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Lacking support from voters on climate, Trump tests 2020 environment messaging

Climate and environmental issues are emerging as major election hurdles for the White House.

US President Donald Trump arrives to speak about his administration's environmental policies at the White House in Washington, DC on July 8, 2019. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump arrives to speak about his administration's environmental policies at the White House in Washington, DC on July 8, 2019. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump in a speech on Monday sought to test his environmental messaging as he looks towards the 2020 election. The president slammed the Green New Deal and touted energy growth and the economy in a grab for moderate voters wary of his record on climate action.

“For years, politicians told Americans that a strong economy and a vibrant energy sector were incompatible with a healthy environment,” Trump declared, arguing that his administration is “proving the exact opposite.”

He went on to blast what he called the Obama administration’s “relentless war on American energy” — pointing to pacts like the Paris climate agreement — while praising his own administration’s emphasis on energy exports like natural gas. He also repeated a favorite personal boast, claiming that the United States has the “cleanest air” and “cleanest water.”

Trump took aim at the Green New Deal, which calls for the country to mobilize in a decade in order to rapidly decarbonize while creating jobs and enshrining social justice principles. He claimed that the plan would cost “nearly $100 trillion” — a number circulated by the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, and one that experts agree has no factual basis.

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The president was joined by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Andrew Wheeler, who previewed an agency report out next week showing a drop in criteria air pollutants. The EPA says there has been a 74% drop in those pollutants since 1970, including a 1% decrease from 2018. Other speakers included Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who touted the Trump administration’s recent designation of 1.3 million acres of new wilderness land.

And in a moment that seemed designed to appeal to voters in Florida, a battleground state, Trump brought up Bruce Hroback of Port St. Lucie, who runs bait and tackle shops. Hroback made an appeal for assistance for Florida — which has suffered from toxic algae blooms and other water crises — while expressing support for the president.

Climate and environmental activists immediately derided Trump’s speech, with many arguing that the administration’s ongoing regulatory rollbacks and pushback against climate science undermine the president’s messaging.

“Given the Trump administration’s record of attacks against our national parks and public lands, the president’s speech on environmental achievements is baffling,” Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, called the press conference a “spectacle,” while Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) called Trump “the most anti-environmental president in U.S. history.”

But the speech itself underscores the extent to which climate and environmental issues are emerging as a major point of concern for voters — a trend that seems to be worrying the White House.

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Trump has made rolling back environmental regulations a hallmark of his tenure, using the EPA in particular to weaken or gut a number of Obama-era protections. That includes replacing the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which was meant to target coal-fired power plants in order to reduce emissions nationally. The Trump administration has instead backed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, which public health experts and environmentalists have argued could do more damage than no rule at all. The ACE rule largely kicks authority over lowering emissions to states, giving them more time and oversight over the process, unlike the CPP, which concentrated power at the federal level.

Industry officials and lobbyists have welcomed the administration’s approach. But it could be a liability with general election voters.

Monday’s speech coincides with a new poll showing that Americans broadly disapprove of Trump’s approach to climate change. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday showed Trump with the highest approval ratings of his presidency, 44%, likely due to an improving economy. But his approval ratings on most major issues were much lower, particularly on climate change.

Only 29% of respondents approved of Trump’s handling of global warming, while 62% disapproved. That chasm marked the widest spread on any issue assessed in the poll, over topics like abortion and immigration.

Sunday’s poll showed that there is polarization along partisan lines on climate issues; only 6% of Republicans considered climate change to be the most important issue, a contrast with Democrats, who were closer to 30%.

That gap reinforces a growing divide that has cropped up over the past year. Climate issues have rarely been a priority for either party, but Democrats are increasingly being pushed by their voters to act.

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Among Democratic voters, the popularity of proposals like the Green New Deal has prompted presidential candidates to emphasize climate action. Contenders like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have repeatedly spoken about climate action, and several, including former Vice President Joe Biden and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), have released sweeping climate plans. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) is basing his entire presidential run around global warming.

But Republicans have struggled to hit their stride on the issue. Party members oppose the Green New Deal, but few have proposed alternatives that would meaningfully address climate change. Trump has largely scorned any such efforts — an approach that he doubled down on during Monday’s speech.

Whether or not the president is able to make inroads with voters on climate issues remains to be seen, but advocates noted after his speech that Trump failed to mention global warming. Former EPA administrator Carol Browner, who led the agency under former President Bill Clinton, highlighted the oversight in a statement responding to Trump.

“Without the President’s acknowledgement of climate change as a threat to our economy, our environment and our health,” said Browner, “his record on the environment can only be described as a total failure.”

This article has been updated.