President 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 such top-tier priorities as the economy and health care, rising concern about climate change has prompted several Democratic hopefuls to make it central to their presidential bids.

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.”

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“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.”

Touting the United States’ level of access to drinking water, Trump boasted that his White House was working “harder than many previous administrations” on the issue of the environment, adding: “Maybe almost all of them.” 

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 2½ 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.

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These moves come as federal data suggests that U.S. air quality is worsening and that the country’s 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 percent last year, according to the federal government, their biggest increase since 2010.

“Regrettably, the president’s rhetoric and the statements he’s made on climate are, at best, disingenuous,” said former congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who has urged the GOP to address environmental issues more fervently and was a frequent critic of Trump while in office. “That has obviously had an influence on his entire administration, where agencies and departments are fearful of even mentioning the term climate change or referring to carbon pollution. That’s a bad policy strategy and it’s also a bad political strategy.”

In a phone interview before Trump’s speech Monday, Curbelo said Republicans have begun to recognize that they cannot afford to ignore climate change — an issue that resonates particularly with younger voters and women in suburban districts like the one he used to represent.

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“The party has wasted a lot of time over the last two decades,” said Curbelo, who represented the Miami suburbs from 2015 to earlier this year. “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.”

While administration officials are not hoping to win over environmental advocates, they said 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, Mary Neumayr, who chairs the Council on Environmental Quality, said Trump decided to schedule the speech after discussing the status of several environmental and energy policies with his advisers. A senior administration official said Trump meets on occasion with roughly a dozen Cabinet and other top officials on environmental policies.

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Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser, also urged her father to talk about the environment, according to a separate senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. She sat in the front row during the East Room speech.

“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. 

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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 percent of Democrats said climate change was “very important,” compared with more than the 56 percent of independents and 26 percent of Republicans. As for Trump, 29 percent overall approve of how he is handling climate change/global warming while 62 percent disapprove.

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These views help account for why the nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates have elevated the issue of climate change and endorse more aggressive policies than those adopted under former president 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 United States has pledged to cut its carbon output between 26 and 28 percent by 2030. 

Trump, for his part, mocked Democrats’ support for the Green New Deal, which aims to eliminate America’s fossil fuel use by 2030 and would establish an economic safety net for communities affected by the transition to carbon-free energy.

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A spokesman for Trump’s reelection campaign emphasized that the Democratic Party’s backing for the Green New Deal would remain a main centerpiece of the campaign’s messaging in the coming months.

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“The president will make the point that he has been successful and his policies are proof that you can both grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time,” said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director. Calling the Green New Deal an “economy wrecker,” Murtaugh added of Democrats: “They’re showing us what is exactly the wrong thing.”

Administration officials touted America’s environmental standing Monday on several fronts, even when the data suggests otherwise.

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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. 

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The Health Effects Institute’s State of Global Air 2019 report shows the United States 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.

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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 is leading to more soot in 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.”

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Trump and members of his Cabinet also touted the administration’s work to clean up waste at Superfund sites, expand energy production and reduce harmful algal blooms and marine debris.

“Thousands and thousands of tons of this debris float onto our shores, after it’s dumped by other countries,” the president said, noting that the United States, Canada and Mexico adopted the first-ever marine litter provisions under a newly forged trade agreement. “Thousands and thousands of tons of garbage come to us.”

But Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer at the advocacy group Oceana, noted in an interview that the administration recently refused to sign off on a new international framework requiring countries to notify other nations that they are shipping them plastic waste, which the United States routinely sends to Asia.

“The fact that the U.S. is not a player in this, it’s atrocious,” Savitz said. “But it’s consistent with our recent foreign policy on any of these pollution issues.” 

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.