Trump and His Party of Pollution
Given what we’ve seen in the impeachment hearings so far, there is literally no crime, no abuse of power, that would induce Republicans to turn on President Trump. So if you’re waiting for some dramatic political turn, don’t hold your breath.
On second thought, however, maybe you should hold your breath. For air quality has deteriorated significantly over the past few years — a deterioration that has already cost thousands of American lives. And if Trump remains in power, the air will get much worse, and the death toll rise dramatically, in the years ahead.
The story so far: When I talk about air pollution, I don’t mean the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change, which pose a long-term existential threat. I’m talking instead about pollutants that have a much more immediate effect, especially “fine particulate matter,” small particles that make the air hazy and can penetrate deep into the respiratory tract. The health hazards of these particles have been documented by many studies.
The good news until a few years ago was that thanks to environmental regulation the concentration of fine particulates was in fairly rapid decline. The bad news is that since 2016 this kind of pollution has been on the rise again, reversing around a fifth of the gains since 2009.
A study documenting this reversal suggests multiple causes, including wildfires (themselves caused in part by climate change), increased driving and reduced enforcement. The study also finds, using well-established results on the health effects of pollution, that even this seemingly small rise in particulates led to almost 10,000 extra deaths last year.
To put this number in context, it may be helpful to remember that Trump began his presidency by talking about “American carnage,” portraying a nation awash in violent crime. In reality, crime was and is near historic lows. To the extent that anything was behind his rant, it lay in a modest (and temporary) uptick in homicides from around 14,000 in 2014 to 17,000 in 2016.
The point is that the Trump-era death toll from worsening air is already several times as large as the “carnage” Trump decried.
It seems crass to point this out, but the economic cost of rising pollution is also large; the study puts it at $89 billion a year. This is a pretty big number, even in an economy as large as America’s, and it means that economic growth under Trump, properly measured, has been significantly slower than standard numbers suggest.
And things are poised to get much worse. The Trump administration is working on new rules that would effectively prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from making use of much of the scientific evidence on adverse health effects of pollution. This would cripple environmental regulation, almost surely leading to sharply worsening air and water quality over time.
We don’t know exactly how this will play out, but it seems safe to say that if Trump stays in office, a lot more Americans will die as a result of his anti-environmental policies than the total number who are murdered, let alone murdered by the immigrants Trump loves to portray as a menacing, dark-skinned horde.
Why is this happening? As many observers have pointed out, failing to act on climate change, although it’s an indefensible crime against humanity, is also in some ways understandable. Greenhouse gas emissions are invisible, and the harm they do is global and very long-term, making denialism relatively easy.
Particulates, however, are visible, and the harm they do is both relatively localized and fairly quick. So you might have thought that the fight against dirty air would have widespread, bipartisan support. Indeed, modern environmental protection began under none other than Richard Nixon, and retired E.P.A. officials I’ve talked to describe the Nixon era as a golden age.
And Republicans continued to show at least some concern for the environment even after the party began to take a hard right turn. President Ronald Reagan signed a treaty to protect the ozone layer. The threat of acid rain was contained via a program enacted by President George H.W. Bush.
But that was a long time ago. Today’s Republican Party isn’t just a party that has embraced crazy conspiracy theories about global warming (and everything else where the facts are inconvenient.) It has also become the party of pollution.
Why? Follow the money. There’s huge variation among industries in how much environmental damage they do per dollar of production. And the super-polluting industries have basically put all their chips on the Republicans. In 2016, for example, coal mining gave 97 percent of its political contributions to Republican candidates and causes. And polluters are getting what they paid for.
This, by the way, is one reason I and others find it so mind-boggling when people like Joe Biden say that everything will be fine once Trump is gone. If Trump doesn’t succeed in destroying our democracy (a big if), his most damaging legacy will be the vast environmental destruction he leaves behind. And Trump’s pro-pollution stance isn’t an aberration. In this, he is very much a man of his party.