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'We're Working Harder': Fact-Checking Trump's Event on His Environmental Record

President Trump mentioned clean air, emissions, and the Green New Deal, but failed to bring up climate change at his environmental event Monday.
President Donald Trump speaks about his administration's environmental policies at the White House on July 8th, 2019.

President Donald Trump speaks about his administration's environmental policies at the White House on July 8th, 2019.

On Monday, President Donald Trump held an event touting his administration's environmental record. "We're working harder than many previous administrations," Trump said from the White House. "Maybe all of them."

The event included speeches by multiple cabinet members and supporters including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler (a former coal lobbyist), Secretary of Energy Rick Perry (who has close ties to the Texas oil industry), and a Florida businessman who ended his comments by saying "Trump 2020." Most of the event's speakers focused on the United States' clean air and water, the EPA's Superfund program, and American leadership in oil and gas production and emissions reductions.

Given Trump's record of rolling back environmental regulations and scrubbing any mention of climate change from governmental documents and events, it's unclear why the president would choose to speak about his environmental credentials. Even some within the administration were surprised by the decision. "I don't know why we'd spend any time talking about their [Democrats'] issue," one senior administration official told Axios.

As polling increasingly shows that Americans are more worried about climate change than ever, and nearly two-thirds believe that the government should be doing more for the environment, Monday's environmental event may signal that the White House does not plan to cede environmental issues to the Democrats in the 2020 election just yet.

Nonetheless, despite mentioning both Washington, D.C.'s historic rainfall this weekend and record-breaking wildfire seasons on the West Coast, the president didn't mention climate change at all during his environmental event—a fact that was not lost on environmental advocates.

"Without the president's acknowledgement of climate change as a threat to our economy, our environment, and our health, his record on the environment can only be described as a total failure," Carol Browner, board chair of the League of Conservation Voters and a former EPA administrator, said in a statement. "Under this president we've seen more than 80 roll backs of public health and environmental protections on everything from the Clean Power Plan to pesticides. Enforcement of environmental laws is down more than 80 percent under his watch. Trump's environmental record is such a toxic disaster it should be declared a Superfund site."

While most of the speakers at the event praised Trump for his environmental leadership, Pacific Standard fact-checked some of the larger claims made.

Clean Air

"From day one, my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America is among the cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet," Trump said. Wheeler, who noted that air pollution has fallen 74 percent since 1970, added that America has the "cleanest air on record."

While it's true that air quality has been improving in the U.S. since 1990, when Congress updated the Clean Air Act with more stringent regulations, Trump has done more to undo that progress than he has to preserve it. The president boasted that levels of particulate matter pollution in the U.S. are six times lower than the global average just days after his EPA rolled back particulate matter emissions regulations for diesel generators in Alaska. Under Trump, the EPA has also weakened enforcement of air quality regulations, fuel efficiency standards, limits on emissions from power plants and from oil and gas wells, to name just a few.

At least 43 percent of Americans still breathe unhealthy air, according to the American Lung Association, and air pollution kills more Americans than car accidents or smoking. A report this year from the National Parks Conservation Association found that 85 percent of our national parks have hazardous levels of air pollution.

Emissions Reductions

Trump also implicitly defended his record of environmental rollbacks by pointing to the nation's emissions reductions, which occurred even as the U.S. has ramped up drilling for fossil fuels. Indeed, the U.S. is now the No. 1 producer of oil and gas in the world, a fact that Perry mentioned as he lauded Trump for ensuring "greater energy security for America, while at the same time enhancing environmental stewardship." (What Perry didn't say is that the U.S.'s energy independence has come at a cost for the nation's oil and gas industry: The glut of fossil fuels on the market from U.S. producers, and the impending threat of climate change, have driven down oil prices and IPOs, leaving more than a few oil and gas companies bankrupt.)

And while U.S. emissions have been falling for some time, that trend is unlikely to hold under Trump. There was a 3.4 percent increase in emissions in 2018, according to the Energy Information Administration. Experts attribute much of the decrease in carbon emissions in recent years to the rise of natural gas in the U.S., which, while cleaner than coal, is still a fossil fuel.

Green New Deal

Though the president failed to mention climate change in his remarks, he did criticize the Green New Deal—the resolution from the left to wean the U.S. off fossil fuels while guaranteeing jobs and health care to all Americans, which nearly all of the Democratic candidates for president have voiced support for. Trump claimed the plan could cost the economy nearly $100 trillion. "A number unthinkable, a number not affordable even in the best of times," Trump said Monday.

Indeed, it's a number that ProPublica's Zack Colman debunked earlier this year. Colman found that the number was produced in bad faith by Republicans eager to discredit the proposal. The number came from a report by the conservative think tank American Action Forum, which made a series of uncorroborated assumptions about what universal jobs and health-care plans would cost, despite there being no specific Democratic plan to evaluate.