President Donald Trump delivered a full-throated defense of his administration’s environmental record Monday, despite relaxing nationwide limits on air and water pollution and reversing course on U.S. climate policy.
Trump’s address, covering policies ranging from marine debris to hunting on public lands, comes as environmental issues are gaining traction in the 2020 presidential campaign. While voters still rank the environment below top-tier priorities like the economy and health care, rising concern about climate change has prompted several Democratic hopefuls to make it central to their campaigns.
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said in a phone interview Monday that Republicans have begun to recognize that they cannot afford to ignore climate change and win over swing districts like the one he used to represent.
“The party has wasted a lot of time over the last two decades,” said Curbelo, who used to represent a suburb of Miami. “Republicans generally have either ignored this issue, or been mistaken about it. So there’s a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time, because younger voters are losing their patience with the government’s inaction on climate policy.”
Facing Cabinet members including his Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department chiefs, the president said he had urged his deputies to tackle environmental challenges “so we can provide the highest quality of life to all Americans.”
“We want the cleanest air, we want crystal clear water. And that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “These are incredible goals that everyone in this country can rally behind, and they are rallying behind.”
But Trump’s recounting of his accomplishments prompted howls of incredulity from environmentalists, who noted that he had systematically dismantled dozens of policies over the past two-and-a-half years aimed at safeguarding human health and the planet. Last month the EPA eased curbs on carbon emissions from power plants; next month it is slated to finalize a rule freezing tougher mileage standards for cars and pickup trucks.
These moves come as federal data suggests that U.S. air quality is worsening and its overall greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise. The number of unhealthy days for ozone and soot pollution reached 799 in 2018 and 721 in 2017, according to EPA data, the highest levels they’ve hit since 2012. The nation’s carbon dioxide emissions increased more than 3% last year, according to the federal government, their biggest increase since 2010.
“Donald Trump lecturing the world about America’s environmental leadership is completely at odds with reality,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, in a statement. “This administration has never met an environmental protection it wasn’t eager to overturn.”
While administration officials are not hoping to win over environmental advocates, they said that Trump can make the case to swing voters that he had managed to boost the economy without sacrificing core environmental protections.
In a phone call with reporters Monday, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mary Neumayr said that Trump decided to schedule the speech after discussing the status of several environmental and energy policies with his advisers.
Ivanka Trump also urged her father to talk about the environment as part of his broader outreach to women, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“The president recognizes that a strong economy is vital for a healthy environment and improving environmental protection,” Neumayr said. “Under President Trump, this administration is focused on taking a practical approach to addressing environmental challenges while also supporting a strong economy.”
It remains unclear whether the White House message will resonate with Americans in the center of the political spectrum.
While climate change and other environmental issues continue to resonate more strongly with Democrats than any other group, a majority of independents also rank it as an important consideration in the upcoming election. According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 81% of Democrats said climate change was “very important,” compared to more than the 56% of independents and 26% of Republicans.
These views help account for why the nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates have elevated the issue of climate change and now endorse more aggressive policies than those adopted under Barack Obama. According to a Washington Post survey of 23 Democratic candidates, 19 support ending all fossil fuel leasing on federal land. All 23 said they would rejoin the 2015 Paris climate agreement Trump has disavowed, under which the U.S. has pledged to cut its carbon output between 26 and 28% by 2030.
Administration officials touted America’s environmental standing Monday on several fronts, even when the data suggests otherwise.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, for example, said, “I do believe that our air is cleaner and our water is cleaner than other countries around the world. And I think the data supports that.”
While U.S. water quality ranks among the highest in the world, and Americans face relatively low exposure to fine particle pollution, or soot, the country’s smog problem is much worse than dozens of other countries across the globe.
The Health Effects Institute’s State of Global Air 2019 report shows the U.S. ranks 123rd out of 195 nations when it comes to smog, or ozone pollution. Dan Greenbaum, the institute’s president, said in an interview that vehicle travel, electricity use and industrial activity all contribute to America’s high ozone levels.
But Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association, said in an interview that climate change is also harming air quality because higher temperatures contribute to smog formation and the uptick in wildfires across the West are pouring more soot into the air.
“Climate change has an enormous impact on human health,” Nolen said, adding that Trump is scaling back the very policies aimed at curbing emissions linked to global warming. “It increases the risk of wildfires, ozone is going to be higher and worse, and ozone is appearing in places where it hadn’t before. In addition to that, the heat itself is a risk to human health.”