President Trump’s official schedule on Monday includes a White House speech dedicated to promoting “America’s environmental leadership.” The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany reports that the goal for Trump’s remarks will be to defend his administration’s steady efforts to overturn existing environmental regulations and failure to address climate change.
“The media has largely ignored the fact that the United States under President Trump’s leadership and policies has made the air, water, and environment cleaner and he’s going to share that with the American people,” a White House spokesman told Alemany over email. Republicans, he said, are “the party of conservation, environmental protection, and expanding responsible clean energy technologies.”
That air-and-water line is an echo of one of the president’s regular arguments: Trump may not prioritize climate change, but he is the sort of environmental actor who will fight for clean air and water.
Obviously, it is still the case that clean air and water are important. The American Lung Association releases an annual assessment of air quality, recognizing that air pollution contributes to thousands of American deaths every year. Efforts to expand protections focused on air and water are regularly the focus of battles in Washington, with scientists often pointing to the increased health benefits of reduced pollution limits and industries responsible for that pollution warning about economic impacts.
In recent years, happily, those fights have been largely incremental. In the 1970s, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, this effort looked different. There was, then, a president willing to champion clean air and water: Republican Richard Nixon, who signed the Clean Air Act into law in 1970. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency that same year.
These were significant, effective steps in reducing the sort of pollution that Trump prefers to talk about, steps that set the United States on a course to be among the countries with the cleanest air and water. Trump’s line about clean air and water often seems anachronistic, in fact, as though his embrace of environmentalism extends little further than that fight 50 years ago. As though his environmental awareness stopped with the Keep America Beautiful campaign.
He’s not the only one to fall back on this line. In the first Democratic debate, former vice president Joe Biden used similar phrasing. Democrats needed to protect the ability of the middle class to “breathe air that is clean and … have water that they can drink.”
In the current political environment, that’s not the marquee battle. The central struggle of the moment is instead addressing climate change, limiting the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere to potentially avoid the worst effects of a warming climate. That’s a battle in which Trump has shown an unwillingness to engage and where Biden’s facing some skepticism.
Earlier this month, The Post’s Dino Grandoni outlined a number of times when Trump responded to questions about addressing climate change with his assertion that he would focus on cleaner air and water. Trump’s most public rejection of the fight against climate change came with his decision to remove the United States from the international Paris climate accord in June 2017; in his speech announcing that change, Trump pointed to clean air and water as the more important fights.
“The United States, under the Trump administration, will continue to be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth,” he said. “We’ll be the cleanest. We’re going to have the cleanest air. We’re going to have the cleanest water. We will be environmentally friendly, but we’re not going to put our businesses out of work, and we’re not going to lose our jobs.”
As Grandoni explained, declaring oneself to be an environmental champion while ignoring climate change is like saying you won the World Series by defeating another team from the United States. Or, really, like saying you won the World Series after playing only Little League and college teams. While we’re dropping similes: Focusing primarily on clean air and water is like making sure the Hindenburg’s kitchen doesn’t have a problem with spoilage.
Anyway, it’s not the case that the United States has the cleanest air in the world or that it’s improving under Trump. A comparison by Yale University’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy ranks the United States 10th on air cleanliness. The Lung Association’s most recent report suggests that air quality has slipped, as did recent analysis by the Associated Press. Trump’s legacy on this issue will probably center on the number of environmental regulations he’s reversed, not the positive changes he’s implemented.
We noted at the beginning of this article that the event was scheduled for Monday afternoon. The schedule was set before Washington was deluged with rain on Monday morning, spurring flooded roads, significant delays and even some water seeping into the basement of the White House itself. Commutes were disrupted and, were Trump’s event not planned for the White House itself, it seems possible that it might have been postponed.
No single weather event can be directly attributed to the warming climate, but climate scientists have long predicted that climate change would lead to larger precipitation events like Monday morning’s storm. Warmer air can hold more water, meaning more precipitation in both rain- and snowstorms. A 2016 report from the EPA identified increased flooding as an increasing risk to the District in an era of warmer global temperatures and larger storms.
In other words, as Trump was preparing to tell the world how effective his administration had been on environmental issues despite not addressing global warming, Mother Nature was displaying the sort of storm that scientists expect climate change to produce with the sort of flooding that the EPA expected would follow.
The administration’s response might be a simple one: At least the water that flooded the streets was relatively clean.
Correction: A reference to Nixon signing the Clean Water Act has been removed. The bill passed over his veto.