Fact-Check: What Scott Pruitt Gets Wrong About Climate Change, Paris and Coal

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has spread a lot of misinformation in defending President Trump's plan to exit the Paris climate agreement. Here's a reality check.

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Scott Pruitt talks to the White House press corps
Some of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's most misleading statements had to do with the Paris climate agreement. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has thrown around plenty of figures in his spirited defense of President Donald Trump‘s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement.

But many of them are just plain wrong.

An EPA spokesperson did admit that Pruitt “misspoke” in his claim, repeated multiple times, that 50,000 coal jobs had been created since the fourth quarter of 2016, after the number was debunked by The Washington Post, USA Today, Politifact and others. Coal mining currently only has about 50,000 jobs, total, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But some of Pruitt’s most misleading statements had to do with the Paris agreement itself. Here are just a few:

1. “India had no obligations until $2.5 trillion of aid were provided.”

India estimated that the total cost of meeting its Paris target would be $2.5 trillion (page 31), but it did not expect or require that the entire amount come from foreign aid. India did say: “Our efforts to avoid emissions during our development process are … tied to the availability and level of international financing and technology transfer.” India said it would calculate how much foreign aid it would need “at a later stage,” and said that most of its climate actions so far had been financed domestically.

Among steps India has taken already: establishment of a National Clean Energy Fund that is supported by a coal tax (called a “coal cess”) on every ton of coal mined or imported into India. The tax—which began at about 75 cents per ton (50 rupees) and is now at about $6 per ton (400 rupees)—has funded $1.8 billion in renewable energy so far. India canceled four coal-fired “ultra-mega” power projects last year, in the face of cheaper renewable energy and slowing of demand growth.

Far from sitting still with outstretched hand, India is on track to be eight years early in reaching its Paris goal for non-fossil sources to account for 40 percent of the nation’s installed electric capacity by 2030.  

2. “Why did China and India not have to take any steps until 2030?”

Both China and India set first targets for 2030 under the Paris treaty, as did many other nations, including Canada, Japan and those in the European Union. The United States set its first goal for 2025, as did Brazil, Israel and many nations throughout Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Under the Paris pact, each nation set its own targets. The problem of climate change requires that all nations work together, no matter their level of economic development. But differing levels of economic development were a reality that negotiators had to face: Asking all nations to meet the same targets and timetables simply wouldn’t work.

The goals China and India have set are ambitious given their circumstances. And they are doing better than promised. China’s coal consumption has declined for three consecutive years, and its CO2 emissions from energy use appear to have peaked more than a decade ahead of its Paris Agreement commitment.

3. “Even if all of the targets were met … it only reduced the temperature by less than two­-tenths of one degree.”

MIT promptly released a statement explaining how Pruitt and President Donald Trump had mischaracterized its researchers’ 0.2-degree projection on the potential impact of the Paris accord. In short, the number reflected how much nations had increased their ambitions at Paris, compared to the commitments they were prepared to make at the Copenhagen climate negotiations six years earlier. “The relevant MIT researchers believe that the Paris Agreement is an unprecedented and vital effort by nearly 200 countries to respond to the urgent threat of global climate change,” MIT said. In a world that is trying to avoid warming of 2 degrees Celsius, a move of 0.2 degrees is significant.

The World Resources Institute, using data from the United Nations Environment Program and others, projects that the world would be on track for 2.7 to 3.7 degree Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels under the pledges made so far under the Paris agreement. That means the Paris pledges would stave off as much as 2.7 degrees of warming compared to a scenario that included no climate policies at all.

Importantly, the Paris agreement’s initial targets were only a first step. The entire design of the treaty was for nations to meet regularly, review progress, and ratchet up their ambition over time. Deployment of clean energy technologies was likely to drive down the cost, making it possible for nations to move more aggressively to deploy more clean energy.

4. “From 2000 to 2014, this country saw a reduction in CO2 emissions by over 18 percent through leadership, innovation and technology.”

U.S. carbon emissions trends by sector

Pruitt appears to be talking about the 17 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from electric power generation in the United States between 2000 and 2015. (Through 2016, the reduction is even greater: 21 percent.)

But that number is only electric power generation. It doesn’t include CO2 emissions from transportation, industry or agriculture. Overall, U.S. CO2 emissions were only down 7 percent from 2000 to 2014, according to the EPA’s own figures. (Through 2015, CO2 emissions were down 9 percent.)

Carnegie Mellon University’s Power Sector Carbon Index provides graphs that show how the reduction of carbon emissions in electric power generation is due in part to the displacement of coal. Some is due to regulations of other pollution, like mercury; some to market forces. Over that time, the amount of electricity generated by natural gas and renewable energy has more than doubled. Coal generation has declined 37 percent.

Another factor that clearly drove down carbon emissions in the U.S. was the 2008 economic crash, as is apparent in the Energy Information Administration’s graph on greenhouse gas trends in its most recent annual energy outlook. The EIA projects that emissions will flatten, and then creep upward without the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

5. On the health impacts of carbon dioxide: “What the American people deserve is a true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2.”

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has published assessments of the health impacts of climate change after peer-review and public notice and comment.

“Rising greenhouse gas concentrations result in increases in temperature, changes in precipitation, increases in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events, and rising sea levels,” the assessment said. “These climate change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments. As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health continue to grow.”

6. “Methane is actually more potent.”

Even though methane, the primary component of natural gas, is by short-term measures a much more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, there’s a lot less of it in the atmosphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 76 percent of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere due to human activities is carbon dioxide. Methane, even when weighted to show its greater potency, makes up just 16 percent of the total.

Pruitt’s comment also begs the question of why one of his first steps after taking office was to halt the EPA’s efforts to control methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. If these emissions are not strictly controlled, any gains from replacing dirtier coal with gas could be wiped out.

Also, it’s worth noting the Paris accord was designed to address all anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases—methane and highly potent refrigeration gases, as well as carbon dioxide.

Pruitt mentioned that water vapor is also a greenhouse gas—another common talking point by those who are trying to block climate action. Although water vapor is the most abundant heat-trapping gas, the concentrations increase and decrease due to air temperature in a matter of hours. Carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere for about 100 years. The impact of water vapor on warming is one of the most heavily studied subjects in climate science. Scientists have concluded that it amplifies but does not drive the post-industrial warming the Earth has seen.

“It has a negligible impact on overall concentrations and does not contribute significantly to the long-term greenhouse effect,” the IPCC said.

Temperatures over time show an upward trend.

7. “We’ve actually been on hiatus since the late 1990s, as you know.”

Earth’s surface temperatures in 2016 were the warmest on record, following two previous record-breaking years, according to independent analyses by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There has been no hiatus.

Pruitt is repeating a favored talking point of opponents of climate change action; they argue that there was a hiatus, or a “pause” in global warming between 1998 and 2012, which, they say, proves that the Earth isn’t getting hotter. Their use of 1998 as a base year was misleading, since that was an “El Nino” year with unusually high temperatures at the time. Numerous studies since then have debunked the notion that global warming has stopped.

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