 campaign, and how he’s done. (The full list of promises he made on the environment can be found here.) Note that under our promise-rating system, the executive receives a Promise Broken if the promise is not kept, regardless of the reason it was not enacted.

Use revenue from cap and trade to support clean energy and environmental restoration. Since the federal government never implemented a nationwide cap-and-trade initiative, there is no revenue that can be garnered from it. As a result, this is a Promise Broken.

Improve climate change data records. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a Satellite Climate Data Record Program in 2009, using funds from the stimulus bill. The government has also worked with the World Meteorological Organization and the Committee on Earth Observing Satellites to collaborate on climate data records internationally. We rated this a Promise Kept.

Create clean coal partnerships. The Obama administration has spent millions of dollars to help advance several commercial-scale power plants that are designed to use carbon capture and sequestration. There is a long way to go before this is a fully mature technology, but despite some significant bumps on the road, the administration has largely advanced its vision. We rated it a Promise Kept.

Work with the UN on climate change. The administration has participated in several climate conferences but experts say that the global framework faces challenges going forward. We rated this promise a Compromise.

Create incentives for tree planting and promote carbon sequestration. The Agriculture Department has taken several actions to incentivize tree planting. It’s not the ambitious plan that Obama wanted, but it has provided some fulfillment of his campaign pledge. We rated this pledge a Compromise.

Fund proposals to help fish and game survive climate change. While cap and trade didn't pass, the administration has supported the goals outlined in this promise by supporting agencies that run climate change programs. We rated this a Compromise.