The President wants voters to believe the US boasts world-leading environmental performance, but as climate risks escalate is anyone buying it?
The scriptwriters for America – The Trump Experiment have evidently given up on subtlety. As President Trump prepared to deliver his first speech on the environment since he confirmed the US would quit the Paris Agreement, Washington DC was hit by biblical rain and floods. Precisely the kind of flash floods that climate scientists have consistently warned will become more severe and more frequent as the atmosphere warms, filled the capital’s streets. Reporters took to Twitter to reveal that the White House basement was flooding, as the combination of extreme weather and climate vulnerable infrastructure started to produce its own metaphors.
It’s official: The White House basement is flooding. pic.twitter.com/f1DR6awE89
— Eamon Javers (@EamonJavers) July 8, 2019
This is fine. pic.twitter.com/tLw5nJai49
— Brian Radzinsky (@b_radzinsky) July 8, 2019
Of course, the entire eastern seaboard of America could be inundated and Trump would still refuse to countenance that human-induced climate change demanded a response. As such, his speech went ahead as planned without a single mention of climate risks. Instead the President deployed his trademark confused ramblings to offer a greatest hits medley of his various pronouncements on the environment over the past year. He hymned the factually dubious claim that the US had the world’s cleanest water and air, hailed how soaring gas production had helped to curb carbon emissions, ignoring the fact US energy-related emissions rose last year, and emphasised how the economy kept on growing even as the environment improved.
“For years politicians told Americans that a strong economy and vibrant energy sector were incompatible with a healthy environment, that one thing doesn’t go with the other,” he said. “And that’s wrong.” He added that the surge in fracking activity across the US had been critical to driving economic growth and reduced carbon emissions. “We’re unlocking American energy and the United States is now a net exporter of clean, reliable American gas,” he said, before quickly adding that “today the US is ranked number one in the world for access to clean drinking water”.
There was no mention of the Paris Agreement or Trump’s previous suggestion that the US could rejoin the accord if a better deal was on offer. But there was the customary attack on political opponents, with Trump declaring that the Green New Deal will “kill millions of jobs, crush the dreams of the poorest Americans, and disproportionately harm minority communities”. Perhaps unsurprisingly he offered little insight into why he thinks the Green New Deal would do the precise opposite of what its originators intend to deliver.
The response to the speech from environmental campaigners was as predictable as the address itself. “The Trump speech was a classic in Soviet-style up-is-down disinformation because the president’s words are belied by the relentlessness with which his administration has gone about the task of rolling back scores of the rules that have been the engine driving the environmental progress America enjoyed before Trump took office,” Joe Goffman, a former top official at EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under Obama, was quoted as saying by The Hill. “It is as if the Trump policy is to promote, rather than prevent, air and water pollution, toxic chemical exposure and the despoiling of America’s natural resources.”
Like all the best propaganda some of Trump’s claims contain a kernel of truth. US air and water pollution has broadly improved over the past few decades, mirroring the progress made in most industrialised economies as regulations have steadily tightened and technologies have improved. However, campaigners are right to point out how the Trump administration has launched an all-out assault on environmental regulations that seems intended to halt recent progress in its tracks.
The White House has attempted to roll back EPA regulations on methane emissions, power plant carbon emissions, waterway protection, and vehicle fuel standards, to name but a few. Many of the attempts to dilute regulations are being blocked by legal challenges, but the general direction of travel of environmental policy under Trump is clear.
However, the most interesting aspect of Trump’s speech is not the predictable misinformation, but the fact he felt the need to deliver it at all. As leading US environmental campaigner Bill McKibben explained in an article for the New Yorker it is thought that the gambit was delivered at the behest of the President’s pollsters. “They are desperately afraid that they are losing those independents (particularly women) who have come to fear the physical future that climate change is imposing,” explained McKibben. “What does it mean, after all, to boast that we have the ‘cleanest air’ ever, when wildfire smoke now obscures swaths of sky for large portions of the year? What does it mean to say the water is cleaner than it was in 1970, when water now drops from the sky in such volumes that insurance companies have begun to declare cellars ‘uninsurable’?”
