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Trump Touts 'Environmental Leadership,' Even As D.C. Has Floods And Critics Pounce

President Trump speaks during an event on the environment Monday at the White House.
Evan Vucci
President Trump speaks during an event on the environment Monday at the White House.

President Trump used the pomp and circumstance of the East Room, complete with an entrance to "Hail to the Chief" and a bevy of supportive Cabinet members, to tout "America's Environmental Leadership" on Monday. There was no new policy announcement. In fact, the event felt mostly like a campaign rally. But it may amount to recognition that the environment and climate change are a growing concern for U.S. voters and an issue on which Democrats hold an edge.

"We want clean air and we want crystal clear water," Trump told an enthusiastic crowd, saying that achieving both things does not conflict with his "pro-growth policies."

He gave a laundry list of achievements, including stepped-up closure of Superfund sites, a push for international action to clean up marine debris, and federal funding for environmental restoration of the Florida Everglades.

Trump then called up the owner of a Florida bait-and-tackle shop who lauded the Everglades efforts, and he ended his talk with a shout of "Trump 2020!"

The president made no mention of climate change, which scientists say threatens catastrophic impacts unless global greenhouse gas emissions — including from fossil fuels — are dramatically reduced in the next decade or so. Trump did note that since he took office the U.S. has become the world's leading producer of oil and gas.

"We're unlocking American energy," he said, "and the U.S. is now a net exporter of clean, affordable, American natural gas."

"Opposite day at the White House"

Critics took issue with various details and decried the entire premise of the speech, noting the dozens of environmental rollbacks Trump has ordered.

"It must be opposite day at the White House if President Trump is dubbing himself an environmental leader," said Dan Lashof, U.S. director of World Resources Institute, in a statement.

"His environmental record is clear — and awful," said former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg in a statement. "The progress we have made cleaning the air, protecting health, and cutting carbon emissions has happened in spite of him, not because of him."

In a briefing with reporters before the event, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler cited a 74% drop in key measures of air pollution "between 1970 and 2018."

In contrast, the American Lung Association's most recent State of the Air found air quality declining in recent years, as more cities suffer from higher levels of particle pollution ("soot") and ground-level ozone ("smog"), which increase in hot weather. "A changing climate is making it harder to protect human health," it said.

Wheeler also said U.S. carbon emissions had dropped since 2005. That's in large part because the fracking boom led many utilities to replace coal-fired power plants with natural gas, which produces fewer carbon emissions than coal. The 2008 recession also led to a sharp slowdown in economic growth and demand for electricity.

More recently, a growing number of cities, states, businesses and even some utilities have pledged to try to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — a trend in direct conflict with the Trump administration's support of fossil fuels.

Just this month the administration issued its final overhaul of a key Obama-era climate plan regulating coal plants. It is far more limited in scope and could let some coal-fired power plants keep operating longer.

Trump has also proposed shrinking federal protection of vast areas of wetlands and other waterways, easing regulation of methane leaks from oil and gas operations on public lands, and has said the U.S. will pull out of the Paris climate agreement.

A growing campaign issue

Trump's speech comes as the environment and climate change have climbed up the list of concerns for many voters. Research shows more people are linking extreme weather disasterswith the warming climate. And despite generally improving poll numbers for the president, a Washington Post/ABC News poll finds broad disapproval of Trump's handling of climate change. A recent Gallup Poll also found that more Americans favor environmental protection over economic growth.

Trump criticized a climate resolution many Democrats have embraced, alleging the Green New Dealwould kill jobs and cost the economy trillions.

He also made no mention of the intense rain and flash flooding that disrupted Washington, D.C., on Monday. Extreme rain events are happening more often because of the warming climate. The Capital Weather Gang reported "3.3 inches of rain in ONE HOUR at Reagan National" airport, calling it an "astronomical rainfall intensity."

Dozens of morning commuters were stranded, Amtrak briefly suspended service, and people posted videos of harrowing escapes from inundated underground parking garages. Streets and sidewalks along the National Mall also flooded, as did the White House basement.

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
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