Trump Tries On the Mantle of Environmental Leadership. Does He Deserve It?
"We're working hard, maybe harder than all previous administrations, maybe almost all of them."
President Donald Trump called together cabinet members on Monday to help him cheerlead his administration's record on environmental issues. During his rambling remarks in the White House East Room about his administration's "environmental leadership," the president asserted, "We're working hard, maybe harder than all previous administrations, maybe almost all of them."
The president's claims received considerable pushback from environmental activists and academics. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune declared in a statement, "No amount of speeches, lies, or stunts will ever change the fact that Donald Trump has the worst record on the environment and climate of any president in American history." David G. Victor, the director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, described the president's speech to the New York Times as "a true '1984' moment," a reference to George Orwell's classic novel of totalitarian dystopia Nineteen-Eighty Four, which observed, "If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth."
Given the president's penchant for "truthful hyperbole," it's worth taking a look at a few of the claims made during his environmental show-and-tell to see if they were as bad as those "rectified" by Orwell's Ministry of Truth.
"Since 2000, our nation's energy-related carbon emissions have declined more than any other country on Earth," Trump said. This is a rather odd example of the president's "environmental leadership" since he remains highly skeptical that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing significant climate change.
The New York Times accurately characterized this claim as "boast[ing] that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have gone down over the past decade, 'more than any other country on earth.'" Actually, the president's baseline was the year 2000, not the past decade. The Times goes on to report that "while it is true that carbon emissions have declined by over 10 percent in that time, over a dozen other countries—including most of the European Union—have seen declines of more than twice that."
Let's untangle these claims and counterclaims a bit. In absolute terms, the president is right. While noting a 3.1 percent uptick in emissions in 2018, the International Energy Agency's 2018 report observes, that "emissions in the United States remain around their 1990 levels, 14 percent and 800 megatons of carbon dioxide below their peak in 2000. This is the largest absolute decline among all countries since 2000."
But what is going on with the percentage reductions in emissions between countries on which the Times chooses to focus? The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that by 2017 (latest figures), energy-related U.S. carbon dioxide emissions had declined 12.4 percent since 2000. The president could have "boasted" a greater overall 14.2 percent reduction if he had instead chosen 2005 as his baseline. In January 2019, the EIA reported that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions bumped up during 2018, making the overall decline since 2005 about 13 percent. The agency projects that emissions will fall slightly during 2019 and 2020.
So, in percentage terms, are U.S. reductions larger than those of any other country on earth? Not according to data compiled the European Commission's Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research(EDGAR). For example, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels (similar to the notion of "energy-related") from the 28 countries of the European Union (EU-28) have fallen by 14 percent since 2000. Using 2005 as the baseline, EU-28 emissions have declined by about 16.5 percent. The EDGAR database also reports that U.S. emissions have declined from 2000 and 2005 by 14.1 and 14.5 percent respectively. In other words, the EU-28 countries have done slightly better than the U.S. at cutting carbon dioxide emissions between 2005 and 2017.
What about the Times' report that a dozen countries have seen declines of more than twice those in the U.S.? Using 2005 as the baseline, a spot check of the EDGAR database finds that the United Kingdom's carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 32.5 percent; Spain's by 23.5 percent; Italy's by 27.6 percent, Denmark's by 34.8 percent, and France's by 17.2 percent.
So the president's claim that "every single one of the signatories to the Paris Climate Accord lags behind America in overall emissions reductions" is, if one is counting absolute emissions reductions, true, but misleading. But since the U.K. and France emit in total about 400 and 340 megatons of carbon dioxide respectively, it would be impossible for those countries to match the absolute U.S. reduction of 800 megatons of carbon.
Still, it is the case that many Paris Agreement signatories are so far failing to meet the obligations they made in their nationally determined contributions. It is also worth noting that since 2005, emissions from China surged by 174 percent while those of Japan and Russia rose 3.6 and 1.8 percent respectively.
Let's parse a couple more of the president's claims to "environmental leadership." During his speech, Trump said, "From day one my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America is among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet." As evidence, he asserted that the U.S. is "ranked number one in the world for access to clean drinking water" and that air pollution in the form of "particulate matter—is six times lower here than the global average."
One go-to resource for tracking global environmental trends is the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), created by Yale and Columbia Universities. Based on 2016 data, the EPI does place the United States in the number 1 spot, along with nine other countries. While certainly better than Switzerland—languishing at number 11—being number 1 does not particularly distinguish the U.S. from other top scorers including Canada, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Spain. And as some critics have noted, President Trump did not take office until January 20, 2017.
Interestingly, earlier declarations by the president that the U.S. has the cleanest air provoked critics to cite EPI data showing that our country actually ranks 88th in the world with respect to particulate matter air (PM 2.5, or atmospheric particulate matter with diameters of less than 2.5 micrometers) pollution. That is true as far is it goes, but critics failed to point out that 86 of the countries ranked ahead of the U.S. on this measure of air pollution are ranked as number 1. Among the countries improbably ranking number 1 are Algeria, Cuba, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Morocco, the Philippines, Sudan, and Venezuela.
In any case, World Bank data on PM 2.5 particulates show that the mean global average annual exposure is 45.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air, whereas the comparable U.S. figure is 7 micrograms per cubic meter. In other words, the president is right that average U.S. exposure is six times lower here than the global average.
At the White House event, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler cited some heartening data concerning long term air pollution trends in the U.S.
Wheeler pointed out that "from 1970 to 2018, the combined emissions of the six criteria air pollutants dropped by 74 percent, while the U.S. economy grew by 275 percent.
In his remarks, the president claimed that the Green New Deal (GND) proposal that is being co-sponsored by 94 Democratic members of the House of Representatives and 12 Democratic senators would cost $100 trillion to implement. The president most likely derived this figure by rounding up the results of a spitball study done by the American Action Forum back in February. It is worth noting that the Forum found that the vast majority of costs associated with the Green New Deal have nothing to do with fixing the climate but instead arise from enacting vast new progressive social and economic programs, including a jobs guarantee and universal health care.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) recently estimated her Green New Deal proposal would only cost $10 trillion to implement by 2030. (My own spitball estimate is that achieving the GND's deep decarbonization goals—no progressive social policy overlays—would cost between $7 and $13 trillion by 2030.)
The Times is likely right that the event was mostly motivated by the politics of the 2020 presidential campaign. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans think Trump is doing a poor job of protecting the nation's environment.
Ultimately, the East Room exercise consisted of citing some cobbled together good news statistics for which the president questionably claimed the credit. They are not so much wrong, as contextless.