President Donald Trump has a real thing for cleanliness. As he made clear at an event staged at the White House on Monday, this extends far beyond copious use of hand-sanitizer - from sea to sanitary sea, no less. Kicking off his remarks on “America’s Environmental Leadership,” the president spelled out his concerns:
“From day one, my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet. We want the cleanest air. We want crystal-clean water. And that’s what we’re doing.”
These are laudable goals and central to the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate since its inception almost 50 years ago. They’re also at odds with the broad thrust of the administration’s actual policies. But they are potentially politically useful.
The environmental issue dominating discussion is climate change. Yet this barely got a few mentions in either Trump’s remarks or those of the other officials who spoke, including EPA chief Andrew Wheeler and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The White House fact sheet had exactly one bullet point on it, noting U.S. carbon emissions had increased in 2018 but were forecast to decline again this year and next.
People care about the environment in general, but carbon emissions are a tougher sell. Invisible, diffuse and acting on climate at a glacial pace, they lack the poisonous immediacy of, say, a flaming Cuyahoga River or choking urban smog. Mobilizing action on climate change would be much easier if carbon dioxide was a bilious green.
Even so, climate change has forced its way onto the political agenda, thanks in part to the sheer audacity of the “Green New Deal” and growing awareness of fires and floods around the U.S., including recent deluges in Washington, D.C. (both factors name-checked by Trump in his remarks).
A recent Gallup poll of attitudes toward environmental issues found 65 percent of Americans think environmental protection should take priority even if it risks curbing economic growth, versus just 30 percent with opposite priorities. That spread has been widening since 2015 and is now the widest since 2000. Meanwhile, 59 percent of respondents view Trump as doing a “poor job” of protecting the nation’s environment, compared with 33 percent for President Barack Obama and 43 percent for President George W. Bush.
Trump’s remarks should be set in this context as well as the record of his administration. Since his presidential campaign, the president has shown no real interest in curbing U.S. carbon emissions, in keeping with a broader approach that prioritizes fossil-fuel production and curtails regulatory powers. Among other things, he trumpets “energy dominance” built on shale oil and gas as well as rolling back fuel-efficiency standards that could provide more sustainable energy security for the U.S. (and cut emissions).
He is particularly given to waxing lyrical about “beautiful,” “clean” coal, despite it being neither of those things.
Focusing instead on “clean” air and water provides a way of showing interest in environmental issues without dirtying his hands on climate change. It isn’t uncommon to hear fuel producers talk about “clean” fuels without acknowledging that, even with fewer particulates or other nasties, burning that fuel still puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
That same Gallup poll asked respondents about their attitudes toward a series of environmental threats. Climate change worried 44 percent of them a “great deal,” up from 37 percent before Trump’s election. Another 21 percent said it worried them a “fair amount,” so almost two-thirds are concerned to some degree. That’s a solid majority.
When it comes to climate change, Trump need hardly worry about his vaunted base. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in January found that while the proportion of Republicans saying stricter environmental standards are “worth the cost” had risen, 60 percent of the more conservative cohort still hold the opposing view.
Given the threat of climate change and the socialization of its damage, this is all about as un-conservative, in the original sense of the word, as you can get. That Trump bemoaned the yuge costs of the Green New Deal on a day when Washington (including the soggy basement of his official residence) amply displayed the inadequacies of our infrastructure against extreme weather lent the whole affair a touch of dark farce.
Last I heard, the costs of renewable energy and efficiency technologies were falling dramatically; I doubt the same holds true for clean-up and construction crews to put our cities on stilts.
And yet, by focusing on such issues and extolling a narrow environmental cleanliness, Trump may hope to craft a message that resonates with some of the more moderate or younger Republicans he must court if he is to improve his fortunes in November 2020. It really is a dirty business.