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Blowing the Cover off the 'Cleanest Air' Illusion of the Trump Administration

Politics
Smoke pours from the exhaust pipes on a truck on Nov. 5, 2019 in Miami, Florida. According to a 2017 EPA study the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. is from the transportation sector. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Julie McNamara

First, a fact: People want clean air. And who can blame them — in the United States more than 100,000 people still die from air pollution each year.


Notably, the Trump administration is right there with them, repeatedly claiming to want clean air — the cleanest air—too:

  • Like President Trump stating: "I want clean air. I want clean water. I want the cleanest air with the cleanest water. The environment is very important to me."
  • Like U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Wheeler declaring: "Our foremost concern must be ensuring clean air for all Americans. That is our goal."
  • Like Secretary of State Pompeo reiterating: "This administration's been very clear we're happy to work on all things that improve safe drinking water, clean air, all those things."

At least, the Trump administration is right there with them rhetorically.

More Like Clean Air Assault

If you look past the dazzling display of the cleanest superlative parade, the narrative takes a turn. In fact, in action, the Trump administration's clean air pursuit looks a whole lot more like clean air assault.

This administration cannot have it both ways.

Despite the rhetoric, the truth of their actions still stands, and they simply cannot obfuscate away the fact that with their policies, our nation's hard-fought clean air progress is ebbing, ebbing away.

Desperately Seeking That Clean-Air Sparkle

So how does the Trump administration actually pursue that clean-air sparkle its words so desperately seek?

It's a simple recipe, really; the no-knead bread of public-health blues. An administration favorite, offered on repeat.

Together, mix:

  • One part pollution
  • One part lies
  • One part cruelty

Pour into area air.

Sprinkle with comparisons to the 1970s, bedazzle with visions of a trillion trees.

And behold, black magic: the very "cleanest" air.

Here, a look at how the Trump administration cooks.

One Part Pollution

Over the past three years, the Trump administration has aggressively, repeatedly, profoundly attacked mainstay public health protections from harmful air pollutants.

It has undermined the processes that inform those standards. It has sidelined the science that improves those standards. It has manipulated math to justify its attacks. It has failed to conduct the assessments that would reveal those disproportionately affected by its actions. It has stifled public engagement. It has tried slashing budgets. It has weakened enforcement. It has lessened oversight.

It has done all these things — and more — again and again and again.

And as a result, it has undermined long-term progress on things like reductions in mercury, in particulate matter, in hazardous air pollutants.

Without question, with this administration, clean air is under attack.

One Part Lies

When the Trump administration undertakes these attacks on public health protections, it does so stunningly boldly — except, that is, when it gets called out.

Then it's straight to the administration's one safe space, "from 1970 to today," where the administration attempts to cloak the devastating impacts of its actions behind the cover of the fact that, compared to the 1970s, compared to the start of the Clean Air Act, compared to the founding days of the EPA, our air is cleaner now than it was back then.

The utterly shameless audacity. Snatching accolades earned by the actions of others, successes advanced by prior Republican and Democratic administrations both, and insinuating they should be awarded to this administration's health-wrecking machine instead.

Our nation's incredible clean air gains have certainly not occurred because of this administration's actions or because of its rollbacks. No, these hard-earned clean-air benefits have not occurred because of them — they've occurred in spite of them.

And now? Still an estimated 100,000 people die prematurely each year, and thanks to this administration, continued progress on clean air is threatened, stalling, even entering reverse.

One Part Cruelty

There is a world in which, after the negative effects of an administration's proposal are made clear, after experts and the general public roar back, there is a world in which an administration changes course.

But not this administration. This administration persists.

It still knee-caps scientific studies supporting stronger health standards, it still erases benefits worth billions of dollars to make regulatory rollbacks pencil out, it still props up coal plants, it still rams through industry input while sidelining experts and the public, it still puts children's health at risk. It still sets attack, after attack, after attack.

It's just that now the administration is continuing its clean air attacks while looking people straight in the face and playing them for a fool.

Our air is cleaner than it's ever been! We'll plant a trillion trees!

Pollution, lies, cruelty.

Blowing Their Cover

Critically, the Trump administration's tragicomic reframing of its outright environmental warfare into, somehow (no-how), environmental gains, only works if their cover sticks.

So far, their cover has not stuck.

Public comments have denounced their attacks. Scientific experts have blasted their moves. And when the Trump administration's actions finally make it to the courts, the administration has lost overwhelmingly.

Yet those wins are small comfort when there's still so much progress left to be made. Clean air access to be broadened, technological innovations to be implemented, emerging science to be incorporated, air pollution burdens to be lifted.

But instead of redoubling a commitment toward progress, we get this: the Trump administration touting the incredible benefits our clean air protections have enabled to date while salting the earth where the very chance for that progress had been sown.

This administration cannot have it both ways.

Julie McNamara is an energy analyst with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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