Trump Will Speak Monday on ‘America’s Environmental Leadership.’ Critics Say It Will be Surreal.
WASHINGTON — President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the international Paris climate change accord, sought to roll back or weaken over 80 environmental regulations and punted on global environmental leadership.
“On the issue of environmental stewardship,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, “Trump is seen around the world as a Darth Vader-like figure.”
But Monday afternoon, Mr. Trump is scheduled to deliver a speech billed as “America’s Environmental Leadership.” He will be flanked by his two senior environmental officials — one a former lobbyist for the coal industry and the other a former oil lobbyist.
Short of announcing a 180-degree policy pivot, it is unclear what Mr. Trump’s argument will be or why he would be giving it now; his officials have said he was briefed by his environmental team two weeks ago and decided it was time to make a speech. But the idea for the speech did not start with the president. It started with consultants on his re-election campaign who have discovered that his environmental record was a definite turnoff to two key demographics — millennials and suburban women, according to two people familiar with the plans.
In an administration that has often had a muddled approach to policy, both Mr. Trump’s allies and enemies agree that in launching the rollback of environmental rules he has clearly delivered on his campaign promises. In his speech, he is expected to trumpet that rollback as part of what administration officials say is an economy-boosting approach to the environment that could appeal to at least some of the voters unhappy with his record.
As part of that approach, Mr. Trump is expected to deliver a “center right” speech, according to one White House official, and criticize policy proposals put forth by Democrats — especially the Green New Deal proposed by Democrats in Congress — that he will try to paint as aggressive and unreasonable.
In a phone call with reporters on Monday, Andrew Wheeler, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said that Mr. Trump would emphasize that air and water quality had improved under his watch. But Mr. Wheeler at points used data going back to the Nixon administration to build his case, saying that major air pollutants have decreased more than 74 percent since 1970, and that carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 15 percent since 2005.
“Air pollution has continued to decline under President Trump’s leadership,” Mr. Wheeler said. “We continue to make progress on the water side.”
When asked whether Mr. Trump still believed that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and whether windmills cause cancer, as the president has said, Mr. Wheeler said that there were “positives and negatives” to all energy sources, and that administration officials were paying attention to this.
In his speech, Mr. Trump is also expected to laud the fact that the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions have dropped about 10 percent in recent years. But that drop is largely due to market shifts leading to an increase in the use of natural gas, which produces about the half the greenhouse gas pollution of coal. Under Mr. Trump’s policies, which are intended to promote the use of more polluting coal, those emissions are now expected to rise.
“These steps to support coal-based power in fact run in the opposite direction of the cause of climate change,” said Richard Newell, the president of Resources for the Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental research organization in Washington.
“It is disingenuous to both celebrate the decline in U.S. CO2 emissions at the same time that one promotes the use of coal power,” he said. “You can’t have both.”
Mr. Trump’s most notable efforts to weaken environmental protections have been on climate change, which many environmental scientists and policy experts call the defining threat to humanity of the 21st century. Mr. Trump has publicly mocked the established science of human-caused climate change.
And he has proudly sold himself as a champion of the coal industry — even as emissions from burning coal remain one of the chief causes of global warming.
A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and had reviewed internal campaign polling, said that the numbers showed Mr. Trump was “never going to get” the type of voter who feels passionately about tackling climate change.
But, the official said, there were moderate voters who like the president’s economic policies who “just want to know that he’s being responsible” on environmental issues. And that is who the speech will be aimed at convincing.
Mr. Trump is expected to give remarks in the East Room of the White House. He will be joined by Mr. Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, who has played a lead role in crafting rollbacks of rules on climate change and clean air, and David Bernhardt, the interior secretary and a former oil lobbyist, who has led the way in opening up the nation’s public lands and waters to more drilling.
Last month, in a move that represented the Trump administration’s most direct effort to date to protect the coal industry, the E.P.A. finalized its plan to replace former President Barack Obama’s stringent rule on coal pollution with a new rule that would keep plants open longer and significantly increase the nation’s emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution.
This summer, the E.P.A. is expected to finalize another plan that would replace Mr. Obama’s stringent regulations on planet-warming tailpipe pollution, replacing them with a new rule that experts say is likely to function as a total repeal of the original regulation.
The incongruous message of environmental preservation is so starkly at odds with Mr. Trump’s own record, experts say, that the moment already smacks of the surreal.
“It is an utter farce for the president to talk about America’s environmental leadership, when he has been a champion of the polluters,” Mr. Brinkley said.
Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and pollster, said he had presented Republican lawmakers with data in recent weeks that showed that the public — and particularly younger people — wanted to see action to safeguard the environment, but that the issue was seen as owned by Democrats.
“It is still not a top-five priority” among Republicans, Mr. Luntz said. “These guys, they really do care, but they don’t know how to get it done in this polarized environment.”