McKibben’s analysis was given further credence by a public poll released this week by Washington Post-ABC News which found that not only does a sizeable majority of American voters disapprove of Trump’s position on multiple issues, his performance was deemed to be at its nadir on the subject of change. Just 29 per cent of respondents said they approved of Trump’s stance on the issue.
As McKibben explained, it is good news that this pressure is beginning to be felt in a White House occupied by someone who “doesn’t even believe that global warming is real”. “In that case, only fear of the polls could possibly drive him to stress that America’s carbon emissions are down (except for, um, last year, when they went, um, up),” the veteran campaigner argued. “But cravenness is probably a good sign – it means that the school strikers and the divestment campaigners and the pipeline protesters and the marching scientists have carried the debate. The tiny minority of climate deniers currently wield federal political power, but it’s finally beginning to sink in with the broader public that climate change is the threat of our time. Among Democrats, that process is well advanced – by some measures, climate change is the No. 1 voting issue in the primary, and, indeed, they are announcing serious cash-on-the-barrelhead plans to do something about it. But Trump’s performance on Monday must indicate that it’s also increasingly the case among independents, the group that holds the key to his electoral future.”
There are two diametrically opposed potential outcomes that could flow from here. The first is that Trump’s ploy could work, just as similar works of misinformation have worked in the past. Convince the GOP base and sufficient independents that the US really does have the cleanest are and that emissions are falling when they aren’t, and Trump may well engineer a route back to the White House. Convince sufficient numbers of floating voters that the Green New Deal is a debt doubling exercise of communism in action and his re-election campaign will secure a sizeable boost.
The trumpeting of America’s environmental performance – in direct contradiction of efforts to dilute green standards – could also provide the UK government with the fig leaf it needs to continue to pursue a post-Brexit trade deal with the Trump White House. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to become the next Prime Minister, yesterday insisted he would not sacrifice UK food standards in pursuit of a US trade deal, declaring that “I don’t want us to do any deal with the US which in anyway jeopardises our animal welfare standards or our food hygiene standards”. He added that the “quality of food in this country must be protected and if anything we should be insisting that if the Americans want to trade with us they should be obeying our standards”.
It is an encouraging line that should help Johnson secure a few more votes from the farming community, even as he talks up the prospects of a no deal Brexit that experts fear could obliterate much of the agriculturtal sector. It also echoes his recent pledge to push Trump over his inaction on climate change. But the fact remains that the US will demand the right to import food based on its current standards as part of any trade deal. Were Trump to successfully convince enough people that US environmental performance was actually world-leading, then it is possible to envisage the UK quickly diluting its demand as it seeks any form of post-Brexit trade deal, assuming of course diplomatic relations have not collapsed completely by that point.
Alternatively, former Vice President Al Gore could be right when he tweeted yesterday that “American voters aren’t fooled by the President’s attempts to cover up his failed environmental record. Millions are suffering from devastating heat waves, flooded agricultural lands, 60 large wildfires across nearly a dozen states, and many more impacts of the climate crisis”.
In his speech today, the President erroneously pointed to natural gas as a clean energy solution. Fracking is a losing game – it produces a dangerous carbon fuel that’s worsening the climate crisis. 1/4
— Al Gore (@algore) July 8, 2019
With Democratic representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Earl Blumenauer reportedly preparing to table a resolution today declaring an official climate emergency and all the presidential candidates proposing bold climate policy platforms, the Democrats are hoping to rally their base around an explicitly green message. Polling suggests the unapologetic focus on climate action and the promise of a Green New Deal could also resonate with independents. It remains entirely possible that within 18 months a new US president could reverse the decision to quit the Paris Agreement, unveil new net zero emission targets, and kick off the biggest low carbon infrastructure investment programme in history.
It is far too early to write off Trump’s chances of re-election, especially when he has defied conventional wisdom so many times in the past. But the decision to publicly defend his environmental record suggests his political strategists are more than a little concerned about the growing salience of environmental issues – salience that will only grow each time the contrast between the President’s words, the record-breaking weather, and his policy inaction is noted. Perhaps those scriptwriters are finally edging towards the final act, or then again maybe they are simply setting us all up for another sting in the tail.