Fact Checking President Obama on Climate Change

In November 2015, President Barack Obama spoke at the UN Convention on Climate Change hosted in Paris, attended by more than 150 heads of state. Obama makes various claims about the state of the climate, as well as details some of the steps the United States have taken to curb gas emissions. His claims are fact-checked below. All of his quotes are offset in boxes.

It is important to remember that while man-made climate change is nearly unanimously—97 percent or more, according to the NASA Climate Change)—agreed upon in the scientific community, dissenting opinions on the effects of climate change and whether it is induced by humans still exist. Being of a rational mind, I’ve decided to use the scientific consensus as the basis for the following fact check, rather than the world of global conspiracy theory.

Rising Temperatures

Fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000 — and 2015 is on pace to be the warmest year of all.

True, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the fourteen hottest years on record did take place between 2000-2015. President Obama’s prediction of 2015 becoming the warmest year on record came true. December 2015 ended up being one of the warmest months in history, with average temperatures rising 1.11°C (2.00°F) higher than their monthly average for the first time in history.

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Data from the National Centers for Environmental Information

 

It is important to understand how this data is calculated and the analyzed. The global average temperature has been measured since 1880, combining data from across the globe for all months. The current monthly average global temperature is then measured against the established average global temperature for that month based on the existing data. For example, as a year, 2015 was on average 1.62 degrees hotter than the average year.

Rising Sea Levels

“This summer, I saw the effects of climate change firsthand in our northernmost state, Alaska, where the sea is already swallowing villages and eroding shorelines; where permafrost thaws and the tundra burns; where glaciers are melting at a pace unprecedented in modern times.”

I’ll take a look at two claims made, first, that villages are being lost to rising sea-levels and second, that glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate.

Alaska is particularly hard hit when it comes to rising temperatures, as the average winter has gotten 6.3 degrees warmer compared to the mainland United States. According to a Government Accountability Office report in 2009, 31 villages were deemed to be in immediate danger.

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Location of Newtok, Alaska 

The Atlantic did a piece about Newtok, Alaska, a village that has set in motion plans to relocate away from the rising water level. The village was situated on permafrost, a layer of tundra that used to remain permanently frozen but due to rising temperatures now thaws and erodes quickly. The erosion is what is forcing the village to move.

Glaciers:

The World Glacial Monitoring service claimed in a July 2015 article that the rate of glacial melt has been getting progressively higher. The rate is double now what it was in 1990s, and triple what it was in the 1980s. The study is based on data from a few hundred glaciers directly measured by the service, as well as observations of field and satellite photos of thousands of other glaciers.

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Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. Photo from glacierchange.org

Renewables:

Over the last seven years…We’ve multiplied wind power threefold, and solar power more than twentyfold

Wind: greenmountainwindfarm_fluvanna_2004

According to the American Wind Energy Association, American wind energy capacity has risen from an output of roughly 25 gigawatts in 2008 to 75 gigawatts in 2015. This would make the president’s statement of a threefold improvement accurate. The industry is situated to continue to grow, with 9.4 gigawatts of capacity being installed in 2016.

Solar:

There is now 27.4 gigawatts of installed solar capacity in the US, according to the Solar Energy Industries association, there was 1.1 GW installed in the US in 2008. This is a sharp increase that can be attributed to a rise in both home solar systems and industrialized solar energy initiatives. Obama’s claim of a twenty-fold increase holds up.

solar_plant_kl

Carbon Emissions:

“We (the united states) will reduce our carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.”

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A table from the EPA report. 

American carbon emissions have dropped 9.3% from 2005 to 2014 according to an Environmental Protection Agency report , so a continued drop to 17% wouldn’t be out of the question and is likely with the continued growth of renewable energy. However, some believe that the Great Recession of 2007 can be credited with reducing the emissions. Economic growth has historically been tied to a rise in carbon emissions over the past forty years. (This Washington Post article explains the complications of decoupling the economy from carbon emissions). The complication is that the economy may be harmed as it transitions away from carbon-producing industries and jobs.

Last Generation

Finally, I’ll examine a more broad statement made by President Obama

As one of America’s governors has said, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.”

Jay Inslee, the current governor or Washington, was the originator of the thought.

Scientific American recently addressed the thought that we are the last generation that can do something about climate change. Their research suggested that a point of no return, when the parts per million of carbon reaches 450 in the atmosphere, would be reached in 2042 at the current rate of global carbon pollution. The mere 26-year window to find a long-term solution would suggest that time is running out on reducing carbon emissions substantially. The administration set a goal of 80% reduction for the United States by 2050. The good news is that global carbon emissions slowed to just .5% increase in 2014 after growing by nearly 4% annually for a decade according to an EU study.

The claim that the current generation of power brokers is the last with a chance to act on climate change is true. Further temperature increases would lead to a variety of severe consequences that would have global effects.

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