The Trump White House tries to rewrite its own history on the environment

The Trump solar panel tariffs eliminated thousands of US jobs.
The Trump solar panel tariffs eliminated thousands of US jobs.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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A recent Washington Post-ABC news poll finds that just 29% of Americans approve of how US president Donald Trump is dealing with climate changes and the environment. Conservation group the Sierra Club says he has the “worst record on the environment and climate action of any president in the history of the country.”

That’s probably why just hours after Washington DC was riven by flash floods that may be linked to climate change, Trump took to a podium in the East Room July 8 to try to change the public view of his climate change-denying presidency.

He bragged about clean air and water being “top priorities” of his administration, and said he supported solar power for perhaps the first time ever as president. As has become common, his cabinet members and a handful of outsiders offered up gushing praise. “I think the world needs to look at your leadership” on the environment, said Energy secretary Rick Perry. “Look at what you’ve done!” No, no one mentioned global warming or climate change, but Trump offered up a new idea for this presidency: stewardship.

An anti-environment culture is deeply and purposely embedded in the Trump White House. Trump has nominated climate change-denying officials who have been linked to, and paid by, the coal industry for most of their careers. Even the pastor of the White House bible study group attended by many cabinet members preaches that environmentalism is radical and foolish, because God put natural resources on earth for his greatest creation, man, to use up.

Among other big, bold, anti-environment moves, Trump pulled the US out of the groundbreaking Paris Climate Accord to limit global warming in the first months of his presidency. He dismantled the Clean Power Plan to limit carbon emissions and rolled back protections for threatened species and car emission standards.

Trump has told thousands of documented lies since he was in office. The speech a was quickly dubbed another White House attempt at “gaslighting”.

But it seemed even more cynical and manipulative than that. The Trump 2020 reelection campaign appears to be betting that most American voters haven’t been paying attention to what Trump has been doing since he took office. Trump, the bet appears to be, will win new supporters with new sound-bites about being environmentally-friendly, because Americans are so gullible.

Clean air

US air quality has slipped since Trump took office, according to an AP analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data. The US had more days of poor-quality air in 2017 and 2018 than it did in the years beforehand, perhaps because of Trump administration rollbacks mentioned above, the AP concluded.

Trump had previously insisted numerous times that the US has the “cleanest air” in the world, but Canada and Scandinavian countries have lower death rates from air pollution, and ozone and particulate pollution worsened in US cities from 2015 to 2019, the American Lung Association found.

On July 8, Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency director tried a new tactic, claiming credit for the decades of air cleanup that started with Richard Nixon’s administration. “My administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet,” Trump said.

“From 1970 to 2018, U.S. criteria air pollution fell 74 percent, while the economy grew by 275 percent,” EPA director Andrew Wheeler said.

Solar power

The Trump administration dealt a blow to the solar power industry in 2018, putting massive tariffs on solar panels that eliminated thousands of solar installation jobs. Barack Obama had made solar power a priority with a 2011 “Sunshot” program.

However, Trump said he is “now revising the past administration’s misguided regulations to better protect the environment and to protect our American workers, so importantly.” There’s “a very good place for solar energy,” Trump said. “I’m a believer in solar energy.  It hasn’t fully developed. It’s got a long way to go, but it’s really got a tremendous future.”

As Quartz wrote earlier, even with the Trump tariffs, solar power continues to grow in the US.

Fighting Florida’s red tide

The “red tide” of algae off Florida has left piles of dead fish on once-beautiful coastlines, and devastated businesses. Trump said July 8 he was “straightening it out.”

The opposite is true, scientists and environmentalists say. “He claimed credit for fighting Florida’s toxic algae problem when he’s actually hindered those efforts,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Among other things, the latest Trump budget didn’t allocate enough money to efforts to restore the Everglades and reduce polluted water discharges from Lake Okeechobee, the Center told Quartz. Florida’s leaders, including Republicans, asked for $200 million, but Trump only allocated about $70 million.

Overall, the speech was a “wildly misleading effort to hide the incredible damage he’s doing to our environment,” said Hartl.