President Donald Trump downplayed his assault on environmental protections and touted a short list of accomplishments Monday, in a bid to recast his record of deregulating polluters and aggravating the climate crisis ahead of next year’s election.
In an afternoon speech at the White House, the president offered voters a counter-narrative to what the Sierra Club called “the worst record on the environment and climate action of any president in the history of the country.”
“Among the heritage we must preserve is our country’s incredible natural splendor,” Trump said. “That is the shared obligation that brings us together today.”
It was a boisterous back-patting session in which the president’s Cabinet members and a handful of random supporters, including a folksy bait-and-tackle shop owner from Florida, constructed an alternate reality. In their telling, increased fossil fuel production offered indubitable progress on the climate crisis, and credit for the results of a half-century of regulation was owed to a president in power for just over two years.
The White House took no questions from reporters.
Trump checked off a list that included only a few objectively unharmful actions, such as signing a bipartisan bill to reduce garbage in the oceans and the completion of work on Superfund sites, which in many cases began decades ago. But other “accomplishments,” as the White House put it, require jarringly selective context to earn such a label.
The administration boasted that a 74% reduction in air pollution since 1970 showed a continued “decline under President Trump’s leadership.” Yet an AP analysis of federal data last month found a 15% increase in days with unhealthy air in the United States in 2017 and 2018, compared to 2013 through 2016.
Trump touted his designation of 1.3 million acres of public land for protection, including a new 18-square-mile national marine sanctuary in Maryland that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Monday morning. But the president signed legally contested proclamations in December 2017 to shrink two national monuments by more than 2 million acres, in an apparent bid to open up mining opportunities in Southwestern lands that indigenous tribes consider sacred.
Axios described Trump’s speech as a “Javanka Special” because the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, White House adviser Jared Kushner, shaped its content. It was meant to win back suburban swing voters who secured Trump’s victory in 2016 but went for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.
Just 29% of Americans approved of Trump’s handling of climate change, while 62% disapproved, marking by far his lowest performance ratings on eight separate issues in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. The issue is a top concern for candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to take on Trump next year. Several top contenders released comprehensive plans to decarbonize huge swaths of the U.S. economy. One hopeful, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), staked his entire campaign on combating climate change, putting out some of the most aggressive, details proposals ever put forward by a sitting politician.
The administration boasted a 74% reduction in air pollution since 1970 … yet federal data last month showed a 15% increase in days with unhealthy air in the United States in 2017 and 2018, compared to 2013 through 2016.
Trump claimed the Green New Deal, the first policy framework to yet emerge that matches the scope of the climate crisis, would cost “nearly $100 trillion,” calling the figure “unthinkable” and “not even affordable in the best of times.” The figure, as it happens, is completely bogus, fabricated by Republican operatives to deride the virally popular proposal.
Monday’s speech comes with ironic timing for a president who, in his first year in office, signed an executive order rescinding a requirement that federal infrastructure projects like roads and bridges be designed to withstand flooding and extreme weather from climate change.
Just hours before the speech, torrential rain triggered flash floods that inundated the Beltway. In one video posted to Twitter, a waterfall of rain gushed down from the honeycombed ceiling of one Metro subway station. Photos showed drivers climbing on top of half-submerged vehicles as they awaited rescue teams.
“It’s fitting that President Trump is promoting his awful environmental record on the same day that the White House is flooding after a historic storm,” Inslee said in a statement. “If this weren’t real life, it would be a headline in The Onion.”
Trump will not attempt to backtrack on his yearslong record of mocking climate science with what appear to be deliberately antagonistic statements conflating temporary cold snaps with long-term global warming trends. Nor will he disavow his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord or propose rollbacks or delays of more than 80 regulations to curb pollution, particularly planet-warming emissions from fossil fuels.
Instead, Trump derided the United Nations-brokered agreement between every recognized country on Earth to cut emissions as “unfair, ineffective and very, very expensive,” calling it a “radical plan” that “will not make the world cleaner.”
“The previous administration waged a relentless war on American energy ― we can’t do that,” Trump said. “They sought to punish our workers, our producers and our manufacturers with ineffective global agreements” to move production to countries with lower pollution standards.
In a call with reporters ahead of the speech, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, argued the administration is “addressing climate change” by finalizing the Affordable Clean Energy rule last month. The EPA was legally required to craft the rule as a replacement to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, but the new rule significantly weakens regulations on coal-fired power plants.
On Monday, by coincidence, two national public health groups ― the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association ― sued the EPA in federal court, alleging the new rule violates the Clean Air Act by allowing for more dangerous pollution than the rule it replaced.
Likewise, Wheeler said the EPA would finalize a proposal for new fuel economy standards by the end of the summer, billing the policy change as another example of the Trump administration’s stewardship. Yet the initial regulatory change, unveiled last summer, threatens to make new vehicles sold in the United States far less fuel efficient.
The White House is also currently locked in a legal battle with California regulators, who are allowed to set stronger standards under the Clean Air Act. The prolonged fight is rocking the auto industry, which largely opposes the Trump administration’s proposal. Instead, the Trump administration’s new rules seem likely only to benefit oil companies that quietly lobbied for the rule change.
Mary Neumayr, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, said on the call that the deregulatory sweep demonstrated a “balanced approach.”
“The previous administration pursued a number of overreaching, costly regulations that put jobs at risk,” she said. “Under President Trump’s leadership, the United States continues to grow our economy and jobs.”
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