Donald Trump is arguing he has made America an environmental leader, despite moving to gut dozens of rules meant to safeguard clean air and water and rescinding every major US effort to stem the climate crisis.
In remarks delivered at the White House on Monday, Trump said protecting America’s “incredible natural splendor” is a “shared obligation that brings us together today”.
He claimed the environment has been a top priority since the start of his administration. “We want the cleanest air. We want crystal clean water, and that’s what we’re doing and that’s what we’re working on so hard,” he said.
Although he never mentioned climate change, Trump said the US has reduced heat-trapping emissions more than any other nation. That is true, although the US remains the biggest historical emitter, contributing to the crisis. The country also increased its climate pollution last year, and a new analysis finds it is far behind on meeting the climate goals it once promised other countries.
The speech could be intended to temper Americans’ concerns that his administration is ignoring the climate crisis. Polls show a majority of voters disapprove of his handling of the issue and Democrats competing for the presidential nomination have been rolling out proposals to cut pollution.
The 2020 presidential candidate and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders will this week propose the declaration of a climate emergency.
The US is the only nation in the world that will not back a global agreement to limit the heat-trapping pollution experts say is already linked with weekly disasters.
Trump routinely claims the US has the cleanest air and water in the world, which is not true. One analysis from Yale and Columbia universities ranks the US 27th for overall environmental performance. That analysis does, however, rank the US as No 1 for drinking water.
America has seen significant reductions in pollution since the 1970s but critics say the president is undercutting laws that have provided that progress.
A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that air pollution kills 200,000 Americans each year, more than those who die from auto accidents or gun violence.
Joe Goffman, a senior lawyer at the Environmental Protection Agency under Barack Obama, said Trump has been stalling environmental efforts since he signed an early executive order, in March 2017, to unwind Obama policies.
“From his very first weeks in office the president has made it a priority to go backwards in terms of air quality and climate protections,” Goffman said.
In the last month, Trump’s agencies have rescinded an Obama administration rule to limit the heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other pollutants from coal plants and granted a pollution waiver to allow year-round sales of gasoline with more ethanol.
Trump argued that the Obama administration would have let polluting countries off the hook while causing higher gasoline and electricity prices with its climate efforts.
“We are doing a very tough job and not everybody knows it,” he said, touting efforts to clean up marine debris and hazardous waste sites and limit childhood lead exposure.
Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, claimed the US is making “tremendous” progress under Trump. And the energy secretary, Rick Perry, called the event “the chance to tell a story that often doesn’t get told”, before quickly noting that the US is the top oil producer in the world.
Jill Tauber, the vice-president of climate litigation at Earthjustice, told the Guardian: “We are seeing climate progress. We do have important protections in place for clean air and clean water but it is in spite of, not because of, the efforts of his administration.”
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 62% of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the climate crisis.
“On the one hand it’s just so beyond the pale and completely absurd that he would have the gall to give a speech touting his environmental record,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice-president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters.
“He must be seeing the polls showing that when it comes to the environment in particular, his polls are really in the toilet. Obviously that’s for a very good reason.”
Mustafa Ali, the vice-president of the National Wildlife Federation who was the environmental justice liaison under Obama, said: “The president lives in a billionaire bubble and is not dealing with the reality that most communities in our country are dealing with, especially our most vulnerable communities.”
He said the electricity rule rollback, as well as weakened rules for pollution from cars and methane from oil and gas drilling, were particularly hurting communities of color.
Trump agencies have also instituted changes to the way they consider science and seen declines in enforcement of environmental crimes.