Trump Saw Opportunity in Speech on Environment. Critics Saw a ‘“1984” Moment.’ – The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Reviewing new polling data, consultants working for President Trump’s 2020 campaign discovered an unsurprising obstacle to winning support from two key demographic groups, millennials and suburban women. And that was his record on the environment.
But they also saw an opportunity. While the numbers showed that Mr. Trump was “never going to get” the type of voter who feels passionately about tackling climate change, a senior administration official who reviewed the polling said, there were moderate voters who liked the president’s economic policies and “just want to know that he’s being responsible” on environmental issues.
So for nearly an hour in the East Room on Monday afternoon, Mr. Trump sought to recast his administration’s record by describing what he called “America’s environmental leadership” under his command.
Flanked by several cabinet members and senior environmental officials — one a former lobbyist for the coal industry and the other a former oil lobbyist — Mr. Trump rattled off a grab bag of his administration’s accomplishments, which he said included “being good stewards of our public land,” reducing carbon emissions and promoting the “cleanest air” and “crystal clean” water.
“These are incredible goals that everyone in this country should be able to rally behind,” Mr. Trump said. “I really think that’s something that is bipartisan,” he said, adding that he had disproved critics who said his pro-business policies would harm the environment.
Experts watching the speech said many of the president’s claims were not based in fact. Those achievements that were real, they said, were the result of actions taken by his predecessors. And they noted the one conspicuous omission from the whole discussion: any mention of climate change, the overarching environmental threat that Mr. Trump has mocked in the past.
David G. Victor, the director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, said the speech was the starkest example to date of the disconnect between Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and reality. “This speech is a true ‘1984’ moment,” he said.
[Read our fact check of the president’s speech.]
Mr. Trump called himself a protector of public land, but he has taken unprecedented steps to open up public lands to drilling, including signing off on the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history, and lifting an Obama-era moratorium on new coal mining leases on public lands.
He repeatedly cited his desire for clear water, but the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of rolling back an Obama-era clean-water regulation of pollution in streams and wetlands.
He described himself as a champion of the oceans, while he and Mary Neumayr, the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, have promoted policies that the United States has advanced to reduce marine debris, particularly plastic drinking straws. But Mr. Trump did not mention that his administration has proposed opening up the entire United States coastline to offshore oil and gas drilling.
And he boasted that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have gone down over the past decade, “more than any other country on earth.” But while it is true that carbon emissions have declined by over 10 percent in that time, over a dozen other countries — including most of the European Union — have seen declines of more than twice that.
In a phone call with reporters earlier Monday, Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, cited data going back to the Nixon administration in describing the Trump administration’s accomplishments.
“There’s this factoid out there that the U.S. is a leader in reducing emissions,” said Richard Newell, the president of Resources for the Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental research organization in Washington. “That is just not true. 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. You can’t have both.”
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Air pollution has improved dramatically over the past four decades, in a large part because of federal regulations. But many areas of the country still have high levels of pollution, and climate change may make them worse.
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 a plan to replace former President Barack Obama’s stringent rule on coal pollution with a new rule that would keep plants that use it to generate electricity open longer and significantly increase the nation’s emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide.
The E.P.A. is also expected to finalize another plan this summer that would abandon Mr. Obama’s strict regulations on planet-warming tailpipe pollution in automobiles, replacing them with a new rule that experts say is likely to function as a total repeal of the original regulation.
Mr. Trump seemed to place a particular emphasis on environmental problems afflicting Florida, a state vital to his re-election, emphasizing that he backs restoring the Everglades, and that his administration has directed over half a billion dollars to mitigate a toxic tide of red algal blooms that originate in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. He invited Bruce Hrobak, a bait and tackle shop owner in Port St. Lucie, Fla., who said his shop was devastated by the red tide, to the podium.
“You jumping into this environment brings my heart to warmth,” Mr. Hrobak told Mr. Trump, adding that his own father looked like Mr. Trump “but you’re much handsomer.”
Polls show that Florida is one state where Republican voters rank environmental issues as a top concern. The reason, the polls have found, is that Florida is now on the front lines of climate change, as Miami and other cities experience consistent, damaging flooding as a result of sea level rise and a warming planet.
But Mr. Trump made no mention of climate change, nor did he revisit a tendency to proudly sell himself as a champion of the coal industry and fossil fuels in general — even as they remain one of the chief causes of global warming.
This incongruous message of environmental action was so starkly at odds with Mr. Trump’s own record that some critics found the moment almost 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,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has written about environmental policy.
Mr. Trump was 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.
When asked whether Mr. Trump still believed that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and whether windmills caused cancer, as the president has said, Mr. Wheeler said in a phone call that there were “positives and negatives” to all energy sources, and that administration officials were paying attention to this.
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.”
Among the Democrats who criticized the president’s speech on Monday was Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
“Try as he might say otherwise,” Mr. Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor, “President Trump has proved himself probably the staunchest ally of the worst polluters, of any president we have ever had.”