The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s bizarre ‘cleanest air’ argument for ignoring climate change

President Trump listens during a phone conversation with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Aug. 27. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House’s release last Friday of a report detailing the expected effects of climate change didn’t exactly get buried in the way the administration may have hoped. In the days since its release, news outlets have dug into the extensive document, identifying the scale of threat posed by the warming climate and, unavoidably, noting the tension between its forecasts and the indifference of President Trump.

Both he and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders were asked about the report Monday.

Sanders, conducting her fourth daily news briefing since the end of August, was asked why Trump didn’t feel a responsibility to protect the environment.

"Well, the president's certainly leading on what matters most in this process, and that's on having clean air, clean water. In fact, the United States continues to be a leader on that front,” she said, later adding, “The biggest thing that we can do is focus on how to make sure we have the cleanest air, the cleanest water, and the president is certainly doing that and certainly leading on that front."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Trump reiterated that argument.

"You look at our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean,” he said. “But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over."

This appears to be the line, then: We don’t need to address climate change because we are focused on preserving our “record clean” air and water.

So let's evaluate that.

During his interview with The Post, Trump claimed to be one of a group of people who “have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers.” On the campaign trail, Trump used to offer a different set of credentials to deny the existence of global warming: his shelf covered with awards for his environmental consciousness.

"By the way, I won so many environmental awards, shockingly. No, it's true,” Trump said during a speech in December 2015.

It wasn’t true, it seemed. Our fact-checkers dug into the claim, finding one award given to one of his golf clubs in 2007 and another given in appreciation after he donated land to Westchester County that he was blocked from turning into a golf course.

In that speech in 2015, Trump continued to make the case for how he would focus his environmentalist energies.

"And you know what I want to do? I want really immaculate air. I want clean, crystal water,” he said. “I want a lot of things. Okay? I want a lot of things."

That was his refrain for months. We want clean air. We want clean water. Often, the ante would be upped: We want the cleanest air. We want the cleanest water.

A month or two ago, somewhat suddenly, Trump started declaring that particular mission accomplished.

"We withdrew the United States from the job-killing, income-killing Paris climate accord. That was costing our country,” Trump said in September. “And we have the cleanest air now in the world. We have the cleanest water. Remember this. I'm an environmentalist. I want crystal-clean water. I want crystal-clean air."

Talking about hurricanes in October, Trump said: “I live in Florida to a large extent and spend a lot of time in Florida, and we had a period of time where we went years without having any major problem. And then you have a problem and it goes in cycles, and I want absolutely crystal-clear water and I want the cleanest air on the planet and our air now is cleaner than it’s ever been."

A month ago, there was this celebratory tweet.

As is often the case with the medium-quality infographics Trump shares on social media, this one is incorrect. It uses one metric for air cleanliness — the density of fine particulate matter in the air — and asserts that the United States' air is the cleanest by that metric, according to the World Health Organization.

But the WHO’s data show that the United States' air isn’t the cleanest on that metric. In North America, Canada’s air has lower levels of that size of particulates. So does the air in Estonia, Finland and Iceland in Europe. And in Brunei and Australia. On this one metric, the United States' air is relatively clean, but it’s not the cleanest.

Trump may have been pointing to a news release from the Environmental Protection Agency this year touting the cleanliness of the air, but that report didn’t compare the United States to other countries and, ironically, showed an increase in particulates last year.

The improvements the country has experienced since the 1970s, of course, are heavily a function of the Clean Air Act, a bill that Trump not only isn’t responsible for but that his administration has worked to weaken.

There are plenty of other metrics that could be used to measure air quality — other particulates, ozone, sulfides, nitrates. But none of those is related to the looming problem of climate change, which stems largely from the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Saying that you’re addressing environmental problems by ensuring clean air while ignoring greenhouse gas emissions is like saying that you cook only healthy food, pointing at the lack of food-poisoning complaints but ignoring that your meals all contain 400 percent of the daily recommended allotments of fat and salt.

Trump’s assessment of what “environmentalism” entails is, like many other aspects of his political understanding, rooted in an archaic, pre-1990s sense of the term. The environmental challenge faced by President Richard Nixon was dense smog choking U.S. cities, like producing food laced with salmonella to continue the analogy above. Nixon oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Over time, the more significant threat of climate change has become obvious — but less tangibly. That affords more political leeway to ignore the problem should one seek to do so.

Trump seeks to do so, and has a new, odd talking point he deploys to that end.